His remarks, which were made in an interview with the Washington Post published yesterday, appeared to jar with the cautious stance adopted by the Clinton administration so far in attempting to tackle the crisis. Critics have labelled it President Clinton's 'carrot-and-carrot' approach.
Mr Perry, who took over as Pentagon chief only two months ago, said that in spite of the risks of a 'catastrophic war' on the Korean peninsula, Washington would not stand by and allow the North Koreans to build a nuclear arsenal unimpeded. 'We are not going to let them do that,' he told the paper.
At the United Nations in New York, the US and China struck a compromise deal last night on the language of a non-binding UN appeal to North Korea. Jean-Bernard Merimee, President of the Security Council, said that the consensus statement could be adopted at a third scheduled session.
The US, which earlier pushed for a binding resolution on North Korea, had maintained it would accept the milder, non-binding statement - but only if it included the key pledge of future UN action if necessary. Mr Merimee said the crucial word hinting at UN 'action' was not included in the compromise formula.
North Korea has repeatedly made clear that it would regard the imposition of sanctions as an act of war against it, suggesting it would retaliate with military force. About two-thirds of its armed forces, which total 1.2 million personnel, are bunched against the border with the South.
Mr Perry said that Washington would continue to seek a 'step-by-step' increase of international pressure on North Korea, leading eventually, if necessary, to sanctions. He acknowledged that going through with sanctions may back the North into a position 'from which it feels it has to lash back'.
The Pentagon is already moving to reinforce the position of its 37,000 troops in South Korea. A first battalion of Patriot anti-missile missiles, ordered for deployment by President Clinton, are due to leave a port in California for South Korea in the coming days. Other steps include sending new equipment and spare parts to South Korea, Japan and other bases in the area.
Mr Perry said the US was moving to ensure that in the event of invasion by the North, the Air Force 'can quickly get overwhelming air power' to the area within 24 hours of the outbreak of hostilities, to allow 'massive air strikes on North Korean ground forces'.
He said he recognised that 'the policies and strategies we invoke today will have a certain risk' in provoking Pyongyang further. 'I'd rather face that risk than face the risk of even greater catastrophe two or three years from now' if North Korea was not prevented from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, Mr Perry said.
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