Larry Wilkerson: North Korea is Not an Existential Threat – But Many People Benefit by Saying It Is
Col. Wilkerson and TRNN’s Paul Jay discuss the underlying forces driving the U.S./North Korea confrontation
PAUL JAY: Welcome to the Real News Live. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. Today we’re going to go live with Larry Wilkerson. Just before we do, let’s remind ourselves of a little bit of history. There was an agreement about the North Korean nuclear program. That’s towards the end of 1994 with the Clinton administration.
The agreement essentially, at least the main points, went like this. North Korea would allow the IAEA to conduct routine inspections of nuclear facilities and remain a party to the nuclear proliferation treaty. US would lead the effort to build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea to compensate for the loss of nuclear power. Target date to build those, 2003.
Until they were built the U.S. would supply the North with 5000 tons per year of heavy fuel, and the U.S. would suspend team spirit military exercises with South Korea. The U.S. would lift sanctions and remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, normalize the political relationship, which is still the subject of terms of the 1953 Korean War armistice. Both sides would provide formal assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.
What happened to that agreement? Well, now joining us to discuss that and the current situation of the confrontation of the United States and North Korea is Larry Wilkerson. Larry joins us from his home in Falls Church, Virginia. Larry’s a former chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary and a regular contributor to the Real News. Thanks very much, Larry, for joining.
LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Before we get to the current situation what happened to that agreement? That agreement in theory would have frozen or eliminated the North Korean nuclear weapons program and we wouldn’t be in the moment we’re in.
LARRY WILKERSON: Let me refer your listeners to the American Conservative magazine. There’s an article I wrote about two weeks ago featured in that magazine. It goes into great detail about this. You got the details fairly correct. We had even, I might add, at the end of the period of negotiation and diplomacy high level cabinet officials from the United States going to Pyongyang and actually meeting with high level people from North Korea in consonance with the agreement that we would have higher and higher level meetings and talks and we would normalize relations. That was the ultimate result to be desired of all these diplomatic moves.
What happened to it is questionable even in the intelligence community. I was there in 2002 when we brought these questions to President Bush and when Jim Kelly, the assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, actually went to Pyongyang and confronted Kang Sok-ju and Li Gun and others in the Korean establishment with the intelligence we had that said they were cheating. That they were, in fact, developing a hedge strategy which consisted of a different approach to a nuclear weapon.
Back up just a moment. What you just described was for the reactor at Yongbyon, which was a plutonium producing reactor, and the reprocessing facilities necessary to make that plutonium into weapons grade material. We had frozen that program. I might point out the most dangerous program, because that’s the fastest and easiest if there is an easy route to a nuclear weapon.
We’d frozen that. We’d taken care of that. But we had intelligence that led us to believe that the North Koreans were hedging that effort with a highly enriched uranium effort. A more difficult, a slower, more tedious effort to a bomb but nonetheless a way to one.
When Jim Kelly confronted Kang Sok-ju and Li Gun they admitted to the program. They as much as said in such a forthright way that they had this hedging strategy that when I was debriefed on this, when a number of our people came back from Pyongyang, who had been there with Jim, and debriefed me, including Jim himself, I began to think, “Well, they just essentially told Jim, ‘You guys were not living up to the agreed framework” which you just described, “So we’re hedging our bets. Yes, we do have an alternative program.”
What the intelligence community could not determine, and to this day I don’t think they can determine it, was whether or not the North Koreans actually started this hedging strategy before they even entered the talks, or during the talks, or whether indeed as a result of our not living up to the agreement the way we had promised, they started this program. Who knows?
At any rate, it had frozen the most dangerous route to a nuclear weapon and it had put inspectors on the ground in North Korea. Now, why would I say the North Koreans thought we weren’t living up to it?
Because we weren’t. We shipped heavy fuel at times that were not exactly part of the schedule. We shipped in quantities that might over a year or 18 months of filing added up to what we said we’d give them. It never looked as if it was going to and it was never in one shipment.
