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By refusing to engage in diplomacy with North Korea, the Trump administration could be leading South Korea to break away from its strategic alliance with the U.S., says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Contradictory signals are emerging in the conflict over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. On the one hand, the Trump administration announced tough new sanctions against North Korea. These sanctions target 28 ships from China and seven other countries. These ships are said to have been transporting commercial goods to North Korea, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made the announcement about the sanctions last Friday.
STEVE MNUCHIN: Today, the Treasury Department is announcing the largest set of sanctions ever imposed in connection with North Korea. This action targets the deceptive shipping practices that have enabled the Kim regime to fund its dangerous weapons programs. Our actions target shipping and trade companies, vessels and individuals across the world who we know are working with North Korea’s behalf. Specifically, we are sanctioning 27 entities, 28 vessels and one individual, all involved in sanctions evasion schemes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Meanwhile, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, issued a statement on Monday urging the US to support direct negotiations between North and South Korea. Trump seemed to endorse the idea of talks at first but then said, “We’ll see,” emphasizing that his conditions for talks would have to be met first. Joining me now to analyze these latest developments is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Larry let’s start off with the latest sanctions against North Korea. Now, previously the US has mainly tried to prevent military equipment and fuel from getting into North Korea. This is a new level of escalation to bar commercial vessels. What’s your take on all of this?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think North Korea has shown that it has a history of being able to evade sanctions, no matter how cumbersome, no matter how crippling they might be. Not to say that this won’t have some impact, but I do think at the end of the day, North Korea will still survive and survive with its nuclear program intact.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, one could say that these measures are not only sanctions, but they are actually a blockade, and blockades are generally considered to be an act of war, and thus need to be sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. How is the US getting away with this?
LARRY WILKERSON: We’ve gotten away with it for almost a generation plus with regard to Cuba. In fact, the Cubans actually refer to it as a blockade, which is far more accurate in terms of international law and in terms of impact, than our euphemism of embargo. So, as Mao Zedong intimated, international law comes out of the barrel of a gun, he that has the power does it, and he that doesn’t have the power suffers it. That’s the rule I think that’s operative here too.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Larry, Trump is predicating talks with North Korea with forcing North Korea to abandon its weapons program first. Now, that doesn’t seem like a negotiation. Your thoughts on that.
LARRY WILKERSON: I’d like to say it isn’t ordinary, but it is. We are, and it is particularly in what I’d call post-Cold War Era, where we don’t seem to understand what diplomacy is all about. This is like you’re going to a business negotiation and you tell your possible cohort, whether it’s one company, two companies or whatever on the other side of the table, that until they’re ready to surrender all their future profits, you won’t sit down at the table with them. It’s absurd. It’s not the way one does diplomacy, and I hope that what we’re seeing is just more bravado, more “I want the high ground and I’m going to get the high ground at any cost,” and then eventually when we do sit down and talk, it will be more like a real negotiation, more like real diplomacy, but I certainly don’t know that.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, what are the consequences of South Korea proceeding with talks without the US in tow?
LARRY WILKERSON: A long term objective, arguably from the very beginning of Kim Il-sung’s regime in Pyongyang, of the North Korea’s has been to split the US-Korea alliance. We have always taken the position with respect to that strategic objective, that we will not allow bilateral talks to occur between South Korea and North Korea because we see that as sort of the camel’s nose under the tent.
That said, we have in the past done that. We actually achieved, South Korea and North Korea actually achieved a peninsular-wide denuclearization agreement, as I recall in 2000, under the auspices of those bilateral talks, but they haven’t happened very often. One must assume that North Korea again is trying to split the alliance and using bilateral talks as a way to do it. And it’s a possibility that now there might be more susceptibility to that sort of strategy succeeding because we do have a situation developing on the peninsula, where the United States, through its diplomatic obtuseness, its diplomatic incompetence, failing to put an ambassador in Seoul, for example, peremptorily deploying altitude air defense to the peninsula without really checking with the new government once it had been elected. Doing the kinds of things Mike Pence did at the Olympics for example, refusing to acknowledge that he’s there, at his ally’s behest and probably ought to stand, for example. Those kinds of things have made this a more receptive environment to possibly splitting the alliance.
I don’t for a moment say that’s going to happen. I just say that the kinds of things we’ve done have been so inept that, especially Vis-à-vis our ally on the southern half of the peninsula that the time to Kim Jong-un might seem a little more ripe than it would to us.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, the Trump administration sanctions that they have just announced affects not only Korea but, of course, China, Singapore, Taiwan among other countries. How do you expect these other countries to react to this move?
LARRY WILKERSON: It depends on the country. I’m certainly not one to template these countries. That’s a mistake we make in Washington all the time. Each one has a different set of security policies, different set of foreign policies and a different outlook on the region. Australia is very different from Jakarta, Indonesia and that’s different from Seoul and so forth.
