Op-ed diplomacy


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

During those tense days [of trying to stop North Korean reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for weapons], an op-ed in the Washington Post caused considerable excitement. Brent Snowcroft, the former national security advisor, and his colleague Arnie Kanter (both long-time friends), wrote a column essentially stating that the United States would strike the Yongbyon reactor if North Korea did not verifiably stop its reprocessing. The key sentence was: “It either must permit continuous, unfettered IAEA monitoring to confirm that no further reprocessing is taking place, or we will remove its capacity to reprocess.

Not surprisingly, that op-ed attracted a lot of attention both in the United States and in Korea. In reality, while we had a contingency plan, we were not planning to make such a strike. (Indeed, the strike would have required authorization from President Clinton and concurrence from the South Korean president, which had not yet been sought.) But I have always believed that the public call for a strike by Snowcroft and Kanter played a positive role in the crisis because it focused the minds of North Korean officials on the stakes in play. It is likely that North Korean officials wrongly thought that Snowcroft was speaking for the US government; indeed, even some Americans mistakenly imagined that I had encouraged Snowcroft to write the piece. For whatever reason, North Korea moved quickly to diminish the crisis, inviting former president Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang, where they proposed a resolution that Carter could relay to the American administration (there being no official channels of communication).

Perry, William. My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Stanford Security Studies. 2015. p. 107-8 (paperback)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 9, 2016 at 4:05 pm
. September 30, 2016 at 11:37 am

First and foremost, the United States can safely phase out its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, a key facet of Cold War nuclear policy. Retiring the ICBMs would save considerable costs, but it isn’t only budgets that would benefit. These missiles are some of the most dangerous weapons in the world. They could even trigger an accidental nuclear war.

If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them; once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. The president would have less than 30 minutes to make that terrible decision.

This is not an academic concern. While the probability of an accidental launch is low, human and machine errors do occur. I experienced a false alarm nearly 40 years ago, when I was under secretary of defense for research and engineering. I was awakened in the middle of the night and told that some Defense Department computers were showing 200 ICBMs on the way from the Soviet Union. For one horrifying moment I thought it was the end of civilization. Then the general on the phone explained that it was a false alarm. He was calling to see if I could help him determine what had gone wrong with the computer.

. September 30, 2016 at 11:38 am

“Russia and the United States have already been through one nuclear arms race. We spent trillions of dollars and took incredible risks in a misguided quest for security. I had a front-row seat to this. Once was enough. This time, we must show wisdom and restraint. Indeed, Washington and Moscow both stand to benefit by scaling back new programs before it is too late. There is only one way to win an arms race: Refuse to run.”

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