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North Korea’s latest missile test underscores the need for direct negotiations with Pyongyang, not the bellicose rhetoric coming out of the White House, says journalist Tim Shorrock

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The U.S. and North Korea are in a new phase of a long running standoff. On Tuesday, North Korea said it successfully test fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska. At the U.N., U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley responded by saying the U.S. is prepared to use force. Nikki Haley: The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies. One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction. AARON MATÉ: Speaking today in Germany, South Korean President Moon Jai-in struck a different tone, saying the crisis can only be resolved peacefully. North Korea’s missile test came days after President Trump said, “The era of strategic patience with North Korea is over.” Tim Shorrock is a journalist who writes about U.S.-Korea relations for The Nation and The Korea Center for Investigative Reporting. Tim, welcome. TIM SHORROCK: Thank you very much. AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. Let’s talk first about this test. When I say that the missile has the capability to hit Alaska, that doesn’t mean that North Korea has the capability to deliver nuclear weapons to Alaska, right, because you still need the warhead? Am I correct? TIM SHORROCK: You’re correct. And in fact, this was a test. This was not anything more than a test. The North Koreans may say they have a missile that that can hit the U.S. and hit Alaska, but even the Pentagon today said while it was a major development in the fact that it was a two stage rocket, that it does not have the capability to hit the United States. And they need to have the ability, they still have to develop the ability to put a weapon on a missile, which they haven’t shown yet. And so, I think it’s important to remember that this is a test, and this is a test that they’ve said they would conduct. And they have been very clear about where they’re going in this. They want do develop missile capability with the ability to use a nuclear weapon at some point, but they are not there now. AARON MATÉ: And so, what is their goal in doing this test? Many will look at this and see this as a very dangerous provocation to make that test, even if they haven’t developed the capability to put a warhead on it. TIM SHORROCK: I think the North Koreans are trying to develop a capability so in case they are attacked, they have the ability to use a — and fire a nuclear weapon in return. I mean, these are not being developed for purposes. These are being developed for defensive purposes. They want to protect their country. They feel that United States and South Korea and the massive exercises they hold a few, several times a year, which are the biggest military exercises in the world, are aimed right at them and are aimed at destroying their regime and their government and their way of life, and they want to have a defensive missile. And until that problem, that contradiction, is resolved, I think there’s still that potential. AARON MATÉ: So Tim, let’s talk about that because that’s a part of the story we don’t hear often about the diplomatic demands that have been made by North Korea for a long time, including, as you say, this halt to these military exercises. TIM SHORROCK: Right. Well it’s like, today for example, I had been watching CNN and at the bottom of their … they keep saying over and over again, “North Korea said today they would not negotiate their nuclear weapons.” And it’s true; the North Koreans put out a statement today saying that. However, the CNN statement and many U.S. officials are leaving out an important part of their statement, which said “… unless a fundamental end is put to the U.S. hostile policy toward the North, toward DPRK – which is their formal name, North Korea – and the nuclear threat to it, North Korea will never put the nuke and ballistic rocket on the negotiating table.” So they want an end to the hostile policy. And there is the window, I think, the window of opportunity where we could start talking about the possibility of talks. I mean, last week before President Moon Jae-in of South Korea arrived here, a group of very former high-ranking U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State sent a letter to President Trump saying the only way out of this is to negotiate. And so I think, what do you negotiate? You have to negotiate a way to end the hostile policy as North Koreans see it, and a way to them to back off on their nuclear and missile capabilities. There has to be some way to talk about that. AARON MATÉ: So when you talk about changing long standing U.S. policy towards North Korea, let’s talk about that. Because few people know that actually the Korean War has never officially ended; that all we really have is an armistice agreement. And if I recall right, North Korea has, in fact, previously offered the U.S. a non-aggression pact, but that was rejected. TIM SHORROCK: North Korea has made many proposals like that over the years. Lately, it’s been calling for a peace treaty to end the war, bring a formal end to the Korean War, and get beyond this armistice, which is for now, is merely a cessation of hostilities. It’s not a treaty to end the war. And that’s … I think that’s kind of one of the end goals here. And so in recent weeks, there’s been talk including in the U.S. media and the U.S. government, of proposals that have been floated by both China and Russia, as well as the North Koreans, about having what they call a “mutual freeze.” In other words, North Korea freezes its tests, its nuclear tests and it’s missile tests, and the U.S. … slows down or freezes the massive military exercises it holds annually, several times a year with South Korea. That could be a start. At this point, I’m not sure because of the missile test how realistic it is for the United States to say they’re going to halt the exercises. And last week when President Moon Jae-in was here, of South Korea, who’s been very outspoken about the need to have negotiations with North Korea, he said that such a swap would not be right because North Korea tests are illegal and U.S.