WASHINGTON — In a nuclear standoff with North Korea more than two decades ago — long before the reclusive government had atomic weapons that could threaten America — U.S. officials planned for war.
Declassified documents published Friday show the United States believed its military and South Korea's forces would "undoubtedly win" a conflict on the divided Korean Peninsula, with the understanding it would cost many casualties.
The Pentagon estimated at the time that if war broke with Korea, some 52,000 American service members would be killed or wounded in the first three months. South Korean military casualties would total 490,000 in that time. And the number of North Korean and civilian lives claimed would be enormous, according to "The Two Koreas" by Don Oberdorfer, a definitive modern history of Korean Peninsula.
Today, with North Korea almost able to directly threaten the U.S. mainland with nuclear strikes, the possibility of conflict looms as it had in 1994. President Donald Trump has vowed to stop the North Koreans from reaching such capability.
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Twenty-three years ago, the stakes were different.
At that time, President Bill Clinton's administration considered a cruise missile strike on a North Korean nuclear complex after it began defueling a reactor that could provide fissile material for bombs for the first time. Former President Jimmy Carter headed off a conflict, meeting with founding North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and helping seal an aid-for-disarmament agreement. The pact endured for nearly a decade, despite frequent disputes and periodic flare-ups on the peninsula.
"We had taken a very strong position that we would not permit North Korea to make a nuclear bomb," William Perry, who was defense secretary during the crisis, said this week. "We have said that many times since then, but then we really meant it."
A declassified transcript published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University records Perry's discussion on the standoff with South Korea's president in 1998. Perry was by then Clinton's special envoy for North Korea.
Perry told President Kim Dae-jung that the U.S. had planned for a military confrontation and that "with the combined forces of the ROK and U.S., we can undoubtedly win the war." ROK refers to the abbreviation of the South's official name, the Republic of Korea.
Speaking to South Korea's Kim, who pursued a "sunshine" policy of diplomatic outreach to North Korea, Perry said the "war involves many casualties in the process. As a former defense secretary, I am well aware of the negative aspects of war, and will do my best to avoid war."
North Korea has since made leaps and bounds in its nuclear and missile development, particularly under its current young leader, Kim Jong Un. Last week, it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with a likely range of more than 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers), moving it closer to perfecting a nuclear-tipped projectile that can strike all corners of the U.S. mainland.
Trump has not ruled out using force to stop the North from achieving that capability if diplomacy fails. Backing up the threat, the U.S. has stepped up its military drills with allies, which Pyongyang condemns as preparations for invasion. This week, the U.S. and South Korea held air force drills involving more than 200 aircraft, including six U.S. F-22 and 18 F-35 stealth fighters.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned this week: "The remaining question now is: when will the war break out."
Speaking at an Arms Control Association briefing in Washington, Perry urged a renewed effort at diplomacy, which he said wouldn't get North Korea to give up its nukes in short order, but could lower the likelihood of war.
He said that a nuclear-armed North Korea wouldn't attack America but may be emboldened in military provocations against South Korea that could spiral into a wider conflict. The U.S. could itself blunder into a nuclear war if it undertook a conventional military strike on North Korea that prompted the North to attack the South, he said.
"An all-out war with North Korea, nuclear war, even if China and Russia did not enter," Perry said, "could still entail casualties approximating those of World War I or even World War II."