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Larry Wilkerson discusses how Chinese nuclear experts estimate North Korea has 20 nuclear warheads and could have 20 more in 2016 yet Washington is paying little attention.

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of the Wilkerson Report. Now joining us is Larry Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff of 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. Thanks for joining us, Larry. LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So Larry, today we’re going to talk about North Korea. There have been tons of reports coming out, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Chinese officials now believe North Korea has 20 nuclear warheads and could build 20 more by 2016. can you just discuss for us, what is the importance of this story? WILKERSON: I think it is important. I think it’s important from essentially two perspectives. One, the perspective that North Korea does in fact have nuclear weapons. I think we can all be relatively assured of that now. And there is the high potential that they’re building more, and also that they have the plutonium-based weapon, I think, miniaturized to the point–this is a significant technological achievement–that they can mount it on the head, the cone so to speak, of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which of course they’ve proven that they have. They’ve tested them, they’ve shot them. This means that North Korea is now if all of this is true, with a lesser arsenal of course, but nonetheless the equivalent of the Soviet Union in the past. That is to say, they’re in the ranks with China and the Soviet Union, Russia today, and others who can actually send an intercontinental ballistic missile across the oceans at a target and strike it with a nuclear warhead. The curious thing about this to me is that we seem almost unconcerned about this with regard to what I consider, and I think most of my colleagues in the military would consider a far more dangerous threat than Iran. And at the same time, we are intently focused on and studiously working on Iran from every perspective possible, including my party which wants to bomb them. And they don’t even have a nuclear weapon. So my question is, my colleagues’ question is, why such a pronounced differential in foreign and security policy? And our answer of course is, well, North Korea has no Israel, and it has no oil. DESVARIEUX: Larry, I’m glad that you mentioned Iran, because a lot of people on the Hill have been using this example as sort of fodder, essentially saying that the Obama administration shouldn’t be supporting nuclear arms agreement with Iran since the likes of North Korea have covertly gone against the IAEA and have broken agreements in the past, and now have nuclear weapons. What do you make of that argument? WILKERSON: The first thing I have to do is say it’s rather risible, and that’s because my party, and some Democrats who helped them, are the ones who derailed the political agreement with North Korea, and caused that political agreement not only to be negated but also probably motivated the North Koreans to developing their secret enrichment program once we had shut down the far more dangerous in my view plutonium program. Now, what I mean by that is the Congress did not live up to its obligations under that political agreement with North Korea. For example, it did not deliver the heavy fuel in the quantities it had agreed to, or on time. And it did not furnish the funds that were necessary to the Korean energy development organization, KEDO, which was building the light water reactors that would according to the agreement replace the more dangerous reactors we wanted to shut down. So this is really laughable that the Congress, or certain members of the Congress, particularly from my party the Republican party, want to point at the North Korean agreement as a reason we shouldn’t have an agreement with Iran. That’s preposterous. DESVARIEUX: All right. Larry, you mentioned earlier too that we should be focusing on North Korea, and there are many people that agree with you. Certainly there’s been petitions–actually recently. Yesterday there was a petition of 8 million signers, signatures, to the United Nations saying that essentially, ahead of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, that the UN should be focusing on non-proliferation and being more aggressive about that. So essentially my question to you is, how do we then handle a situation like North Korea coming from that perspective? WILKERSON: I think that’s an important perspective. And by the way, while I was in Houston, Texas over the weekend, we listened to people by Skype from that conference. I think North Korea is a far more dangerous threat than Iran. There are a number of reasons why I say that. They are cold hard factual reasons. One and foremost, North Korea has bombs and ICBMs, and Iran does not. Two, North Korea is the only state I have ever dealt with, militarily, diplomatically or otherwise, that I would characterize as a criminal state. When I was working at the State Department our focus was on their counterfeiting of our $20 and $100 bills, to the tune of about $20 billion of U.S. currency a year. That’s economic warfare. North Korea depends on the Triads, on the Yakuza and other crime syndicates to help it with these nefarious activities. It is a criminal state. It would sell a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group in a heartbeat if the hard currency exchange were good enough, and if it thought the forensic studies afterwards could be kept from determining that it was a North Korean weapon. That is another matter altogether. But North Korea is an incredibly dangerous state. On the other hand Iran is a fairly stable, if not the most stable in Southwest Asia, state. It has democratic tendencies, it is geographically, demographically, militarily a power in the Gulf. Iran has every prospect for becoming a responsible regional stakeholder and should be courted to that effect. North Korea has no prospect whatsoever of doing that, until it rids itself of the Kim dynasty. Therefore it is far more dangerous, as I said before. I don’t understand this policy except under one circumstance. It is politically opportunistic to go after Iran. It is not politically opportunistic to go after North Korea. That’s a heck of an equation to be basing your security policy on. DESVARIEUX: But if North Korea is so dangerous, as you described, how do you deal with them? WILKERSON: That’s a good question, too. I think you deal with it at least up to a point the way we have been dealing with it. You keep South Korea robust. Very close, cheek and jowl with North Korea, and to that effect, look at what we’ve just done. The U.S.-Korea nuclear pact now allows South Korea to begin to do research with its nuclear facilities. That’s a subtle signal to Pyongyang. You may know that South Korea, the Republic of Korea, tried earlier on to build its own nuclear weapon and with persuasion from the United States ceased that effort. This is sort of a subtle hint to Pyongyang that hey, the South can build a weapon too, and then we’ll have deterrence. I’m still worried about North Korea though, because if there is a suicidal regime, or a regime with a tendency to under duress favor suicide, it’s North Korea. I personally don’t believe any regime is one that would commit suicide, but if there is one close it would be North Korea. So to answer your question more substantially, I think you need to begin to work on the powers in the region. The powers that would be Japan, China, Korea, South Korea, that would be most immediately impacted by a use of North Korean nuclear weapons, or by military action in general. You need to get them to begin to bring significant pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing in particular, in order to reverse this situation. That’s the only way you’re ever going to do it. The United States cannot bring, it is proven through one of the most draconian sanctions regime in the world which we’ve had on North Korea for God knows how long, we’ve proven that that won’t work. So you’ve got to find a new avenue, and that avenue has always been, and never exploited to the extent it should be, through Beijing. And through the pressure that Beijing could bring on North Korea. Beijing could cut North Korea off tomorrow and within a year or two you’d have a state that was dying in front of our eyes. That’d be pretty brutal, but some lesser impact that China could bring on North Korea would be the kind of pressure necessary to get them to more or less change their ways. DESVARIEUX: All right, Larry Wilkerson. Thank you so much for joining us. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us 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.