WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary-nominee William J. Perry said at his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday that the United States faced a "nightmare scenario" in North Korea, with tensions rising out of that nation's efforts to become a nuclear power.
Mr. Perry said he did not oppose the use of diplomatic "carrots" to try to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear ambitions, but he warned that the administration also could use "sticks."
Asked later by a reporter what those "sticks" might be, Mr. Perry replied: "I don't even like talking about this. It doesn't bear thinking about."
The nominee was given a universally warm welcome by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will recommend his confirmation to the Senate today. Confirmation by the full Senate is expected before the weekend.
Mr. Perry, now deputy defense secretary, wasted no time in confronting the military challenges he will inherit around the world -- in Korea, Bosnia, Somalia and even Russia, where there are signs of conservative pressure for a new military buildup.
He said he faced "the daunting challenge" of running the Pentagon at a time of declining defense budgets, which will create a $20 billion funding gap over the next five years between what defense operations will cost and what the Defense Department can pay.
The shortfall would have to be made up through increased efficiency, smarter buying -- or, as a last resort, through an increase in the defense budget starting in fiscal 1996, he testified. President Clinton has ruled out further defense cuts.
"Historically, we have not managed well with such budget declines and attendant downsizing," he said.
He pointed to the contraction of the military after World War II, which he said left the United States inadequately armed for the Korean War, and the post-Vietnam downsizing, which he said produced the "infamous hollow forces" of the 1970s.
"This time we must get it right or we will pay the cost later in blood or treasure," said the soft-spoken military technocrat, who is widely believed to be well-qualified to manage the Pentagon transition after a career that has spanned the defense industry, academia and government.
Mr. Perry, who ran into no hostile questioning yesterday, appears set to win the unanimous backing of the committee, which previously confirmed him as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in 1977 and deputy defense secretary last year. He was chosen by Mr. Clinton to replace Defense Secretary Les Aspin after the dramatic withdrawal last month of the original nominee to replace Mr. Aspin, Bobby Ray Inman.
Mr. Perry's most somber assessment yesterday focused on the Korean peninsula, where the United States has 100,000 servicemen based in South Korea to deter aggression from the North.
The North Koreans, he said, already may have built one or two nuclear devices, "perhaps even nuclear bombs," with plutonium from a small test reactor. Plutonium from a larger reactor could enable the regime in Pyongyang to produce a dozen or more bombs in the next few years, he testified.
That could provoke "very serious proliferation" as the South Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese seek to arm themselves, Mr. Perry said. "We are trying to prevent a nuclear arms race in the western Pacific," he said.
The nominee said that he supported the plan to dispatch U.S. Patriot anti-missile missiles to South Korea, and that a decision would be made once coordination with the South Koreans is completed.
The United States, he said, should use "aggressive diplomacy," involving both "carrots and sticks," to persuade the North Koreans to end their nuclear buildup.
"I have no objection to carrots," he said.
"There are sticks downstream also," he added. "I'm not anxious to precipitate the use of sticks."
He said the United States could "very soon" face a decision on United Nations sanctions against North Korea but would need the support of Japan and China to make sanctions work. He said he supported U.S. pressure on China to improve its human rights record, but he noted that would "pale into insignificance with the prospects of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula."
On other trouble spots, Mr. Perry made these points:
* In Bosnia, the United States is prepared to use air strikes in close support of U.N. ground troops if requested by ground commanders, or to stop the Serbian "strangulation" of Sarajevo. The United States also would consider committing its forces to a U.N. peacekeeping force if a peace agreement were signed by the warring factions.
* A detachment of U.S. Marines could remain in Somalia after the March 31 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. They would be assigned to protect U.S. diplomats remaining in Somalia.
* The administration is trying to forestall a return of militarism in Russia, but also is creating the framework for the extension of NATO membership to former members of the Soviet bloc "if that ever needs to be done."
Mr. Perry said the Pentagon is trying to maintain the military industrial base "to be prepared for changes in the geopolitical scene, which may introduce greater threats to us in the future."