More importantly, we dug our heels, as did the Europeans for a certain amount of time because they were in it too, on funding what was called the Korean Energy Development Organization, which was the consortium set up per the agreement between the United States and the DPRK but funded by others like Japan, China, and so forth. That money was not forthcoming.
By 2003 we had not even poured all of the foundations for the two light-water reactors. Had I been the North Koreans, this is putting on my realism hat, if I’d been the North Koreans at that time I probably would have been cheating too.
PAUL JAY: There’s a lot one can get into the detail of the history but there seemed to be at least in Congress at that time very little interest in this deal anyway.
LARRY WILKERSON: Absolutely. Steve Bosworth, Ambassador Bosworth, who was appointed the head, the first head, of the consortium KEOD actually said about two weeks after the ink was dry on the agreement, “Hey, it’s two weeks. The ink is not even dry yet. It’s a dead agreement. It’s a dead letter.” He knew that the Republicans in the Congress and a few Democrats too … Just as with the Iran nuclear agreement today, there’s blame on both sides of the aisle, but the dominant blame is on my side, the Republicans side, who didn’t want this agreement to be successful. They started right away to try and undermine it.
PAUL JAY: For the same reasons as Iran. They still don’t want to accept the North Korean government for better or worse is there to stay and it’s up to North Koreans to deal with it.
LARRY WILKERSON: Absolutely. I think it’s even more insidious than that, Paul. I wrote that in the article that I published. I think there is an element in the Congress and an element in the country, a very wealthy element, that sees war to its benefit and needs these threats and so is not about to let these threats go away.
PAUL JAY: That takes me to my next question. Why the heck does anyone care if North Korea has a bomb? It can only be defensive. If there was ever such a thing as a North Korea first strike somewhere it’s obvious there would be no North Korea within minutes after that. Why is it such an enormous existential threat?
LARRY WILKERSON: I’ve had conversations just like that with senators and with representatives in our Congress. Generally speaking, if they have some brains, and that’s a real qualifier these days, they will say something like, “Well, it’s not really that we’re concerned about. We know deterrence works. We know it works. We know that Pyongyang would disappear. We know that they know that and therefore they are deterred. What we’re worried about is they’ll sell it to terrorists.”
Well, I addressed that in my article too. Nuclear forensics are so sophisticated today … Believe me, I’ve been there and been briefed on them. I saw them operate during our breakdown of the AQ Khan network in the early 2000s for example. They are so sophisticated, Paul, that with 60% to 90% certainty we would know where nuclear material came from if it were exploded in a plutonium-based or a uranium-based bomb.
Any American president is going to act even on the low end of that certainty, 60%. Any state selling nuclear material to a terrorist organization has to know that if that terrorist organization ever uses that material that state is going to be punished, and punished majorly.
PAUL JAY: Now, there’s still no definitive evidence that they actually have a bomb as such. We interviewed earlier today Robert Kelly, who is a former IAEA inspector, and he was saying based on the actual data that intelligence agencies have so far this could be just nuclear material blown up by a missile. There’s no actual evidence it was a sophisticated bomb. He says you actually have to get some of the residue of the explosion to know really what it was.
LARRY WILKERSON: Let me just tell you, from my own experience, that we do collect residue. We do do a very sophisticated analysis through a number of mechanisms and means. I will agree with him to the point that when I left government as a member of the North Korea working group in the government in 2005 we still did not have what you would call definitive evidence that they weren’t suckering us.
That is to say that they weren’t doing some things underground that they were describing as nuclear explosions that could well be either that at a much reduced rate than they were claiming, or yield than they were claiming, or they could be even high explosives that were massively detonated underground and gave a seismic signal like a nuclear weapon.
My understanding of late from intelligence people whose views I respect is that we have a little more evidence now to conclude that they have probably had one or two or more real nuclear explosions, if you will, well underground.
We have no way of knowing how sophisticated they were, if they are at the point where, for example, they could miniaturize them so they would be able to fit on a warhead, on a missile, or any of the sophisticated things that are actually more difficult technically to do than the actual fabrication of the plutonium metal or the highly enriched uranium bomb itself. I tend to doubt some of the more strident interpretations, including that of Kim Jong-un, about what North Korea is capable of.
