Preemptive Strike on North Korea: Is Trump Wagging the Dog?
“If I were going to divert the American people’s attention away from my troubles with the FBI, with Russian oligarchs, and so forth, I’d pick a lesser target,” says Col. Larry Wilkerson. “That’s not to say that this administration is not stupid enough” to do it
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Last Wednesday’s test launch of an intercontinental ballistic rocket by North Korea appears to have had its desired effect, rattling Washington. White House National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, when asked about the test, said …
H.R. MCMASTER: Has the potential of war with North Korea increased since this latest launch? I think it’s increasing every day.
SHARMINI PERIES: On CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Senator Bob Graham said preemptive war with North Korea is more likely.
REPORTER: Where are we with North Korea right now?
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We’re getting close to military conflict because North Korea is marching toward marrying up the technology of an ICBM with a nuclear weapon on top that can not only get to America but can deliver the weapon. We’re running out of time. McMaster said that yesterday. I’m going to urge the Pentagon not to send any more dependents to South Korea. South Korea should be an unaccompanied tour. It’s crazy to send spouses and children to South Korea given the provocation of North Korea, so I want them to stop sending dependents. I think it’s now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.
REPORTER: How close? You say we’re getting close to a military confrontation. What are we talking about here?
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The intelligence community can tell you that better than I can but I have an extensive discussion with the administration about this topic. The policy of the Trump administration is to deny North Korea the capability to hit America with a nuclear-tipped missile, not to contain it. That now means preemptive war as a last result. That preemption is becoming more likely as their technology matures. Every missile test, every underground test of a nuclear weapon means the marriage is more likely. I think we’re really running out of time. The Chinese are trying, but ineffectively. If there’s an underground nuclear test, then you need to get ready for a very serious response by the United States.
SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about this with me is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. He’s a retired US colonel and former chief of staff to the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining me, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be here with you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, let’s take up what Senator Graham just said. First, that dependents and children of US military should not accompany them to the bases in South Korea, where there is some 28,000 US military personnel carrying out various extensive wargames in the region. Second, that a preemptive strike is near. How serious is this?
LARRY WILKERSON: I can only interpret what Lindsey Graham just said from two possible perspectives, very different perspectives: one, that he’s trying to do what people say Donald Trump is trying to do in a very strategic way, and that is scare the devil out of Kim Jong-un and his North Korean military so that they’ll come to the negotiating table, abjectly surrender in other words or he’s just as dumb, as strategically inept as I think the entire administration is. I don’t know which interpretation to put on it but increasingly I’m thinking, after having visited with the Senate and visited with representatives in the House for a number of other reasons and talked with them, that there are not a lot of people with a lot of smarts over there in the Congress.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, do you really believe that McMaster and other advisors to President Trump including the Pentagon, will allow Trump to carry out a preemptive strike on North Korea?
LARRY WILKERSON: They’re all provocations. We may say that they’re to keep our troops ready and exercises are just routine, and so forth but the timing of them makes them provocations. Anybody can crawl into Kim Jong-un’s head and the collective head of North Korea for that matter, and see that they’re provocations.
Let’s just back up for a moment, though and let’s examine what Lindsey said. You’ll understand why I interpret it more on the one side than the other of those two alternatives I gave you. First, there are 210,000 plus Americans already on the Korean Peninsula. Some of them are sponsored by the military. Others just came there, which is permissible. They came there to live in Seoul and be near their loved one, who’s in Pyongyang or Pyeongtaek or someplace else in the US armed forces. There’s almost a quarter of a million Americans already there. There are 50,000 Japanese. There are a million Chinese.
Lindsay, how are you going to get all these people out of South Korea? How are you even going to get the Americans out of South Korea? By the way, Lindsay, if you do it over time, which your remarks suggested you might be smart enough at least to do, then it’s going to take time. You’re going to have to do it over civilian aircraft mostly, so you’re going to get all these flights going and you’re going to get all these people out of South Korea. That signal alone is going to be provocative to the maximum.
