At their third summit, the leaders of North and South Korea made new progress in their historic effort to bring peace to the Peninsula. But for North Korea to denuclearize, is the US prepared to formally end the Korean War, and withdraw US forces? We speak to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
North and South Korea have made new progress in their historic effort to reach peace on the peninsula. South Korean leader Moon Jae in and North Korean counterpart Kim Jong un reached a series of agreements in a three-day summit in Pyongyang.
KIM JONG UN: This moment today will be considered by people a beautiful scene in history.
MOON JAE IN: We promise to make our beautiful rivers and mountains a land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, and pass it on to the next generation.
AARON MATE: The agreement to increase economic ties, further diffuse military tensions, and we’ll see the two Koreas make a joint bid to host the 2022 Olympic Games. But whether all this leads to denuclearization is now largely in the hands of the U.S. Upon his return, Moon Jae in said North Korea is prepared to finish complete denuclearization, but only if the U.S. takes corresponding measures. Moon said those measures will have to be negotiated directly with Washington.
MOON JAE IN: The detailed measures, or the appropriate measures, are things that must be agreed upon between North Korea and the U.S.
AARON MATE: The Trump administration has welcomed the outcome of the latest Korean summit. But are they prepared to break with decades of U.S. policy and formally end the Korean War?
Well, joining me is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. He is a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Welcome, Colonel. Your read on this summit, this third summit between Moon Jae in and Kim Jong un?
LARRY WILKERSON: As I’ve said before, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this sort of euphoria before. I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before, even saying that, though, I’m encouraged by the fact that Moon Jae in has gotten as far as he’s gotten. I realize that the political situation in South Korea is such that Moon Jae in has now staked his political life- and I mean that, his life- on what is happening right now. And I saw his predecessor Kim Dae jung do essentially the same thing, and literally lose that political life because of it. Kim’s father, of course, betrayed him. We betrayed him. He betrayed himself. Take your pick. There is no doubt that the South Koreans, as they did before, are passing rather large sums of money to Pyongyang in order to get this kind of cooperation. That’s how you get the Kim dynasty to operate.
And that’s ok. Who cares? If you bribe peace into being, that’s fine. But Moon Jae in has now put himself in Kim’s hands with regard to both the political future he faces and with regard to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. If that does, in fact, turn into a better situation on the peninsula with regard to no more and more peace, that’s fine. But I’m very skeptical that the rather incompetent team in the White House, in terms of its ability to focus on the one issue for any length of time strategically, and Kim Jong un’s desire not to give up his nuclear weapons- that’s the basic truth here. He is not going to give up his nuclear weapons. Under no conditions is he going to give up his nuclear weapons.
So I see this being strung out, and strung out for as long as possible to get as much out of the South Koreans as Kim Jong un can get, and then reaching some kind of impasse. And we’re back where we were before. Perhaps a little better off. It’s all going to depend on the United States, as you pointed out in your opening remarks. If the United States is not willing to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, however late that capability might be, however reduced it might be, however not in the public venue it might be, if we’re not willing to accept that fact, then the ultimate outcome of this is going to be less than we hoped.
AARON MATE: Colonel, when you say that there’s no condition under which Kim Jong Un will give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, doesn’t that sort of undercut the entire premise of this whole process? I mean, at least publicly, Kim Jong un and Moon Jae in have said that North Korea is committed to denuclearization. That was part of the declaration that was reached between the West and North Korea. And Moon Jae in, as you said, has staked his political career on it. So how could this process be even going ahead if you think ultimately North Korea won’t be giving up its nuclear weapons?
LARRY WILKERSON: Because that’s the way diplomacy works. You don’t go into diplomatic negotiations with non-movable, irrefutable stipulations. The United States may say it’s doing so, and indeed in this case has said so, just as it said the same thing with Iran. That’s not diplomacy. Diplomacy is going in with a position. The other side or sides go in with a position or positions. And you wind up with a final outcome that accommodates not all, never all, but portions of each side’s conditions. You don’t ever wind up with the irretrievable, absolute, precise thing you want to in the first place. I can’t find a single place in diplomacy in the last 500 years where that’s occurred. You compromise. And the compromise will be that North Korea can keep what is a latent nuclear weapons capability.
We don’t even know that they’ve weaponized a weapon and they could send it on a missile somewhere. Probably they haven’t. That is the most difficult and most technically challenging aspect of plutonium or uranium-based warheads, is miniaturizing them sufficiently to put them on the head of a missile. So they could stop at that point, and that would mean they’re no threat to us, because they couldn’t send a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead across the Pacific. That would be acceptable. But they’re still a nuclear weapon-possessing state. And we can say they aren’t till the cows come home. They still will be, and they know they will be.
AARON MATE: So that’s your read on this, that the U.S., if a deal is reached, could accept an outcome that would define denuclearization- which seems pretty unambiguous to me- but it would define it as denuclearization in the sense that North Korea’s nukes could not threaten the U.S.
LARRY WILKERSON: That’s it in a nutshell. Let’s look at Japan, for example. Or look at us, for that matter. Look at any country. And say, what is denuclearization? As Powell used to say, you cannot uninvent nuclear weapons. You can’t. The technology is there. The software is there. The idea is there, the technology, the structure, everything’s there. It’s just a matter of moments if Japan wanted to produce- they probably already have nuclear weapons. Japan probably already has nuclear weapons. They just have them in storage, if you will. Saudi Arabia probably already has nuclear weapons. They just have them in storage. They’re not going to admit to the world that they have them.
