Former Bush administration official Larry Wilkerson says the candidates’ hawkish foreign policy record is cause for concern with the potential of a possible North Korea engagement
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Conflict between North Korean and South Korean governments has existed for decades. Last week the U.S. pushed forward a draft bill to the UN Security Council attempting to impose some of the harshest trade restrictions yet. The sanctions came after a January nuclear test, and in February long-range missiles launched by the North Koreans in a move that drew [ire] from neighbor South Korea as well as the United States. On to discuss all of this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary, and of course he’s a regular contributor to the Real News Network. Larry, thank you so much for joining us. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: Larry, this conflict between North Korea and South Korea, you’re very concerned about it. Particularly given you’ve been privy to such tensions in the past as chief of staff for the secretary of state. What worries do you have? WILKERSON: I’m looking at the peninsula, the Korean peninsula, and thinking in terms of Dr. Perry, Bill Perry, who was secretary of defense at the time, and his assessment that in 1994, as I recall, we were very close to the breakout of conflict on the peninsula. And I’m considering that we might not, perhaps, be as close as he thought we were in 1994. But we are close enough to make me concerned about it. There are a number of reasons for that, which we could go into if you’d like. PERIES: Yes, of course we would like. WILKERSON: I think first of all is the unknown of Kim Jong-Un, the new young leader of North Korea, who seems to be intent on consolidating power, but may not be as firmly in control as we would think, this being the third of the Kim dynasty. And the dynasty may be becoming somewhat sclerotic and not able to care for the generals anymore. We might be seeing a problem there. And we’re also seeing China being brought into it in a way that, rhetorically China seems to be changing its position, but basically strategically it can’t, because if it changes its position there is the problem, the problematic situation, I should say, of having a collapse in the North. That is to say, if China stops its support in any significant way. While at the same time we’re sanctioning the country to the maximum, and this will include going after some of the Chinese banks that might be acting as third parties in the hard currency exchange with North Korea. And putting a, frankly, Kim Jong-Un in a box when his leadership might be somewhat tenuous and he has to, you know, court the more hardcore elements in his military and strike out to do some things that might shock some of us. We’ve seen that kind of thing before, but there has always been a retreat on it. I’m just wondering if with the circumstances we now have in South Korea and those in North Korea, we might have a real problematic situation on the peninsula. A dangerous situation. PERIES: Take us back to 1994 under Bill Perry. Give us a sense of what was happening there at the time, and why it’s relevant today. WILKERSON: I think we had a set of similar circumstances for different reasons. We had a South that was prepared to stop taking what it was taking. We had a North that was absolutely intent on continuing to dish it out, whether it was against the Americans or against the South itself, or what have you. And we have a situation that was only attenuated, if you will, when we began the negotiations over, of all things, their nuclear program, which wound up in the agreed framework, and more or less tamped down the tension on both sides. In comes the George W. Bush administration and does away with that framework, and of course now what we have is a nuclear power in North Korea. And let me hasten to add, Sharmini, that–and this is no reflection of policy as much as it is on reality. I think the first thing we have to do is recognize reality before we go boring ahead with policy formulation or implementation. The reality is that the reasons the North Koreans developed nuclear weapons, carried it on past the point of Yongbyon and the dissolution of the great framework and so forth, and actually tested and are now producing nuclear weapons, is the presence of the United States on the peninsula. That’s what gives Pyongyang paranoia. They are surrounded, virtually. Whether it’s the Seventh Fleet, it’s the ROK Army, or the U.S. support for the ROK Army, or the U.S. position on Guam or Okinawa, whatever, North Korea feels as if it’s surrounded and it’s threatened 24/7, so that’s the reason they went for nuclear weapons. I think you could find the same rationale in almost any capital that today would undergo the technical expense and the problems associated with developing nuclear weapons. They have to be under a threat that they feel nuclear weapons is the only thing that will deal with. That’s not to excuse the regime in the North, which I’ve called in the past a criminal regime. It’s very close to being that, if it isn’t that in reality. But it is to recognize the fundamental reality on the peninsula. The reason the North is acting the way it’s acting is the U.S. troop presence in the South. PERIES: Now, how real is this threat? There are many politicians, particularly this election year that are talking about North Korea as being the greatest threat now that we have somewhat dealt with the Iran nuclear situation with the P5+1 agreement, and there’s somewhat of a compliance there. People consider North Korea the greatest threat we are dealing with today in the U.S. How real is that? WILKERSON: It’s a real threat. But I tell you, these people frighten me. They frighten me greatly, profoundly. Especially people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, for that matter, who seems to be willing to take on almost anybody they can. There’s a theory in international relations called conservation of enemies, and it simply means you don’t want any, any more enemies at any given time than you can handle. And I have to say the United States has quite a few right now, thank you very much. So we don’t need to build yet another one that might present us with the need to use military force. These people scare me. They frighten me. Hillary Clinton frightens me in that regard, too. We shied away in the Bush administration, as everyone should be able to figure out, from North Korea, even though it was a bigger threat in the grand scheme of things than was Iraq. North Korea was far more likely to divest itself for hard cash of some of its fissionable material, or whatever, to a terrorist group, far more likely to do some of the things we attributed to Saddam Hussein and to Iraq. But we went after Iraq because it was low-hanging fruit. When we contemplate the Korean scenario we contemplate, for example, 100,000 casualties. And we contemplate that in the first few weeks of the conflict, and many of those are going to be American citizens who we’re unable to evacuate if hostilities break out suddenly. So this is a really hard rock. And we shied away from it, as I said, in the Bush administration, other than heated rhetoric and so forth, support for our ally in the South, because it is extremely costly to go to war on the Korean peninsula. Extremely costly. Seoul is within range, the capital city of South Korea. One of the miracles of Northeast Asia. Seoul would be subject to Passchendaele or Ypres or Verdun levels, World War I levels, of artillery barrage. Lots of casualties, lots of destruction. PERIES: Larry, thanks so much for joining us today. WILKERSON: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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