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Lawrence Wilkerson: Wikileaks cables may show that China no longer needs North Korea as a buffer state

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. As the situation heats up between the two Koreas, WikiLeaks has a bunch of cables that suggests–and I’ll–here’s one from The Guardian newspaper: “Wikileaks cables reveal China”–quote–”ready to abandon North Korea”. So what is really going on in Korea? What is China’s role? And is there really a threat of war? Now joining us to help us unpack this is Lawrence Wilkerson. He was Colin Powell’s chief of staff. He now teaches at George Washington University in Washington. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So, first of all, what’s your take in terms of the situation in Korea? How threatening is this? Are we playing another round of the Korea drama?

WILKERSON: I’m not one to be hyperbolic or exaggerate the Korean situation. That said, I think we probably are, at this present moment, as close to an outbreak of hostilities on the peninsula as we were, for example, in 1994, when Bill Perry, then the secretary of defense, as I recall, pronounced that as the condition and began to proceed accordingly. When you get forces like the George Washington Battle Group 160 miles off Yeonpyeong Island, the island where their artillery rounds fell and killed four last week, you get a proximity of forces that is just escalatory in its nature, you get a situation where a move on one side is a move on another side is a move on the other side and so forth, and you wind up with what you didn’t want when you started it. So I understand the way the Chinese are acting with regard to this and trying to bring the tensions down on both sides. I understand it’s in their interests to do that, in addition to their genuine, probably, good-faith effort to keep hostilities from breaking out on the peninsula. To the point of your question about China and these WikiLeaks, I think there is–and WikiLeaks notwithstanding, I think there is frustration in Beijing right now. We think of them as a totalitarian state or a near-totalitarian state, as we did the Soviet Union. It was wrong about the Soviet Union; it’s wrong about China. There are various power centers in China. The PLA, PLN, PLAF, the Chinese military, People’s Liberation Army, and so forth is one power center. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a lesser power center–now, we wish it were more of a power center. The industry and the so-called princes, the people who’ve made millions of dollars in this Deng Xiaoping-begun predatory capitalism, they’re another power center. And then the people around Hu Jintao and the old people around Jiang Zemin, they’re another power center. The Central Party School is another power center. So you’ve got a number of people vying in China. But there is frustration. And there’s also, I think, debate about what to do about North Korea. North Korea is getting nuttier and nuttier, and even China recognizes that.

JAY: Now, let’s just back up from the “nuttier”. Does North Korea have some legitimate grievances over the last decade, for example making a deal to get power supplied that apparently was never delivered? Like, just from the point of view of a more rational North Korea perspective, what are their grievances that are legitimate?

WILKERSON: I think if you look at it from Pyongyang’s perspective–let’s just reverse it for a moment. If you look at it from their perspective, what you see is you see a South Korea that by itself could probably defeat you. You also see a South Korea allied with the United States of America, the greatest power in the world: off your left flank, in the ocean, you see the Seventh Fleet.

JAY: And an enormous American base in South Korea.

WILKERSON: Yes, yes. Well, not quite as big as it was, but it’s still there. And you’ve got Okinawa. You’ve got Marines all over Okinawa. You’ve got Guam. You’ve got Guam growing as Okinawa diminishes, to a certain extent. Used to have the Philippines, too. You’ve got the other side: you’ve got a hostile Japan, in the sense that it’s a signatory treaty ally with the United States of America. It has considerable force itself, even though it’s called a maritime and an air force self-defense force and an army self-defense force, ground self-defense force. And you’ve got China. And you don’t know about China on any given day, and yet you depend on China for heavy fuel and for other things that you need and don’t have the revenue to buy. So you’re in a very difficult situation. Not only that, you’ve got generals beneath you who, as corps commanders and ultimate orchestrators of the ground forces and air force and so forth, you constantly have to fire and replace, because any one of them might be a threat to you. So you’re looking at Kim Jong-il’s perspective now, sort of. It’s not a very good perspective. It’s not a good day for Kim Jong-il. And he’s worried. And it’s understandable that he would want a nuclear weapon to try and bring some kind of power into his decision-making that he can flaunt in a way that at least makes you, even if you’re the United States, and certainly South Korea, think before you do something that’s inimical to his interests. It’s clear why–.

JAY: Which seems to have actually succeeded.

WILKERSON: Yeah. It’s clear why he wanted a nuclear weapon, very clear.

JAY: Now, in the WikiLeaks, the underlying idea of these leaks is China has come or is coming to the conclusion it doesn’t need North Korea as a buffer state anymore. It’s far more integrated into the Western economy. Do you think this–?

WILKERSON: Maybe that’s being spun by Chinese diplomats in order to convince Pyongyang that there might be some threat of China backing off, but China has no intent of backing off. I don’t know, but that’s a possible reading of it. Another possible reading of it is, just as I said, there is consternation in Beijing over whether or not it’s a liability to continue to buttress North Korea. Might 70 million-plus Koreans working hard together, with their capital in Seoul reunified, become ultimately a more economically viable partner for China, and even be a certain counterpoint to Japan for China, maybe? And maybe Chinese strategists, who tend to think much more along these lines than we do, tend to be much better strategists than we are, maybe they are thinking thoughts like that, and perhaps that will influence in the future their position towards North Korea.

JAY: So in terms of US policy now towards North Korea, what do you make of it?