You know, our intelligence communities know this. It’s very different, though, to have a nuclear weapon and have it public knowledge that you have weaponized it to the extent that it can go on a ballistic missile, fly five, six, seven thousand miles, and hit California. Or hit New York. That’s a very different proposition from having a plutonium or uranium-based weapon in your country. It’s a very different proposition. I know this is arcane and esoteric, but it’s the way we do nuclear diplomacy.
AARON MATE: OK. Well, I guess time will tell. I see it as difficult to imagine that the U.S. and South Korea could get away with a deal in which, you know, they make an agreement with North Korea, in which they reach a peace agreement with North Korea but they not commit to the full denuclearization that they’ve floated, but we will see.
LARRY WILKERSON: There’s no doubt that we could lie about it. There’s no doubt we could lie about it. What I’m telling you is North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons capability. It’s not. Now, here’s another wrinkle to it. We stopped the South in the late ’70s from developing a nuclear weapon. The conservatives in South Korea would very much like to have a nuclear weapon. If unification occurs, and Seoul is the capital- which I assume that will probably be the results of unification- then those conservatives will want to have that nuclear weapon. They won’t want to get rid of the nuclear weapons in the North. They’ll want to have them so that 75 million Koreans unified on a peninsula that confronts China and Japan has a nuclear weapons capability. So there’s another wrinkle in it.
AARON MATE: Well, but the language has been for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, which would include North and South together, were they ever to unify. But listen, we’re getting into a hypothetical outcome. Let’s talk about what theU.S. is facing right now. So what do you see as the fault lines around Washington’s calculations here? Because North Korea is calling for reciprocal steps from the U.S., should it take steps towards denuclearization it’s already committed to international inspections and dismantling at least one missile site. So what kind of steps do you think North Korea will be seeking, and what is going to be their response in Washington? Obviously the presence of 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea seems to be a pretty big factor here.
LARRY WILKERSON: Let me begin my answer by saying that I would be all for removing the entire United States presence from that region of the world. I would remove the Marines from Okinawa. I would pull the troops off the Korean Peninsula. I would come home to the continental United States. And I would use power projection as my means of enforcing whatever I needed to enforce in the Pacific. That’s my overall view as a military professional and as a citizen I don’t think that’s going to happen. I advocated for that much of my military career. I was, I failed, as did those people who felt the same way I did. I think the interest of the United States are such, are interpreted as such, that we need to stay in that region of the world, and we need to stay there in what the Navy calls ‘presence terms’; that is to say, a B-2 at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri which can project the power that’s necessary to protect our interests in the Pacific is not sufficient. You have to, as Alexander Downer said, the foreign minister of Australia at the time, have a aircraft carrier swinging at a mooring buoy off Perth to convince Australians that you’re committed to their defence and their security.
So presence does have a mystique all of its own. Ironclad ships, airplanes in the country of interest, is a real strategic statement. I agree with that. I just don’t think it needs to be made any more. But with that proviso, I don’t think we’re going to come home off the peninsula. And I think that’s going to be an impediment to a final agreement in the current set of talks between North and South Korea and ultimately the United States. Because ultimately, Kim Jong un is going to want that peace treaty, that end of the Korean War to include the removal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. And we’re not going to be willing to do that. We could go forever on the reasons we won’t be willing to do that; everything from the military-industrial complex to the fact that it’s a four-star Army general position, and the Army is never going to want to give it up. I mean, ad nauseum the reasons we won’t do that. But we won’t do that.
So what we’re looking at here, ultimately, is an extended period of talks that will be euphoric. The rhetoric will be nice. It will be politically satisfying for Moon Jae in in the South, maybe. Might end his political career, too. It’ll be domestically good for Trump. Wait until the midterms come and he loses the House, and maybe the Senate, and then we’ll see a whole different Trump with regard to all these issues, because basically this president’s national security decision making process, as my students pointed out last week, is based primarily on his domestic political needs and not on the strategic interests of the United States.
So we’re looking at all manner of perturbations coming to the sanctions on Iran, the dealings with Syria and Turkey, the dealings with Russia, the dealings with Korea, and so forth. That notwithstanding, I don’t think even if all those things weren’t pertaining, that we wouldn’t have a going astray, if you will, of the current negotiations on the Korean Peninsula because of these irreconcilable elements. China’s interest in not having a unified Korea with U.S. presence still there; the North’s interest in not surrendering all of its nuclear weapons capability; the South’s interest ultimately in, if it is a unified peninsula, having those those nuclear weapons itself; and ultimately, both Koreas, were they to be united, wanting themselves to kick the United States presence off the peninsula. This is all a stew that is not going to be talked out in the next three, four, five years. It just isn’t.
AARON MATE: A pessimistic take from Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. Colonel, I know-
LARRY WILKERSON: Realistically. Realist.
Yeah, I’d be the first one, the first one to go to Pyongyang and drink rice wine, or whatever, with Kim Jong un and with Moon Jae in, and all the rest, if we could bring peace to the Korean peninsula in a sustainable way. But boy, I’ve been at this for 45 years.
AARON MATE: Well, perhaps you’ll have the opportunity. Perhaps. But as you lay out, perhaps you will not. And we’ll leave it there. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Distinguished Professor at the College of William and Mary, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thank you.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.