Wilkerson: Trump is Clueless on North Korea
As the US pushes through new sanctions on North Korea, direct negotiations are the only way to defuse the nuclear standoff, says Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues to escalate. The UN Security Council has tightened sanctions on North Korean exports in response to the regime’s latest missile launches. US ambassador Nikki Haley said the sanctions will hit one-third of North Korea’s economy:
NIKKI HALEY: The price the North Korean leadership will pay for its continued nuclear and missile development will be the loss of one-third of its exports and hard currency. This is the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation. These sanctions will cut deep, and in doing so will give the North Korean leadership a taste of the deprivation they have chosen to inflict on the North Korean people.
AARON MATE: North Korea says the sanctions are illegal and that the US is responsible for escalating the crisis. President Moon Jae-In of South Korea said today his government cannot accept military action from any side and that the crisis must be resolved in a peaceful diplomatic manner. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell and currently a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, welcome.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me here.
AARON MATE: Let’s start with this weekend’s development of these sanctions, passed unanimously including with support of Russia and China, against North Korea. What do you make of this action by all of these states together?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well Nikki Haley’s comments at the United Nations demonstrate once again the sheer amateurism of this administration in general. Nikki Haley knows nothing about North Korea or about China or about Northeast Asia in that respect. These sanctions, Like all the sanctions in the past, which I lived through, which have been manifest, which have been thorough, detailed and so forth, will have very little impact on North Korea.
So long as China and others are convinced that North Korea has to be maintained however beleaguered it might be, these sanctions will have little impact. Either Haley is an amateur, ignorant or even stupid, or she’s just saying that as the Trump administration seems to want to do because it wants to convince its base and as many other Americans as possible that it is in fact doing things. It is not doing very much at all.
AARON MATE: In terms of what it is doing, let’s talk about what Haley said. She said that these sanctions are going to give the regime a taste of the depravation that they’ve chosen to inflict on the North Korean people. I mean these sanctions are hitting North Korean exports, an already extremely poor country. It’s hard to imagine how this would not continue to impact the North Korean people and not touch the regime.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well I think that’s probably true, but let’s face it, North Korea, as you’ve just described it is a place where these sorts of sanctions that the United States thinks it can use against very sophisticated, basically industrial or post-industrial economies, simply don’t have any impact, particularly when the two staples, the real things that North Korea needs to survive and regime survival is all they’re really interested in, are the heavy fuel that China provides them and the hard currency that they earn from the relationships they have with everyone from proper Chinese authorities to the Triads in China, the criminal gangs with whom they deal.
The real message here has come somewhat sotto voce but nonetheless it has come from Tillerson and his comments recently and also from the president of South Korea. Those comments indicate that both men, Tillerson and the president are interested in talking with North Korea. The statements they’ve made reflect knowingly and smartly and wisely the program that former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry suggested in an interview with Senator Sanders on the latter’s radio show recently. That is that we have to negotiate. We have to talk. We have to have something we can give them, and they have to have something they can give us.
A suggestion would be that the exercises in August we plan with the South Koreans for example, we would forgo those, we would not have them, in exchange for North Korea’s not doing any more nuclear tests or perhaps even any more ballistic missile tests in addition to that. That would be a good beginning. Then we could start talking about what North Korea is really concerned about and that is the fact they think the United States is going to attack them. They think these exercises on the peninsula are very provocative in that sense, and I would too, if I were in Pyongyang. I’m not excusing the criminality of this regime in Pyongyang. I’m just stating what is reality.
AARON MATE: Well Colonel, people are going to point to statements like the one made today at a conference in the Philippines by the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. This is what he was quoted as saying: “We will under no circumstances put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table. Neither shall we flinch an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves, unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated.”
LARRY WILKERSON: Well look at what he said in the back end of that statement. Unless and then read the rest of it. That’s what he’s saying. He’s stating his negotiating position. Let me quickly add that if there was a regime in the world that is the equal of the Trump regime, in terms of lying, in terms of falsifying information, in terms of braggadocio, in terms of brinkmanship, it is the regime in Pyongyang.
You’ve got the Nikki Haleys and the Donald Trumps and the Steve Bannons and their equivalents in Pyongyang facing off against one another. It’s really kind of ironic, looking at this, as I’ve seen this going on for the last 40 years. This is quite new, to have two essentially brinkmanship people in both capitals, Trump and Kim Jong-un. It’s going to be interesting to see how this unfolds.
Fortunately we have people like Tillerson and we have people like the president of South Korea and others of course too, who understand these messages coming from North Korea and who are reaching out now and saying things in response to those messages that look like might get us to some sort of talk, which is what we need.
