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Eric Margolis: The nuclear weapons program is the only card North Korea has to force the US to negotiate a normalization of relations

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The tensions–or some people are calling crisis or a standoff between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program and potential missile launch, as we are told–I’m rolling my eyes here.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Eric Margolis. Eric is an internationally syndicated columnist, a book author. He’s a veteran Korea watcher who specializes in North Asian military strategic affairs. Eric was a regular columnist for Japan’s Mainichi newspaper. He’s a longtime member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. His last book was American Raj.

Thanks for joining us again, Eric.

ERIC MARGOLIS, JOURNALIST AND WRITER: Good to be back with you, Paul.

JAY: So explain your take on what seems to be part theater, part–what? I don’t know. Let’s start with North Korea’s interest in all of this. Why the grandstanding? Why the threats? What do they want to gain out of it? And what prompted it?

MARGOLIS: New regime. Kim Jong-un, 28 to 30 years old. We don’t really know. Obviously has to stake out a new position for him with the North Korean military, which is the dominant force in the country, but also the Communist Party, and show the world that he’s not the young kid who’s just running the country, 30 years old. Alexander the Great was, I think, 28 when he conquered much of the world. But there’s that side of it.

But there’s another. And I call this–what we’ve been watching is an attempted jailbreak. But that is–North Korea has been put in jail by the United States ever since the end of the Korean War. There are very, very stern, strict sanctions and threats. It’s overflown by American military aircraft. The U.S. has occasionally threatened tactical nuclear weapons if there’s a war in Korea. It is just in the most possible hostile condition.

So North Korea’s been asking for decades for normal relations with the United States, and it wants a nonaggression pact with the U.S., where Washington pledges not to invade North Korea. The U.S. will not do this, never has. It says it won’t talk, won’t do–will barely communicate with this odious regime in North Korea. And so the two sides remain at daggers drawn.

JAY: Just recently, there were American and South Korean military exercises that, I guess, if you were to view them from the lens of the North, they would have looked rather threatening. We don’t hear too much about that in the media when we’re hearing about this whole crisis.

MARGOLIS: No. The American media has done a very poor job, as usual, in covering this, all these events. Every year, there are annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises. And this year they were joined by Australians. Forty thousand South Korean and U.S. troops–remember, there are almost 30,000 American troops permanently based in South Korea–40,000 troops maneuvering close on to the border of North Korea, simulating an invasion of North Korea, U.S. and South Korean naval forces around North Korea’s waters.

And most significant, well, the U.S. this year, to show America’s displeasure with North Korea’s third nuclear test recently, the U.S. flew first a flight of B-52 bombers, and then two B-2 heavy stealth bombers, within 30 kilometers of the border of North Korea in what was clearly an attempt to intimidate North Korea and to remind the North Koreans that during the Korean War of 1950-53, that U.S. heavy bombers, B-29s in this case, flattened North Korea. They made the rubble bounce. Everything of any value was blown to smithereens in North Korea. And this was a reminder of that, but also the U.S. capability of decapitating the leadership of North Korea in a surprise strike using new very powerful [incompr.] bombs.

JAY: What exactly does the North Koreans hope to gain from the grandstanding, the talk of a potential missile that could reach the United States in all of this? I mean, it’s either an empty threat–in which case, why do the empty threat? If it’s a real threat, then they’re inviting some kind of retaliation. What do they hope to gain out of this posturing?

MARGOLIS: Well, that’s the big question. You know, threatening nuclear war and talking about long-range missiles, it is baloney. North Korea is not–the North Korean leadership is not suicidal. The launch of one nuclear missile against the U.S. and the whole of North Korea would be vaporized.

The danger here is, if North Korea launches a nonnuclear conventional missile, it could be mistaken for a nuclear-armed missile. There’s no way of telling the difference, and the U.S. could preempt by blitzing North Korea. It’s silly in a way. It’s childish. People are laughing at North Korea. But it’s also, as you said, setting itself up for retaliation. It’s making itself look ridiculous.

JAY: Well, one of the takes on this, one of the–in the various times in the past where similar grandstanding has taken place has seemed to have been that the North Korean economy, especially on the issue of energy, that they need some kind of help, and without this kind of grandstanding, they can’t get anybody’s attention. Was there not some offer or deal under the Clinton administration that there was a sort of a promise then, an exchange for not developing a weapons program? There would be help on the energy side. And then that got disregarded by Bush, who–. Am I remembering correctly here?

