Washington was on brink of war with North Korea 5 years ago
Pentagon had predicted up to 1 million deaths
October 4, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States was on the brink of war with North Korea during a crisis five years ago, former Defense Secretary William Perry revealed.
Perry's remarks came during a Clinton administration announcement last month that it was easing long-standing economic sanctions against the communist country because another crisis over North Korea's planned missile tests had been averted by diplomacy.
The earlier crisis developed during the summer of 1994. Then, according to former Pentagon officials, the U.S. military drew up plans to send cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighters to strike a small nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, in order to prevent North Korea from recovering the raw material to make nuclear bombs.
"I believe it would have resulted almost certainly in war," said Robert Gallucci who was the State Department's point man on Korea in 1994. He was sure an attack on Yongbyon would spark another war on the Korean peninsula, a war -- sources say -- in which the Pentagon had forecast up to one-million deaths.
"We demonstrated we were prepared to go down the military route if we needed to, but that was clearly not something that was a preferred course," said Gallucci, now dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
Sanctions also high risk
Perry, who had ordered the planning for the preemptive strike, ultimately rejected it. While he was convinced the U.S. military could take out the Yongbyon plant with little risk of spreading radiation, Perry also believed the attack would result in all-out war.
Instead, Perry recommended President Clinton seek tougher United Nation's sanctions -- which, while less provocative, also carried a high risk.
"We had been told -- I had been personally been told by the North Korean head of the delegation -- that a sanctions resolution and actions to implement (the sanctions) could well be taken as an act of war, given that the UN was a belligerent in the Korean War and there was an armistice in place," Gallucci recounted.
It was a tense scene in the White House on June 15, 1994. Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili were briefing President Clinton and other top officials on three options to substantially reinforce the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War.
The Pentagon was advocating a "middle option" -- moving 10,000 more troops, along with F-117s, long-range bombers and an additional carrier battle group to Korea or nearby.
"We were within a day of making major additions to our troop deployments to Korea, and we were about to undertake an evacuation of American civilians from Korea," Perry recalled.
The real fear was that North Korea would read the buildup and evacuations as certain signs of an impending attack, and launch a preemptive invasion of South Korea. U.S. analysts believed the North Koreans took one main lesson from the 1991 Persian Gulf War: Don't give the United States time to mass its forces.
Perry told Clinton all the options were unpalatable, but that not to pick one of them would be disastrous.
11th hour call from Jimmy Carter
"My recollection is that before the president got to choose -- was asked to choose -- the door of the room opened and we were told that there was a telephone call from former president Carter in Pyongyang and that he wished to speak to me," Gallucci remembered.
Jimmy Carter had been meeting as a private citizen with North Korea's aging leader Kim Il Sung, and was calling to report a breakthrough. The White House session broke up and relieved officials watched television as Carter informed CNN by telephone of the latest development.
"I look upon this, this commitment by Kim Il Sung as being very important," Carter said on June 15, 1994.
Over the next few days, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for new nuclear reactors that don't produce weapons-grade plutonium, along with oil to help meet its energy needs.
"Op plan 5027", the U.S. plan to defeat a North Korean attack, was put back on the shelf. But sources say after the close call in 1994, the plan has been overhauled, including a new agreement to ensure Japanese bases are available if the U.S. ever does go to war with North Korea.
North Korea tentatively agrees to halt missile tests
U.S. Department of Defense
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