AARON MATE: You know it’s interesting to have you on, because you worked on these issues when you served under the Bush administration and I think there is an important historical example here that is very relevant, which is that North Korea’s first nuclear test came in 2006 and just after that, instead of cutting off the North Korean regime as it was doing, all of a sudden Bush authorized the reopening of talks. A different tack than we’re seeing today.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yes. You can even go back further than that. When Jim Kelly, Assistant Secretary for East Asia/Pacific for Colin Powell and for George W. Bush went to Pyongyang in October 2002 and talked to Kam Sak Ju and Yi Goon and essentially discovered as it were that the South Koreans, or I’m sorry, the North Koreans were actually cheating on a highly enriched uranium program, which I think they were doing to hedge their bets because we were cheating too on the heavy fuel shipments and the money for the nuclear reactors, the light water reactors, to replace the dangerous one.
When all of that happened, we had a deal in our back pocket. We were going to present the North Koreans with all manner of economic assistance. We were going to help with their electrical grid, their power grid and so forth in exchange for their stopping both their programs, their reprocessing program for plutonium in Yongbyon and also the secret uranium enrichment program.
As it turned out, we didn’t go anywhere from there, but when we come to the point where you just suggested, we’re back again on that same diplomatic track, and I would suggest to you that that is the only solution to this problem outside of war, and we don’t want war I guarantee you. You’re going to see us eventually arrive at a position where we are talking along with the South Koreans I hope. They are our allies on the peninsula, with the North Koreans. It’s the only solution to this problem.
AARON MATE: Let me ask you though, based on your experience, has North Korea shown a willingness to negotiate in good faith?
LARRY WILKERSON: North Korea has shown a capacity to do that, and by that I mean they have rational leadership. A lot of people in this country say they don’t but those people are idiots. They do have rational leadership, just like Iran has rational leadership. In fact, I would submit most countries in the world do.
The North Koreans however are in a position of extraordinary weakness, if you look at the military situation on the peninsula. There’s now way they could win a war. They could fire all their nuclear weapons, and they’d still lose the war because they’d be incinerated after the first weapon detonated. The situation for them is dire. It is regime must be preserved. That’s their first objective in North Korea and it is looking at a military instrument deployed against them, the United States and South Korea and for that matter Japan and others too, that is awesome. They have no other choice than to be brinkmanship players. They have to be people who are willing to do almost anything anytime, always drawing back at the last minute so they don’t provoke that ultimate existential attack on them.
You can understand how they’re operating, but the way to deal with that is to do what’s necessary to keep them from being so dangerous to our allies, Japan and South Korea in particular and ultimately to ourselves. The only way you do that is to talk. People say that’s bad because then you’re talking to evil and what you’re doing is you’re perpetuating the regime and what you’re doing is not bringing about regime change in Pyongyang and that’s nonsense because to do all those things would cost hundreds of thousands of lives. I’m willing to talk to the devil to prevent that happening.
AARON MATE: All right. So given that you have a South Korean administration that especially now, after the recent election is very keen on a diplomatic solution, what are the forces in Washington that stand in the way of talks with North Korea?
LARRY WILKERSON: You’ve got people like John Bolton and others, and I know Bolton particularly well, which is why I bring his name up, that want regime change and don’t care how many people die to bring it about. They’re absolutely committed to that sort of objective, whether it be Iran or North Korea or whomever. They want regime change, and if it takes war to do it, so be it. And if it takes hundreds of thousands of causalities, so be it. I can’t explain to you why they feel that way except that I think sometimes they’re insane, but they do feel that way. There’s more of them than you might think.
AARON MATE: Looking forward, I’m wondering what you think we should keep an eye on now. I just want to say again on the issue of these sanctions, I was reading a blog called “North Korean Economy Watch,” and they pointed out that unlike the previous resolution last year that also imposed sanctions on North Korea, previous UN Security Council resolution, this new measure does not appear to contain any humanitarian exemptions which means the squeeze could be put tighter now on North Korean people.
LARRY WILKERSON: This is a very disturbing happening and it started in the George W. Bush administration and it didn’t get too far because of Colin Powell, but it seems to have picked up steam with the Obama administration in places, even though you did have Susan Rice and Samantha Power and other people around who objected to it. It seems to have no end in the Trump administration and that is to say that we’ll do anything. We will do anything. We will do things that we wouldn’t do in the past for humanitarian reasons. That is to say we will even cut off food. We’ll cut off water. We’ll cut off life sustainables in order to bring a regime down.
This is a very disturbing development, very disturbing development. As disturbing for example as was torture during the George W. Bush administration. This is not the way America should operate in the world, but it’s part and parcel of some of the changes that were happening in our security policy. It’s not a good development.
AARON MATE: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, thank you.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks Aaron.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.