-South Korean exercises are legal, and so you can’t swap something that’s legal for something that’s illegal. However, there are other openings that could be made. For example, Moon mentioned the fact that, say, North Korea released all the Americans it’s holding as a way to at least get something going, some talks going. That can be one way of doing it. But I do think that there has to be a ratcheting down of, on the one hand, North Korea’s tests, and the other hand, these massive military exercises that the U.S. and South Korea hold. And these are the biggest military exercises in the world. And it’s got to be pointed out that the last one this year, the United States brought in Seal Team 6, which is the team that assassinated Osama bin Laden. And they brought Seal Team 6 into Korea, and what they practiced is what they call “the decapitation of the North Korean regime.” In other words, assassinating the top leadership as part of a military exercise. Now this would obviously send a message to North Korea that it’s presented by a very serious danger. So the question is, how do we de-escalate these tensions and bring about conditions for some kind of talks? Because war is just unthinkable. AARON MATÉ: Can you explain what war would actually look like in terms of North Korea’s capability of hitting, not so much the U.S., but its neighbors if it were attacked? TIM SHORROCK: Well, right now, any kind of war … like, say if the U.S. did what it calls a “surgical strike” or something like that. I mean, North Korea has huge amounts of conventional artillery on the border with South Korea, thousands of artillery that could just devastate Seoul and could devastate U.S. military bases just south of the DMZ. That’s one thing. They also have the capability with their missiles to put other obviously conventional weapons on them. And those could be shot at Japan, U.S. bases in Japan and Okinawa, and possibly even Guam. So you know, the potential there for an all-out war is very high. And I think that’s what’s got to be avoided. And it’s just … I mean, it really is a situation that could escalate out of control. AARON MATÉ: Tim, finally, let’s talk about he role of South Korea. I mentioned the comments of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who said that this crisis can only be resolved peacefully. When he was recently elected, he came in as a critic of the U.S. missile system inside South Korea. What role can South Korea play here, especially in light of Moon Jae-in talking about wanting to revive the “sunshine policy” of better relations with North Korea? TIM SHORROCK: Well, that’s exactly the role he intends to play and I think will play. He’s going to make a very important speech in Germany tomorrow addressing this issue. Because he believes that by having direct talks and negotiations, and other economics exchanges, cultural exchanges with North Korea, he can help defuse the tensions between North Korea and the United States, and obviously South Korea an North Korea. And this is … he ran. I was in South Korea in April and May, and I saw him campaign, give two campaign speeches. And also was one of two foreign journalists who was able to interview him during his time campaigning. And he’s very big on this, and he talks about the sunshine policy of Kim Dae-jung and Roe Tae-woo, his two sort of progressive predecessors. And recent polls show that 80 percent of the South Korean people want to have direct talks once again with North Korea. So he has the Korean people on his side. And during his meetings with President Trump last week, in their final statement that came out, basically the Trump administration endorsed South Korea and Moon Jae-in’s plans to have direct talks leading towards, leading to denuclearization, and eventual reunification with North Korea. So they did talk about this, and I think he believes that he came to Washington hoping to get that kind of approval, and he did. And so I think the next step is to see what kind of steps that South Korea can actually take. What can Moon Jae-in do to try to really bring a closed to these tensions? AARON MATÉ: Tim, I’m not sure if these issues are linked, but didn’t Moon Jae-in also face strong pushback from Trump and pressure when it comes to the issue of trade? TIM SHORROCK: Oh yes, he certainly did. I mean, Trump has been treating him like a car salesman, and had turned over the table at the Cabinet meeting to his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, who’s basically a robber baron; who spent time in South Korea during the 1990’s IMF crisis buying and selling Korean companies. And having this guy, Ross, deliver a stern lecture to Moon Jae-in about the Korean market … I mean if Trump was really interested in resolving the North Korean issue, he would not have done this. But his priorities are very different. He’s this economic nationalist, and he puts his U.S. interests first. So I think that was a very clumsy move and it’s a very arrogant … and I think it really alienated both Moon and many South Koreans. The way to develop relations with South Korea is not by bringing them in and giving them this big brother lecture about how they should open the market. They should take his peace quest seriously. This is a man who, Moon Jae-in is a man who grew up in the Korean democratic movement. He spent time in jail opposing the military dictatorships that the U.S. supported. And his whole life has been looking toward progressive ideals and democracy in South Korea. And I think we need to respect him, respect his legacy and what he’s trying to build. AARON MATÉ: Tim, finally, you mentioned U.S. interests. I want to read you one headline from today – this is from CNBC – and get your comment. It says, “Raytheon, among stocks that may benefit from bigger missile defense spending because of North Korea.” And the piece cites the market analytic firm, Jeffries, which says, “Betting on missile defense, Jeffries is optimistic toward companies such as Raytheon, Orbital, ATK, and Aerojet Rocketdyne as tensions with North Korea escalate.” TIM SHORROCK: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, the American military industrial complex benefits from North Korea being projected as the enemy of humankind, basically. And so, these kind of companies, you know, get a break because of the mass of money they’re applying for in the missile defense. And you know, one of the other things that Trump said in his meetings with Moon, was how great it was that Lockheed Martin was selling them F-35s. Trump did not mention that Lockheed Martin also makes … happens to make the THAAD anti-missile system that’s so unpopular in South Korea. So yeah, U.S. weapon makers are making out like bandits in this situation. And I think probably a lot of them would prefer the tension to a resolution. Because if there’s an end to the tension, they won’t have this kind of market. So, unfortunately, many of these defense contractors are the ones … the same companies fund the think tanks that reject all the people that send all the people that talk on CNN, like the Center for New America Security, and Center for Strategic International Studies. All these places are all funded by these same defense contractors. It’s kind of a circle of violence; a circle of military influence that’s insidious. And that somehow we, in America, need to break. AARON MATÉ: Well, Tim, we appreciate you providing that to us today. Tim Shorrock, journalist who writes about U.S.-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting. Tim, thank you. TIM SHORROCK: Thank you very much. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who spent part of his youth in South Korea and has been writing about North and South Korea since the late 1970s. He just returned from a two month stay in Gwangju, South Korea, where during the Korean president campaign he interviewed South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In. He writes about US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting.