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Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, says the Trump administration’s mixed messages on North Korea and the new THAAD missile system are sowing confusion in the Korean Peninsula ahead of a crucial South Korean vote

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Aaron Mate: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Amid ongoing tensions, President Trumps says, “We’ll see” on military action in North Korea. Donald Trump: Would not happy. If he does a nuclear test, I will not be happy. And I can tell you also, I don’t believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either. Reporter: Not happy, you mean military action? Donald Trump: I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see. Aaron Mate: In recent days, Trump has made threats like that, and also said he’s open to talks with the North Korean regime. A North Korean missile test this weekend failed for the second time in two weeks. Tensions remain high with the U.S. aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, still in the Korean peninsula. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is former chief of staff to Secretary of State, Colin Powell, now professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Colonel, welcome. Col. Wilkerson: Thanks. Aaron Mate: We have all different kinds of talk coming from the Trump administration. Secretary of State Tillerson said that the White House could open direct talks. Now we have Trump saying, “We’ll see” on military action. Can you help us make sense of what this administration’s approach is to this very serious issue? Col. Wilkerson: I wish I could make sense of this administration. I don’t even pretend to be able to. I can only surmise that on the positive side, what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to build as much leverage as possible, in other words, in sort of like street talk, they’re trying to scare Kim Jong Un and his generals enough so that when they do get to the talks, which they inevitably will get to, they have a high ground from which to negotiate. That’s the only rationale thing I can assume here. The frightening side of both that and what might be just plain ineptitude is that one, the high ground for leverage might lead us to an unexpected exchange of fire and war, and two, it might not be what I’m saying it is. It might simply be ineptitude. It might the fact that these people don’t know what they’re doing. And that scares me to death. There are 250,000 American citizens in and around Seoul. A noncombatant evacuation operation which is contemplated with any war plan, would simply be untenable. You couldn’t do it. So you’d lose many of those Americans in the first onslaught. And that first onslaught would be pretty bad. I mean, yes, we’ll win against North Korea, we being the United States and our allies, the South Koreans, but it’s going to be a bloody fight in that first 90 to 120 days, and we’re going to lose a lot of soul and we’re going to lose a lot of people, Koreans and Americans. Aaron Mate: Now from ineptitude, I want to go to altitude. That’s a terminal high altitude area of defense, this new THAAD missile defense system that’s just been put online in South Korea by the U.S. What is the significance of that? Col. Wilkerson: It has a lot of significance that is insignificant, and what I mean by that is, we don’t even know if it’ll work. That’s the first real problem. And it could be a lot of egg on our face if it doesn’t, in the event of a firing and our having to fire it. Second, it’s extraordinarily expensive and probably is as much where it is in Europe and now on the Korean peninsula to pay off military contractors who get huge profits from this system. And third, it is a destabilizing instrument in the sense that China sees it, its radar in particular, as being against them and not necessarily the North Koreans, just as the Russians do with our systems in Europe. So it’s very destabilizing. We’re not sure it’ll work and it costs unbelievably. And when Donald Trump came out and said that the Koreans were probably going to pay the billion dollar cost for this deployment, I knew the Koreans were going to come back and say, “Ha, in a pig’s eye, we are.” And of course, he had to back down on that. They’re going to have an election. And they’re very likely going to elect a president who is not going to be very favorable towards THAAD, and so to get it in there like that, before this president gets elected and therefore hope that’s a fait accompli and that we’ve tied the hands of the new president, was a little bit disingenuous and even stupid, but that’s the way this administration operates. So you can see why I’m deeply concerned over what they might cause to happen on the peninsula. Aaron Mate: Yeah, so you mentioned this upcoming election. It’s in about a week. The THAAD system has been an issue in this election campaign, and so has relations with North Korea. There’s been a conservative government in South Korea for close to a decade, mostly recently under Park Geun-hye who was forced to resign over some corruption issues. But now though, with potentially a progressive government coming in, wanting to revive the Sunshine Policy of better relations with North Korea, what does that portend for the future of this conflict? Can South Korea play more of a role here in diffusing tensions between North Korea and the U.S.? Col. Wilkerson: I certainly hope they can. One of the things that I noted constantly when I was in the George W. Bush administration was that in meeting after meeting after meeting, we rarely, rarely thought about or even considered our ally on the peninsula. It was always about us. It was always this or that thing that pertained to us or our interests, and I would always have to bring up the question of, “What about our ally’s interests?” “What about the South Koreans?” I mean, after all, it’s going to be their soil upon which the nuclear weapons fall more than likely. So I hope that what you just asked about is answered with yes. The South Koreans are going to get more and more involved, they’re going to get more and more attuned to their own interests. Not that they should become a troublesome ally, if you will, but we should pay more attention to what their interests are and what they want to do on the peninsula. And I have to say, because most of my friends, my colleagues, and my contacts, are in the more or less conservative groups in South Korea, but I have to say that the only time that we seem to make any progress with regard to reunification of the peninsula on some decent, stable, prosperous, even terms is when these other governments get in, governments with whom I have not a great deal of contact and don’t know a great many people within their political circles. But they do seem to be the only ones who are willing to stand up for Korea as it were, and that needs to happen. Aaron Mate: That’s a really interesting revelation about the Bush administration’s internal talks about South Korea and the danger from North Korea, because not only are they on the front line there, but also they’re hosting 25,000 U.S. troops. So you’d think that people in the government would be also concerned for that purpose, because you have so many American forces there. Col. Wilkerson: Yes. And one could argue that all the exercises, all the Carl Vinsons steaming towards the peninsula, and all the rhetoric, especially this brinksmanship-like rhetoric which is trying to match Kim Jong Un for any brinksmanship deed he does, is very alarming and very disturbing. And it’s not the United States that this artillery, Passchendaele or Verdun-like artillery concentrations are going to fall on. It’s Korea. It’s the capital city of Seoul, one of the most thriving and multifaceted and incredible cities on the face of the earth right now – some 15 million or so souls within its metropolitan area, and that’s where these artillery rounds are going to fall. And I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where we’re talking about this situation and we don’t even mention our allies. After all, like the Germans, when we were talking about taking Russia on with nuclear weapons on the plains of Europe, the Germans would sometimes look and you know, those weapons are going to fall on our soil. Well, that’s what happens when you forget about the people you’re allegedly ostensibly defending in the first place. Aaron Mate: You know, in that clip we heard earlier of President Trump, he mentioned the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, as he does often when he talks about North Korea. What do you make of the Trump administration’s strategy so far, which appears to be effectively outsourcing the North Korea issue to the Chinese government? Col. Wilkerson: Well, this has been a very interesting series of events with President Trump. First we had one China policy, maybe that’s out the door. “I think I’m going to take a telephone call from the president of Taiwan. I might even let the president of Taiwan pass through the United States like a normal human being.” And then all of a sudden you get, “Oh no, the one China policy is still operational, and aw yeah, I don’t want to hear anymore from those people on Taiwan.” And then you get the meeting at Mar-a-Lago and “I’m eating a beautiful piece of chocolate cake while I’m telling the premiere of China or the president of China that I’m sending 59 cruise missiles into Syria.” This is all, if it has any coherence at all, and I’m not one who’s going to assign it any coherence, but if it has any coherence, it’s real estate. It’s negotiations. It’s let’s scare everybody to death. Let’s make some people think we’re insane. Let’s really gain some leverage here, and then let’s negotiate. So you really go after China big time. You make Xi feel like he doesn’t even know where we’re coming from and you try to get him to bring pressure on North Korea. Now, what’s going to really happen? What’s really going to happen is Xi Jinping is going to act like, and his polit bureau and others are going to act like they’ve brought more pressure to bear on the DPRK. But are they really going to bring more pressure to bear, because they’ve got vital stakes in this game, too, and North Korea is a buffer they’re never going to give up, not unless they’re forced to. So, are they really going to do anything? Yeah, they’ll do a little bit. It’ll look like things are happening and so forth, and maybe a little bit of pressure will be brought. And maybe that’s when we’ll say, “Aha, pressure was brought by China. Now we can talk, and we’ll sit down and talk.” Great. Praise God if we do that. But it’ll all be a charade in essence. But if the charade works and we sit down and talk, I’ll be the first one to clap. Aaron Mate: Yeah, when you say buffer, just bringing us back to a point we touched on earlier in the conversation, North Korea for China is also a buffer against those 25,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Col. Wilkerson: Absolutely. And against the potential … And here’s the real slammer here. If you look at the war plans and you look at the flow of forces in those war plans, and remember, I mentioned earlier that those forces are getting slimmer and slimmer and slimmer, but nonetheless, they’re still fairly formidable, especially what we call blue air, and that’s U.S. air flowing on the peninsula in the event of executing a war plan. It’s pretty formidable. I mean, when you talk what’s going to come to that peninsula in a very short period of time, under 5027, 5028, 5029, any of the war plans, it’s formidable. I mean, you’re looking at a lot of bomb dropping capability, of precision guided munition capability coming to that peninsula in a very short time under any one of the war plan scenarios, and primarily to go after that artillery to try and get it before it’s shot an eighth or a ninth or a tenth round. So it’s awesome, what’s coming to that peninsula in the event of executing a war plan. So, yeah, the north needs to know that and they need to be apprised of that. Aaron Mate: Finally, let me ask you about what the North Korea issues means for the broader problem of nuclear proliferation. I imagine that one reason North Korea has been hesitant to give up its nuclear weapon is that it’s a bargaining chip, and it’s a bargaining chip that deters attacks from countries like the U.S. who have a long history of military action in the peninsula, going back to the Korean War, and threatening North Korea with action over many years. What does North Korea’s experience say or portend for other countries viewing nuclear weapons, given that arguably what’s prevented a U.S. attack on the regimen in North Korea is the fact that they possess a nuclear weapon? Col. Wilkerson: I think it’s a terrible signal that’s gone out. Just as terrible as the signal the United States sent by invading Iraq, by attacking Libya and unseating Muammar Gaddafi by sending TLAMs into Syria and so forth. I think we’ve been sending a signal that other leaders around the world, be they good, bad, or indifferent, have interpreted as I would have interpreted had I been they. And that is, the United States will attack anybody at any time and you better be careful. And if you have a nuclear weapon in your storehouse, you’re probably a little bit safer than you would be without one. Well, that sends a signal to people who have the technical and at least the funds to build a nuclear weapon to do so. That’s not a very positive signal to be sending out. And ultimately, as I indicated, the United States is responsible for that signal going out. Aaron Mate: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel Wilkerson, thank you. Col. Wilkerson: Thanks for having me. Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on the Real News. END ————————————

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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.