I think the general fear though in the region, amongst our allies, our friends and some of our erstwhile enemies, is that nuclear proliferation will take place and it will go something like this. North Korea will persist. South Korea will insist on getting its own counterweight and in the process of doing that, Japan will go fully nuclear. Prime Minister Abe right now is salivating at the prospect for example, of selling tanks and submarines and airplanes and so forth, in what is a very lucrative arms market in the world. So, he wants Japan to be a full up power, that would probably mean nuclear weapons.
China is revisiting its doctrine, so that it’s going to have to get a lot more nuclear weapons in order to be able to ride out a first strike and strike back. We’re looking at a real possibility of some extensive proliferation in the region, not just because of North Korea, but because that’s the way things seem to be tending.
Let me add that the long pole in the tent, the ingredient, the catalyst for all of this is the US presence on the peninsula. That’s the reason Kim Jong-un has a nuclear weapon or two because of the US presence on the peninsula, the threat to Pyongyang, the threat to North Korea. That’s the reason the whole situation in northeast Asia managed by the strategy of strategic patience by a number of presidents, ever since 1953, is now changing and possibly dramatically, is the US persistent presence on the peninsula, threatening North Korea.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, finally, what has happened in the Trump administration for this slight shift? Earlier in the Trump administration and when Trump visited China, he put a great deal of emphasis on China needing to take a lead in terms of this issue with North Korea. They’ve taken a step back and they’ve become more aggressive in terms of wanting to deal with North Korea more directly. Why that shift?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s probably mostly because of political opportunism and political desperation, if you will. Trump made so many promises that he’s now finding them very difficult to keep. Look at the CPAC speech that he just gave, where he had to dwell really on tax cuts and appointing a justice to the Supreme Court. He tried a few other things, but I think, even some of his followers know those other things are hollow. He really hasn’t accomplished much at all.
So, he made a lot of promises. He made a lot of promises in the security realm, with his bellicosity towards North Korea, his bellicosity with regard to Syria and the Russian presence there, his bellicosity with regard to Iran. So, he’s going to have to start, even with his base that was so rabid at CPAC, he’s going to have to start living up to some of these things or even those ignorant buffoons are going to start to disbelieve him. He dropped because of the Florida shootings primarily, to 35 or 38% in the polls. So he’s now at the lowest position any president had ever been, once again.
You’re going to see a lot of this and you’re going to see a lot of bravado, a lot of arrogance, a lot of bellicosity, a lot of statements that seemed to make no sense other than coming from a hubristic president who doesn’t know what he’s doing. You’re going to see much of this trying to satisfy that base, that he is in fact making progress, towards fulfilling some of these promises he’s made, one of which you may recall is repeatedly been refuted by Kim Jong-un in North Korea. He keeps saying that this isn’t going to happen. This isn’t going to happen. This isn’t going to happen. Watch the fire and fury. Watch this. Nothing’s happened.
The only thing that’s happened is more sanctions. Frankly, the United States is going to sanction the whole world before this administration has its end, apparently either tertiarily or secondarily or primarily. This is an absurd foreign policy, an absurd security policy, but if we’re going to go another three years with this team, they’re going to have to live up to some of these promises and frankly that’s what scares me because when you get down to the brass tacks on these policies, none of them make any sense. They’re very dangerous.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Larry, Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, was rather amicable towards North Koreans during the Olympics, and the world was watching and they felt that there is an opportunity here for the two sides to unite and resolve their problems. Why is it so necessary for the US to be involved in these talks?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, at the end of the day, let’s back up for just a minute. Kim Yong-chol also visited after the very attractive and effervescent North Korean who sat in the box with Mike Pence. Kim Yong-chol is thought by South Korean intelligence to be the man who orchestrated the attacks on South Korea, the boat and such that killed I think somewhere, 50, 51, South Koreans, injured others.
So, the conservatives in South Korea, with whom I’m quite familiar because in my military career, they were the ones with whom I most interfaced, were very angry with President Moon, very angry for entertaining this guy, even though he is high ranking in the North Korean structure in South Korea. So, you have some argument going on in South Korea right now about President Moon’s approach. That said, I do think that the majority of the Korean people would like to see President Moon given a chance, given his policy, and allow these talks to go on. As I pointed out though, bilateral talks between the South and the North are dangerous for the United States because there’s no telling what might happen that the United States is not in on. It will be a fait accompli when it’s presented to us.
I don’t think the South Koreans would do that at this point, but their frustration with us might grow to the point where they would seek an independent policy and make some kind of a deal with Pyongyang. Let me hasten to add, if that deal were good for the peninsula, good for South Korea and negative or slightly negative or neutral for the United States, I’d probably be in favor of it. Because as I said in my initial comments, the real problem on the Korean peninsula is the US presence there.
If we could secure the peninsula from offshore and not have a presence there and therefore lessen the threat against Pyongyang and their homage, then we could probably do more for peace on the Korean peninsula than anything else we might do, including military exercises, flying B-2s to Guam and all the other things that we do. Let me reiterate, the real problem on the Korean peninsula, and to a certain extent, in northeast Asia right now, is the United States’ land presence on the Korean peninsula.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. We’ll leave it there for now, but I’m sure we’ll be continuing this conversation again very soon.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks Sharmini. Take care.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.