Mad Man vs. Rocket Man: North Korea Crisis Hits Fever Pitch
North Korea says Trump’s dangerous rhetoric is tantamount to a declaration of war. But even if military officials try to act as a restraint on Trump’s hostility, Trump isn’t bound by the advice he gets from anyone, says Col. Larry Wilkerson
D. LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. In the latest salvo in the war of words between President Trump and North Korea, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho said on Monday that Trump had declared war on his country.
Translator: “However, last weekend, Trump claimed our leadership wouldn’t be around much longer. And hence, at last, he declared a war on our country.”
D. LASCARIS: The foreign minister’s comments were in response to Trump who had tweeted on Saturday: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!” Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force flew bombers and fighter jets near the North Korean border.
Joining us to analyze this increasingly dangerous situation is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired United States Army colonel and the former chief of staff to the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Larry, thank you so much for joining us again.
L. WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Dimitri.
D. LASCARIS: So, Larry, as someone who has worked at the highest levels and at the intersection of the U.S. military leadership and the presidential administration, you’re uniquely situated to answer this increasingly important question. And that is: In this extremely dangerous situation, do you think that the military officials in the Trump administration are more likely to be acting as a restraint on Trump’s hostility towards North Korea or do you think they’re more likely to be encouraging military action to deal with the situation?
L. WILKERSON: I think the answer to that question is they’re probably building restraint or at least their advice is for restraint. But I’ll have to refer back to what one of my students at seminar said today as we discussed the U.S.-Iran situation with regard to whether or not President Trump is gonna declare Iran noncompliant with the JCPOA or do something else to extract the United States from that agreement mid-October or later. The student said something very insightful, I think: “This is gonna be Donald’s Trump decision. No one else’s.” And while that might seem the case with all post-World War II presidents, if not all of them altogether, it’s really not the case.
Most presidents when they’re making national security decisions of this weight and consequence do weigh considerably the advice of those around them. Whether it’s John Kennedy listening to Bobby Kennedy and the others on the Executive Committee during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or whether it’s Harry Truman listening to Dean Acheson’s counsel in 1950 after North Korea had invaded South Korea. I think the student’s onto something. I think the thing I worry most about it is that Trump is gonna make the decision based strictly on his parameters and listen to no one.
D. LASCARIS: And do you think we’ve seen evidence of this, apart from his imperious behavior, but in terms of the actual conduct of the United States military since his administration began? Do you think we’ve seen evidence of this to date? That he is prepared to depart from the advice that he’s receiving from senior military officials?
L. WILKERSON: I think we have. And I think you’re seeing it every day. It may be rhetorical, but it’s extremely dangerous. You may have noticed with regard to the DPRK, for example, that a statement out of DPRK today in North Korea was that Trump has declared war. They’ve taken his tweets, his statements, as a declaration of war. Now, this may be rhetorical, but he followed up by saying, the North Korean followed up by saying: The next time, whether it’s over our territory, close to our territory, or whatever, we’re gonna shoot down the bomber, the U.S. plane, whatever it might be, or perhaps a ship at sea. They’re gonna take a shot at it. This is very dangerous. And I can’t imagine that any military officer of almost any rank, but certainly not of three or four-stars, is gonna be advising the president to use this kind of rhetoric, and the most glaring example to me was the horrible, atrocious, unbelievable speech he gave at the United Nations.
The most embarrassing speech, I think for anyone of sanity and sobriety an American president has ever given anywhere, not just at the U.N. Politics involved or otherwise. I mean, to stand up at the United Nations and to threaten to annihilate another country, that’s not only unpresidential, that’s bombast of the lowest form. So, I do not think that Donald Trump is gonna be bound by the advice he gets from anyone. No matter how sane and sober they might be.
D. LASCARIS: And I take it that you would include in that the South Korean government, which at times seems to be the party that is least inclined to any kind of military action. Do we have any reason to believe that Trump might be swayed by their extraordinary and obvious reluctance to engage in a military conflict with the North?
L. WILKERSON: That’s a Republican trait, I think. I served George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, one year in the Clinton administration. We’d don’t seem to think about our allies, particularly, Republicans don’t seem to think about our allies. We think about them when we’re in a pinch, or we think about them when we need some money from them or when we need this or that political statement to confirm our own. But when it comes down to interests, we don’t seem to bring them into consideration at all. That was one of my major points I kept bringing up with Colin Powell and with others in the Bush administration when we were discussing the situation that’s at hand right now, but at a lower level with North Korea when they revealed that they had a highly enriched uranium program and when in 2002 and 2003 we tried to craft a way to deal with it, resulting in the six-party talks. I saw a very pronounced tendency to not think about our allies, to only think about us.