PAUL JAY: Now the reason, perhaps there’s other reasons, but the principle reason if I understand it correctly, why there’s no military action being taken place now against North Korea is because North Korea can do such terrible damage to South Korea with conventional weapons. Essentially destroy Seoul and much of the South Korean population. In other words, they already have a very strong deterrent in conventional weapons. What do they need a nuclear weapon for?
We hear the reason they want a nuclear weapon and this sounds reasonable. They look at what happened to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In fact, Putin just made those comments at the BRICS meetings the other day. Do we have that Putin quote? Okay, we’ll play the quote from Putin.
Vladimir Putin: Russia condemns these exercises by North Korea. We think that they are of a provocative nature. We also cannot forget what I’ve just said in relation towards Iraq and then Libya. North Korea will definitely not forget this as well.
PAUL JAY: Meaning they saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and they saw what happened to Gaddafi so no wonder they want nuclear weapons. They’ve got tremendous ability in terms of what they can do to South Korea. Why do they need a nuclear weapon? In a sense they’re making themselves more a target by developing this.
LARRY WILKERSON: Don’t forget also, Paul, that they saw what we tried to do to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I point all of this out in the article I referred to earlier. There is another element, too. You’re right about the DPRK, and especially the Kim regime, enjoys such a rich lifestyle, if you will, compared to the rest of North Korea that they are desperate. I do use that term. They are desperate to maintain it.
They see the only threat to their power hold being the United States. South Korea to a certain extent, but the United States is the big devil in their Bible. That’s the first reason, but there’s a second reason, too. I recommend to your listeners Helen-Louise Hunter’s book on Kim Il-sung, the original Kim, if you will. It’s probably the best book ever written on the DPRK. She was at the CIA for a while but she was a sociologist. She really did some great work on trying to interpret Kim Il-sung and his regime.
Part of the reason too, in addition to that preservation of the regime against the archenemy the United States, is keeping a hold on the people in North Korea. The way you keep a hold of those people, and I saw this in Cuba to a certain extent, Paul, with Fidel Castro and with his gang, that is you make them have something to truly fear besides yourself. You use that all the time and you exercise that all the time.
What Hunter does in her book is show you how the regime does that and how his song, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un, actually magnified and accelerated some of this politics of fear, if you will, in order to keep their hold on the North Korean people. That’s part of it too is keeping that bugaboo there, keeping that threat there, keeping that bear there.
You develop the nuclear weapon and you give the people something to lean back on and say, “Well, he’s told us how bad this threat is, but he’s developed this system to stop this threat.” That increases your hold politically and otherwise on your people.
PAUL JAY: I guess the Cuba thing is another conversation. The United States did try and kill Castro how many hundreds of times and didn’t. Sponsored an invasion. But a conversation for another time.
LARRY WILKERSON: No question about it. Look what we do to North Korea. Come on. You’re sitting in Pyongyang and you’re looking south. We have no empathy in Washington, Paul. We have no empathy at all. You’re sitting in Pyongyang and you’re looking south. You see the Seventh Fleet. You see 600,000 Republic of Korea soldiers. Well-trained soldiers. You see missiles bristling all over South Korea. Now you see FAD in South Korea. You see Japan. You see everything that the United States can bring to bear in addition to the Republic of Korea’s own military and you’re scared. It’s that clear.
PAUL JAY: Right. Okay. I’m going to take some questions from social media. We have Greg Varr asked, “Why has the US continued with the war games with South Korea when they know it only agitates and worsens the situation with North Korea? Why does Congress and the state department allow Trump to run amok with his tough talk, which only makes diplomatic relations worse with North Korea?”
LARRY WILKERSON: The first question is easy to answer because it does. There are people in the United States Congress who just as with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, just as with Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, and just as with before them Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, want these people gone and want these regimes changed. They feel like that’s the best way to do it.
Why do we exercise? In order to perturbate the situation. Why do we send the fleet close to the shore? Why do we sail carriers there? Why do we fly bomb-laden jets along the demilitarized zone? For the very reason that the questioner suggested. Because we can and we want to in order to perturbate the situation.