I’ve done this. I’ve done the war planning. I’ve done the war. If you evacuate all these people from South Korea, the South Koreans are going to know what you’re contemplating. Whether you’re contemplating it by starting it yourself, which sounds increasingly like the case, when you listen to Trump and Graham and others, or by provoking North Korea to do it so that they can destroy half of Seoul before you even get your act together, is irrelevant in terms of the destruction that’s going to come to the peninsula. This is the kind of idiocy with which we’re dealing now in Washington, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, when President Trump was in China a couple of weeks ago, he urged the Chinese to do what it must to contain North Korea. Does this new missile test meaning that China is failing in its efforts to contain Pyongyang?
LARRY WILKERSON: Not at all, in my view. I think China has pretty much tried just about everything it could without violating its own strategic objectives, which are ultimately to keep North Korea standing. It might be a basket case, but to keep it standing.
What you have now is the virtuoso chess master of the world who’s waded into it, along with the most accomplished diplomat I’ve met in my time in the US government, Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia. The two of them are outpacing us every step of the way. Every time any kind of crevice opens up at NATO, every time any opportunity exists for Putin to protect his own flanks and yet exploit it against us, he does so, and he does so masterfully.
What he’s recently done, of course, is suggest that Kim Jong-un or some representative from North Korea and an equal from the United States, mediated by Sergei Lavrov or some other capable Russian, meet and talk. If I were Donald Trump and I professed to have the credentials that he does, his reality TV show suggesting those credentials, I would start playing chess too instead of playing a lousy game of checkers, which is what he’s been playing so far. I must say, Jim Mattis, and H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly and a host of others, Rex Tillerson included, have been playing this really dumb game of checkers, too, while Vladimir Putin plays chess.
I would take the initiative here. I would say, “Okay, Vladimir. Okay, Sergei. Name your place and name your time. We will sit down with you as the intermediary and whatever North Korean comes, we will send an equivalent and we will talk.” I’d shock them to death, and I’d make them put up or shut up. Let’s sit down in Pyongyang. I’d want to go to Pyongyang. I wouldn’t want to go to Moscow and I wouldn’t want to do it here. I’d want to go to Pyongyang, and I’d want to sit down and I’d want to start talking. That has so many advantage to starting the guns to going.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Since you’ve been in this role in the past, Larry, what are the initial steps that need to be taken in order to have this kind of conversation with North Korea?
LARRY WILKERSON: With this administration, you’d probably have to start from scratch. I don’t think they’ve given any real substantive thinking to any of this. I think that they’re hoping that this kind of bluster and bravado that they’ve been throwing out there, and now they’ve got this 230 plus airplane exercise going on on the peninsula, ‘Vigilant Ace’ I think they’re calling it, a provocative act, a maximum provocative act. To Kim, that looks like the beginning of the invasion. I might even start shooting some of my rounds at Seoul if I were he. This is an extremely stupid thing to be doing.
I would want to stop all of that. You stop your ballistic missile testing, you stop your nuclear weapon testing and I’ll stop my exercising. Let’s all go to Pyongyang, and we’ll sit down.
Now you’ve got to find somebody on the US side, and this is going to be hard. This is really going to be hard because I see no one in the current United States government, at the State Department or elsewhere, who could sit down with a very talented, accomplished North Korean, a very talented, probably one of the most capable as I said diplomats in the world, Sergei Lavrov and negotiate in a way that was bound to get America what it needs. That’s our first problem. We don’t have anybody to do this and Donald Trump has made sure we don’t have anybody to do this. That’s the kind of thing I’d be pursuing right now. Let’s go to Pyongyang. Let’s sit down. Let’s talk. If the Russians want to mediate, great, because if there’s a failure, it’s on you, Moscow, not us.
SHARMINI PERIES: On the CNN program GPS, Larry, with Fareed Zakaria, it was discussed that the technology for the ballistic missile that North Korea has just launched came from Russia. Do you think this is possible?