Here you have an administration that has publicly declared its policy to be: America first. And we might as well say America first, second, third, fourth and always. That seems to be the mantra. That seems to be the ideology that is motivating this administration, so they’re not gonna think about North Korea. I didn’t have any problem understanding why in a week or two period Trump had called Prime Minister Abe eight times and President Moon only twice when Moon is the one really up cheek and jowl with the North Korean threat. He’s comfortable with Prime Minister Abe who in many respects, Japanese style, is somewhat like him. He’s not comfortable with President Moon because he’s not the kind of person who wears his policies on his sleeve, as it were. And he’s of the opposite inclination politically–conservative-progressive liberal, those sorts of things we throw out there to describe people. So, I don’t think he’s thinking of South Korea at all.
D. LASCARIS: And he seems to be a supporter, President Trump, of the madman theory of foreign relations. The idea being that if you act crazy you are more likely to intimidate your opponent and ultimately get them to concede. How do you think this approach to foreign policy is likely to play out with the North Korean regime?
L. WILKERSON: First of all, this sort of politics is reprehensible in any world leader. But it’s more expected of someone like Kim Jong-un. Someone who is really, very, very weak, doesn’t have much population behind him, doesn’t have a powerful economy behind him, has a cult–really–society, has a criminal regime, counterfeits our money, counterfeits our cigarettes and so forth. It’s more expected of someone like that, a nefarious little man who really has nothing but braggadocio to support him in terms of political power. A vast military, to be sure, but a military that would succumb quite quickly to the U.S. military if a fight were to occur.
But it’s not expected of a man who’s president of supposedly the greatest democracy, the greatest military power, the greatest economic power on the globe. What’s expected of him is magnanimity; judiciousness; plain-speaking perhaps, but plain-speaking in more or less diplomatic terms, terms with which most of his allies if not all of them would agree and so forth. That is anything but Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a bombastic, politically oriented, reality TV, partial deal maker. I look at him as a used-car salesman.
D. LASCARIS: Now, taking into account his obvious character flaws, how would you deal with that administration if you were a senior military official advising this particular president about how to de-escalate the situation and avoid a catastrophe? What advice would you offer?
L. WILKERSON: Well, there are a number of realities here that need to be considered, and you need to have empathy. We simply do not have empathy in the United States. We cannot put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and see the situation at which we’re looking from their perspective. It’s almost impossible. We simply don’t have it anymore. But if you were doing that and you were considering the realities, the first thing you’d have to face is that Kim Jong-un and the regime in Pyongyang is not going to accept denuclearization of the peninsula as a goal. Period. And that’s what we’ve put out there as our goal should we talk, so that means there will be no talks. So you have to come to some other goal, spoken or slipped under the table through the New York channel, for example, other than denuclearization of the peninsula.
What that might be? You could search around for a long time, but the outlines of what that might be are pretty clear. You would have to convince him that his regime is not threatened in the immediate future and in the medium-term future. What would that mean? That would probably mean you would have to hint at a cessation of exercises in the South between the South and the U.S. You would probably have to quit doing the kind of threatening things you’re doing like flying along the DMZ or bringing B-2 bombers over from Guam and landing them in South Korea or whatever it might be. And you would have to get some things from him. This is the initial exchange, if you will, in exchange for those things happening. And because I’m the greater power, I might be willing to start that process.
But from him, you’d want to get a cessation of ballistic missile testing or at least a slowdown in it. You’d want to get a cessation of nuclear weapon testing, that is, blowing up nuclear weapons in North Korea, or at least much fewer. You’d want to get a calming nature onto the braggadocio on both sides. That you would promise that you would slow down and he would promise he would slow down. And you would go through this until you got to some point where you actually could talk, where you actually could discuss the kinds of things that you need to talk about.
I don’t think we’re gonna see a denuclearized peninsula. But we probably could get to the point where through negotiation, through talks we get some sort of situation that we could live with. That is to say, North Korea’s nuclear stockpile would not be increased, they would not work assiduously on miniaturizing and therefore being able to put a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile and they would stop missile testing other than those that they need for their own defense, which in this case means that they would remain in South Korea, but probably nowhere else. You could get to this sort of thing. Do I believe for a moment that those sorts of negotiations would have ultimate impact and that we wouldn’t have cheating and we wouldn’t have problems in the future? No. But at least we would be doing something other than what we’re doing right now, which is very dangerous.
And during what we’re doing, lots of things can happen. My God, you could even have people in the North get upset with Kim to the extent that they overthrew him. You could even have a situation where ultimately South Korea becomes a nuclear power. You could even have a situation where the United States pulled its forces off the peninsula in exchange for a guarantee that both the South and the North, that neither of them would threaten the other. There are all manner of imaginative, creative things that you could do besides sitting back and calling each other “Rocket Man” and all the things that we’re throwing out at one another now, which is as I said, very dangerous.
D. LASCARIS: Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson about the latest salvo in the war of words between the North Korean regime and Donald Trump. Thank you very much for joining us today, Larry.
L. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Dimitri.
D. LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.