Now of course we say that it’s to exercise with the South Koreans so in the event war happens we can do what we need to do in executing our plans. Well, that’s secondary to it perhaps. You don’t need to do these things and you certainly don’t need to do them, and I point this out in my article, in the strident way we’ve been doing them that exasperates the situation.
For example, during the agreed framework when were negotiating that we stopped the massive exercise, which I participated in four times on the peninsula, called team spirit. We essentially canceled it. We stopped it in order to go along with the diplomacy.
I suggest in the article that if we wanted to do something today that would be meaningful, not beating our chests like Donald Trump likes to do, but doing something that would be meaningful, we would start talks with North Korea and we’d get back on the same track we were on in ’94 and ’95 where we would offer things to them in exchange for things from them.
For example, cease your ballistic missile testing, cease your nuclear weapons testing, and we will cease our exercises in the south. That’s a simple proposition. You could go from there into building confidence measures and so forth. People have said back to me, “Well, they’ll do the same thing they did back in 1999 and 2000. They get an alternative program, they cheat, they build more nuclear weapons” and everything else.
I say, “Well, first of all, listen to what I said before. Maybe they did that because they didn’t trust us because of our actions. Secondarily, so what?” So what? As long as there’s not a war and as long as there’s not a nuclear exchange on the peninsula who cares? As long as the peace continues, as long as people aren’t dying, who cares?
PAUL JAY: Well, I guess almost war is good for some people. Here’s a question, Paul Shephard on Facebook, “Does diplomacy have any chance of being used to resolve the crisis when President Trump has tweeted that the US is willing to sell highly technical military equipment to Japan and South Korea?” In fact, billions of dollars of new military sales are coming to South Korea. Again, almost every conversation you and I have about somewhere gets back to military weapons sales.
LARRY WILKERSON: I think that’s Donald Trump yapping. I don’t think the South Koreans are about to buy millions, billions of dollars of more weaponry. They’ll sink their peninsula if they do. They’ve got quite enough right now thank you very much. It’s fairly modern. It’s very capable equipment.
Japan? Prime Minister Abe is starting his own armaments industry. Prime Minister Abe has been very public. He wants to sell warships, submarines, tanks, and other implements of war to the world just the way the United States does. Prime Minister Abe is doubtfully going to buy more US equipment if he’s trying to sell his own Japanese equipment to the rest of the world. This is Donald Trump not knowing what the hell he’s talking about.
PAUL JAY: A question from, I like these YouTube names, Mint Julep on YouTube, “Colonel Wilkerson, wouldn’t it be more effective to communicate with Kim Jong-un directly than to hint at possible war? Should Trump directly reach out?”
LARRY WILKERSON: This has always been a huge question within the US diplomatic community that’s been answered almost unanimously within that community. No. The reason is our South Korean ally. What Kim would love to do, what the Kims before him wanted to do, and what Putin is doing very successfully today vis a vis NATO, is to separate our ally from us.
If we went directly to Pyongyang, if we sat down directly with the ineptitude with which we do these sorts of things, we probably would fulfill that goal. We would drive the south into a secondary status. They’re the ones who are cheek and jowl with North Korea. They’re the ones who might be invaded at any moment. I think that would be a bad move. I tend to agree with those people.
That said, as a starter, if I were looking at a route to the most effective diplomacy I might have that as an ultimate goal. That as the Clinton administration did, and I’m not one to give them a lot of kudos because they’re blameworthy in this too or they’re worthy of censure in this …
There is a positive side of being able to at least perhaps send Secretary Tillerson or someone of that stature in a final negotiations stance so that it would be some imprimatur on the deal and give the deal some more resilience than it otherwise would have. I wouldn’t recommend that the heads of state get together. Not in the beginning anyway.
PAUL JAY: Obviously China’s the major player of the United States in this scenario in terms of external power. I understand that North Korea plays a buffer state role to China. Maybe you can talk a bit about that. How is it that China doesn’t seem to have the power influence, unless they don’t want to, to have a regime in North Korea that’s more under their control?
LARRY WILKERSON: That’s a complex issue. I’ll try to address the major features of it. First of all, China likes having the buffer state there. The buffer state that is sympathetic, at least, to Beijing and it’s wishes and stands between geographically it and the South Koreans who are allied rather strongly with the United States. That’s the first thing.
Second, China does not want a catastrophic collapse of that buffer state. It fears that greatly. China has had at times a real problem controlling the flow across the river, for example, because North Koreans under times of great stress, famine and so forth, have just amassed the country. They come into China. China already has a very, very difficult time with that particular province, a difficult time economically, a difficult time with water and food and so forth. They don’t want this massive influx of North Koreans into that province. They’re worried about that kind of collapse, too.
Then the last point, which has become true in the last two decades, the Kims don’t really answer to China anymore. They know that they’ve got a certain lifeline to China that China won’t break because of what I just said. They don’t want that catastrophic collapse, which if they broke that lifeline, things like food and oil and so forth and some commerce, North Korea might be in the position to do, to just collapse.
They’re going to keep them on life support, if you will. Anything beyond that becomes difficult for China, if not impossible for China, to do. Now China is as irritated, and perhaps even in ways frightened, by what North Korea is doing with nuclear weaponry as anybody else in the world.
What China sees is that possibly motivating Japan and Japan could do it in a heartbeat to become a full-up nuclear weapon state. That would be really bad for China in China’s eyes. Bad for the region in my eyes. China’s got real mixed emotions about this and has to play the game very, very carefully.
PAUL JAY: I would think China would see what’s going on now as, you say, in a mixed and complicated way. With Steve Bannon and what one thinks Trump believes in the same thing, advocating trade war with China, maybe this gives them a little leverage on that. You’re going to need us on this North Korea thing. Don’t be threatening us on the trade side.
LARRY WILKERSON: There’s no question that diplomats like Wang Yi nd Yang Jiechi and others, they understand how to play this game better than we do. Yes, they’re going to use whatever leverage they can gather from both the trade game, the economic game, the finance game, and the realpolitik game with respect to Japan and the Koreas. They’re going to play it as well as we do or better. We’re not going to win a whole lot with regard to Beijing in that regard.
PAUL JAY: The threat level that the media, the White House, and everybody is giving to this, is it partly being played up for the reasons you were saying before? This could easily not be considered such a big deal. There could be a diplomatic discussion going on. It’s not an existential threat. In fact, the kind of attention that Kim Jong-un is getting is I guess exactly what he wants. If they weren’t making all these threats and noises no one would pay any attention to North Korea at all.
LARRY WILKERSON: Exactly.
PAUL JAY: Is this just another great distraction, especially for the Trump administration right now, which is in so much trouble on so many fronts? Now you can get everybody talking about North Korea.
LARRY WILKERSON: I think you named it, whether it’s the domestic front where they look to be utterly heartless with regard to the Dreamers, or whether it’s the front with Russia where they are increasingly day by day in legal jeopardy, or whether it’s some other domestic issue from which they would really like to run away.
These things like North Korea, like what I would say was the most ridiculous comment I’ve heard from a President in a long time, that he might have to invade Venezuela and kick out Nicolás Maduro, those kind of comments are designed not so much in substantive foreign policy as to divert our attention from what is really a failing, dramatically failing presidency.
PAUL JAY: Failing and draconian.
LARRY WILKERSON: Yes.
PAUL JAY: Interesting question here from James Bradley McCallum on YouTube, “Could this be inspired or encouraged by the China and American growing contention with the Silk Road in Afghanistan, India, US, Pakistan, China …” This whole issue of the developing this Chinese ban they’re talking about. Explain what that is and if it does play into this how does it play into it?
LARRY WILKERSON: I see the Chinese strategy as being two-fold. It has one maritime component, which starts in the South China sea and stretches all the way around the Indian Ocean and towards Pakistan where they’re building ports, for example, helping to build ports that will take their submarines aboard and refit and so forth.
Then the land route, which runs from Guangxi province and out across central Asia to Turkey and up into Europe. They have put, by some hedge fund estimates, anywhere from a trillion to two trillion US dollars equivalent into these enterprises. That means everything from high speed rail from Guangxi to the ports on the Indian Ocean and Iran, Chabahar and Bandar Abbas. High speed rail from there on up into the Stand and into Turkey and so forth to the central Asian land route along the old Silk Road.
Its ultimate goal I think is essentially China’s Deng Xiaoping strategy. It’s still being implemented and probably will be implemented for the next generation. That is to just bring the United States to its knees economically. Not to fight a war, not to have a single bullet go down range. Not to have a single bomb drop. To so out-produce us and thus take over the world’s consumption market.
That is to say they’re going to be the principle seller to Europe, they’re going to be the principle seller to the central Asia, to Iran, to southwest Asia, to Africa, and ultimately to the Western Hemisphere. That way they’re going to defeat us. They’re going to be the largest, biggest, most powerful economic power in the world.
Oh, by the way, that means that they can afford the most powerful military in the world. That’s their strategy. We stand in the way of that in the South China Sea. We stand in the way of it in Afghanistan and elsewhere too. Those places most prominently.
PAUL JAY: Why do you frame it as defeat us and such? Why isn’t it they’ve got a lot of people, their economy, they have a big growing capitalist economy. They need lots of raw materials. Sure, they need markets and they want to buy stuff and sell stuff. Why is it about defeating America as opposed to China is trying to grow the same way any major capitalist country would?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, defeat is a strong term that comes from my military profession I guess. Maybe overcome or overwhelm or put us into second, third, fourth place. The phraseology that you’d prefer. Let’s face it, Paul. This planet is a finite resource. Nowhere, nowhere on Earth is that becoming more realizable, more recognizable than in our own country as we ignore completely virtually some of the impacts that climate change is going to have on us.
It is a finite resource. That’s why you have billionaires struggling to get off this planet. It is a zero sum game in that respect. Maybe for a long time, maybe for 5000 years it wasn’t so much a zero sum game because there was enough for everybody. Everybody is too many now, Paul. It is a zero sum game in many respects. He who is on top is on top of the shoulders, so to speak, of lots of other people who aren’t on top. I think China’s strategists realize that. I think they want to be the ones on top when the music stops.
PAUL JAY: There’s another way to look at it, which is I think the only survivable way to look at it, is if all the various countries collaborate on dealing with climate change and developing alternative sources of energy. Then it’s not a zero sum game.
LARRY WILKERSON: Then we have to stop the economic model we’ve both employed rather rapaciously for China and certainly rapaciously for us for much of our history. That seems to be screeching to a halt. We have to do away with the Chicago School as it were. We have to start thinking about something other than growth. How do you grow when there’s no more room to grow? How do you grow when there’s no more way to grow feasibly, sustainably, and rationally? What do you substitute?
So far China’s using the rapacious model of capitalism to a great extent more so than even we are. Look at Israel. In the Mediterranean there’s no more rapacious predatory capitalist state than Israel. We’ve got to change it a lot, Paul, if we’re going to have a different attitude towards the economy and towards people in general and do some of the things that you just suggested might be possible.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, I agree with that. There’s going to have to be a different economic model. It can’t be this one. I think you’re right. This one does lead to the kind of international competition that leads to great wars.
Okay, last question, which kind of comes out of a bit of this discussion. Someone asks, “Why do you still call yourself a member of the Republican Party? What does it take for you to break your ties to it?” The person writing, I’m trying to find the name of the person here … Anyway, I can’t find it fast enough. They asked, “Given the way you talk has so little to do with the way the Republican Party today talks why do you still consider yourself in it?”
LARRY WILKERSON: I went back, Paul, yesterday and I listened to the 1980 debate between George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan. I think it was the third debate. Maybe the second one. They were asked a question about immigration. Go back and listen to George Herbert Walker Bush’s answer. Go back and listen to Ronald Reagan’s answer where he largely agreed with Herbert Walker. That is the Republican Party of which I was a member.
I think now, to the person’s question directly, I’m going to preside over the suicide of the Republican Party. And frankly, if I make it, and I’m there, I’m going to be smiling when I put the cross over them.
PAUL JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network. We’ll be live with a special guest next week. Please join us for that.