LARRY WILKERSON: I can tell you without breaching any official secrets that when I was working on the North Korean working group and elsewhere in my time studying northeast Asia, we were very worried about it and had some significant proof about Russian scientists who at the end of the Cold War had no future. They had been very well paid, very secure in their positions, very respected people, and they spread to the four winds, as it were. They went to places like Tehran. They went to places like Islamabad. They went to places like Pyongyang. You have had, ever since the end of the Cold War, Russian expertise.
Our question was always whether or not Moscow had planned this, whether there was some connection still with Moscow or whether it was all just independent. I think our conclusion at the time was that it was independent work on the part of these private citizens who wanted to find someplace to put their skills to work, and make some money and create a secure life for their families.
I don’t know if that’s still the case. If I’d been Vladimir Putin and I was looking for ways to combat the United States, I would probably have made some contact with some of these scientists, and gotten briefings, and found out where they are, and so forth. Not to suggest that he’s doing that in a nefarious way. Maybe he’s just doing it because he wants to be brought up to speed and maybe that’s one of the reasons he’s now making his offer to mediate negotiations. I rather doubt that, though. I think he’s probably seeking another march on the United States. He’s been achieving them. He’s achieved them in Kosovo. He’s getting ready to achieve them even more in Kosovo, in Crimea, and Georgia, and Ukraine of course, in Syria. This man’s got a victory record that’s quite impressive compared to our loss record.
SHARMINI PERIES: Finally, Larry, getting back to Senator Lindsay Graham’s statement about a preemptive strike on North Korea, how likely is it that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other arms of the military Pentagon would respond with such a strike at this time?
LARRY WILKERSON: Sharmini, let me tell you how difficult this is. I’ve done the war planning here, and I’ve been updated on some of the war planning that’s more modern than my time in the military. If we were to fire a spread of nuclear weapons at North Korea, even if we pinpointed the strike points with a CEP of 10 meters, say, or even 10 feet, that is to say, it would land within 10 feet of our strike point, if we fired all of that panoply of death and destruction, we would kill a lot of people, and we would destroy an enormous structure aboveground, and we probably would pollute Japan and China and certainly all of North Korea, but we would not get their nuclear weapons complex. It is too far underground and too well protected.
That’s the nature of the challenge that we’re confronting. In order to ensure that you’ve got that complex, you would have to fight either a nuclear-assisted or a totally conventional conflict on the ground, in the air, at sea, and you would have to defeat the North Korean armed forces and then march in and more or less occupy the country, search out all of those facilities and destroy them. Then you’d probably have to hang around for a while to make sure chaos didn’t result, and to make sure that Russia and China didn’t take real advantage of that chaos and consolidate North Korea before you could or before the South could.
This is not an easy challenge, as McMaster and Mattis and others are presenting it as. I’m not being fair to them because if you’ll check their statements, you’ll see that they’ve said from time to time, especially General Mattis, that this is an incredibly difficult problem. In the meantime, while all of this is happening, if even only half, only half, Sharmini, of North Korea’s artillery works, Seoul is going to be aflame. It’s going to be burning. Thousands if not tens of thousands of people are going to be dead, probably hundreds of thousands in the casualty figures. This is not something you want to do, period.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, just one more question, and I might integrate this into the earlier part of the interview. One cannot ignore, Larry, what’s going on in Washington right now to the Trump administration by way of the investigations underway regarding the Russian collaborations around the election and so forth. The Trump administration would like nothing more than a war as a distraction at this point. How likely is it that that would play into a decision about North Korea at this time?
LARRY WILKERSON: Hard to say with this administration, Sharmini. If I were going to wag the dog with the tail of war, as many people said Bill Clinton did during the Monica Lewinsky scandal when he started bombing Milošević and Serbia, 178 days I think we bombed them, I’d pick a lot easier target than North Korea. If I were going to divert the American people’s attention away from my troubles with the FBI, with Russian oligarchs and so forth, I’d pick a lesser target. I certainly wouldn’t go after the DPRK. That’s not to say that this administration is not stupid enough to do what you just suggested, so yes, I do have some concern about that.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. I thank you so much for joining us today. I’m looking forward to you next week with your report.
LARRY WILKERSON: See you, Sharmini. Thank you and Happy Holidays.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.