MARGOLIS: You’re remembering it perfectly correctly, Paul. There was a decent deal that said North Korea would gradually dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for American food and oil, also from Japan and South Korea. It was a pretty good deal. But the neoconservatives and the Bush administration sabotaged it by imposing new, onerous conditions on the North Koreans, and purposely, knowing that the North Koreans would go ballistic. And they did, and the whole deal fell apart. There is a faction, particularly in the Republican Party, which–it only wants to–ultimate termination for North Korea. America cannot talk to North Korea or have dealings with North Korea. It’s too horrible a regime.

However, the U.S. does manage to have cozy relations with some other very odious and horrible regimes, like Uzbekistan and Iraq these days. So that was a red herring. But definitely the neocons sabotaged the deal, and they will probably try and do so again. You can listen to the Republicans now fulminating against North Korea.

JAY: I mean, and the other thing that doesn’t get reported on very much on this side of the ocean is that there’s a strong movement in South Korea that wants reunification, that wants peaceful relations with North Korea–there’s a lot of support–and that would like the Americans to stay the hell out of it. That doesn’t get talked about very much.

MARGOLIS: Well, that’s a fascinating topic. I’m steeped in it. On my many trips to Korea, very few people in North Korea want to have anything to do with the Kim regime and North Korea. They know it for what it is. It’s a brutal and ugly and backwards dictatorship.

However, the North Koreans say, we are the only true, authentic Koreans. South Korea is an American puppet state run by the imperialists. We represent the essence of the Korean nationhood. They point out the interesting fact that no Americans know that the South Korean army of–armed forces of 600,000 men are under American command. Can you imagine that, after 60 years after the Korean War, that an American four-star general has been commanding the South Korean Armed Forces? It’s hard to believe.

But in many ways, South Korea, dependent on the American market for access, has been very compliant with United States wishes. And many Koreans therefore are fed up with American over heavy-handed behavior in Korea, and there’s an appeal of North Korea, particularly amongst young people.

And let me add one other point, that half of the Koreans are Christians. It’s the only country in Asia that has a large Christian population. Half Buddhist–the Buddhists in South Korea: much more easygoing in their attitude towards North Korea. Live and let live is their view. Christian fundamentalists in South Korea–remember Reverend Moon, that type?–are very militant against North Korea [incompr.] demonstrating, calling for war and invasions. So the South Koreans are split on the issue.

JAY: China we know considers North Korea somewhat of a buffer, especially given all the American military force in South Korea. On the other hand, doesn’t this get to be an irritant, at the very least, for China? But does China actually have the influence to change the situation in North Korea?

MARGOLIS: China does, because it is the sole supplier of oil to North Korea and a lot of its food and spare parts and arms. So China speaks with a very loud voice there. But the situation is very interesting, Paul, because China has routinely issued things about, oh, let’s denuclearize and let’s solve the nuclear issue, but halfheartedly at best. They like the status quo. They needed North Korea as a buffer state. In no way would they want to contemplate North Korea being taken over by South Korea and having U.S. bases implanted right next to Chinese Manchuria.

Now the Chinese are expressing great annoyance, because now they say–now one voice in China is saying, wait a minute, the Americans have started this crisis with its bomber flights next to North Korea. They did it on purpose. And the reason is to bring in all kinds of new weapons and weapons systems into the Asian theater, in keeping with President Obama’s pivot to Asia. So the Chinese are angry at it. And they’re watching U.S. stealth fighters, bombers, and new antimissile systems coming in, and more stuff is on the way.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Eric.

MARGOLIS: You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Eric Margolis is an internationally syndicated columnist and renowned book author. He’s a veteran Korea-watcher who specializes in north Asian military/strategic affairs. He’s been all over the DMZ and produced his documentary there last year featuring a segment from Panmunjom on the DMZ. Two special areas of focus:  1. What would a war actually look like if one erupted?  2. The geopolitics of the region – the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, the US.  Eric was a regular columnist for Japan's Mainichi Shimbun and is a long-time member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.