WILKERSON: I think it’s–I have to say what I say from what I see, and right now I see two good things. One is that we seem to be more or less sensible in the way we’re reacting to what are some really significant provocations from North Korea–the sinking of the Cheonan and–the warship, the corvette, and the dead sailors from that, and now this artillery barrage. That’s the first thing. And the second thing I see is that we are allowing our ally, which we didn’t do in the Bush administration–we treated South Korea as, oh, South Korea’s here? Oh, geez, bring ’em in. We seem to be now treating South Korea as–maybe it’s because it’s got Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, in the Blue House or whatever. For whatever reason, we seem to be treating South Korea as an ally now, as having first bite at the apple, as being the entity to whom we should listen, collaborate, cooperate, and so forth before we go storming off unilaterally to do something about North Korea’s nuclear program, which, incidentally, South Korea had very little concern about, because what are they going to do when they reunify? They’re going to have that nuclear program. Good deal. Not so bad at all. And the conservatives in Korea are the ones who mostly think that way.

JAY: Now, how much of the Korean crisis is being driven by an American agenda? Because over the last decade or so, it’s always been [a] much more conciliatory position taken by South Korea on the whole.

WILKERSON: Yeah. Well, that was–I think that was part and parcel of the reaction in South Korea to becoming a full democracy. Started sort of with the Olympics in the late ’80s and moved right on in to Kim Dae Jung and the Sunshine Policy and so forth. This was, if you will, the liberal wing, the left wing, the Democrats of Korea, however you want to describe it. It’s not quite a perfect analogy. But nonetheless, it was a group that thought it could work its way, through diplomacy, into a solution for the peninsula, reunify the peninsula, and so forth. And they were in no hurry. The South Koreans, again, have this longtime line: if it takes a generation, it takes a generation. They looked at Germany and they said, ooh, $80 billion, maybe $100 billion to reunify? M-mm. Don’t want to pay that price–we don’t have that kind of money. So, I mean, they would like a long-term, slow, carefully orchestrated reunification. They’re perfectly willing to accept that. And I think they were a little bit frustrated with our concentration on the nuclear issue, and they saw that as frustrating their plan for reunification over the long haul. Now we’ve got a different government in there. That government has sort of entrapped itself with its rhetoric and so forth now, saying, we’re going to be tough. We’re not going to have any Sunshine Policy. Oh, man, we just got bombed. We just got a warship sunk. What do we do now? We said we’d be tough. So they’ve sort of moved themselves into a corner. But at present they seem to realize that and they seem to be dealing with it okay, and we seem to be giving them the lead, and that’s what we should be doing.

JAY: How influential are voices like William Kristol and the neocons, who are kind of back, getting back into the discourse, not just on Fox, but because they’re coming back in control of the House, who seem much more bellicose about what to do about North Korea?

WILKERSON: You know, like John Bolton, who was, you know, “I don’t do war.” You know. The Pentagon’s lowest estimate of casualties, when I left, for war in the Korean peninsula in the first few days was 100,000, including a lot of noncombatants whom we probably cannot get out, “noncombatants” meaning American citizens, ’cause there were a lot of American citizens in South Korea.

JAY: When you’re saying 100,000, you mean 100,000 Americans.

WILKERSON: I’m talking about 100,000 casualties total.

JAY: Total.


JAY: Koreans and Americans.

WILKERSON: Yeah, in a very short time, very short time. We’re looking at–you know, people will say, like Bolton and Kristol, they’ll say, well, it’s a paper tiger. It’s a paper tiger. We should challenge it. It’s a paper tiger. You know, those 152 mm artillery pieces, those 122s, those multi-launch rocket systems and everything, they’ll melt, they’re not very well maintained, and so forth. Well, if they just fire their first ten rounds, which I assure you they will do, they’re going to put Passchendaele on Seoul, they will put Verdun on Seoul, they will put Ypres on Seoul. This is World War I type of artillery concentration. The South Koreans know that. They know they would win, but they know they would probably lose their capital city. One of the strategies that we played very effectively in a joint forces wargame in the mid-’90s was we, the red team, playing North Korea, we didn’t do a full-out offensive as they did in 1950. We simply struck strategically at Seoul, took Seoul, and then said, “Now what do you do?” as the South Korean government relocated down to Daejeon or someplace south. Very difficult situation for the South Korean government. What do you do now? Seoul is reasonably intact, there hasn’t been major damage done, but it’s infested by the North Koreans, who’ve launched a blitzkrieg. You can defeat them. You can defeat them. You know you can, particularly with US Air Force help. You can defeat them. But do you want to destroy your capital city? I mean, this is a very sophisticated strategy, and the North Koreans are not completely unaware of this strategy, and the South Koreans are not completely unaware that the North Koreans have it. So I’m not saying they would execute it, but I am saying this is a more sophisticated game than sometimes Washington pretends, even, that it has the capability to grasp.

JAY: So the short is North Korea’s not really a threat, so cool it.

WILKERSON: No, they’re a threat, they’re a threat, especially if they’re handled improperly. And we seem to have a penchant, from time to time, to maximizing that improper handling.

JAY: But a threat in what way? You’re talking about someone who feels encircled. So the more they’re going to feel encircled, the more they feel a threat.

WILKERSON: Well, I think they’re a threat in a significant sort of way, because they would probably act irrationally (which I would not say about too many world actors) at the last minute if they felt like the regime was threatened. That’s their number-one goal is regime survival. That’s their number-one goal, “their” being the Kim clan and the group associated with it. If they felt that they were inevitably going down, I think you might see some wounded-tiger type tactics that would be extremely damaging and dangerous. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t–I think we would ultimately prevail, “we” being the South Koreans and perhaps US Air Force assets and maybe some ground assets. I think we would. But it’d be bloody. It’d be very bloody. And it would be a real setback for a truly dynamic and very successful economy in the South and a democracy in the South.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.


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

End of Transcript

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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.