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As top Trump officials give conflicting statements on North Korea and the US begins war games on the peninsula, veteran journalist Tim Shorrock says the confusion and bellicosity helps bury the peaceful solutions that have long been on the table

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. President Trump and North Korean regime are backing off the bellicose statements that have raised fears of nuclear war. But confusion and tensions very much remain. Top US officials are making conflicting statements on what Trump’s North Korea policy actually is, and on Sunday, US and South Korea are set to launch a massive war games exercise on the peninsula. On Thursday, South Korean president Moon Jae-in said he’s received assurances that the US would not take military action without his government’s consent. Moon added, “The people can be assured there will be no war.” Tim Shorrock is a journalist who has covered the Korean peninsula for decades. Tim, Welcome. TIM SHORROCK: Thank you. AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us, Tim. I mentioned conflicting statements from the White House, so let’s start with that. Steve Bannon gave an interview where he said that he would be open to withdrawing US forces from South Korea in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program. He also said that a military solution is off the table because of the threat that North Korea poses to South Korea. But meanwhile, though, you have the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph Dunford, who’s on a visit now to Asia, saying that he’s very much still working on a military option with North Korea if one is needed. Your assessment of what’s going on right now from the White House. TIM SHORROCK: Well, I wouldn’t count Bannon’s statement as too official. I mean, he’s an advisor to Trump and he’s sort of on his way out, and he was also talking to the American prospect in the context of US pressure on China, and sort of threw out this idea of exchanging the North Korean freeze for withdrawal of US troops. I don’t think that’s a real proposal by any means, and in any case, in past negotiations when the US has spoken to North Korea in terms of the presence of US forces on the peninsula, it’s always been, you know, a factor that might be considered, but way down the road after there’s a peace agreement and there’s a sort of peace, you know, peace is set up on the Korean peninsula. So I don’t think that’s a real realistic proposition. However, you know, it’s interesting that they’re talking in this term, because clearly, the idea of swapping North Korean freeze or moratorium on its missile testing and nuclear testing in exchange for some kind of response in the US such as a slowdown in these military exercises or a moratorium on these military exercises is, you know, very much in the thinking of many people here in Washington. And it’s being considered, you know, I think at pretty high levels and it’s being … the fact that it’s being debated right now and was like, in the pages of The New York Times the other day is a very good sign that there’s some serious thinking going on about how to actually resolve this. AARON MATE: Well Tim, yeah. And one reason it’s a good sign is because this proposal is not new, right? North Korea has been floating this along with China for many years now. TIM SHORROCK: Oh, absolutely, and you know, for years and the North Koreans have been pointing to these exercises as, you know, very dangerous and threatening, and they have good reason to think this because you know, in the very large exercises which take place during the spring, for the last couple of years the US and South Koreans have practiced what they call decapitation strikes where the US would bring in, and in case of a war, would bring in Seal Team 6 to actually assassinate Korean leaders in Kim Jong-un and take them out. So this is seen as extremely provocative by the North and also by the Chinese, and so the idea of scaling these down or ending these is a very smart way to start talks, because if the US is asking North Korea to basically de-nuclearize, the US has to give something in response, and so there’s got to be a starting place for any kind of talks. AARON MATE: Right. And you know, and the reason why I think it’s important to stress this is because when we hear bellicose statements from either side, all the attention is put on those words, but we’re often missing the fact, it’s not noted very much that these proposals are there. They’ve been on the table for a while, and they’re a very concrete way to resolve this conflict. TIM SHORROCK: They are, exactly. And also the idea of a peace treaty. I mean, this has been floated by North Korea for quite some time, most recently in 2015 when they offered it to the Obama administration, which didn’t even consider it. But you know, it’s very important, I think, and a lot of Koreans, Korean peace activists and peace activists here in the United States often talk about the need for the peace treaty because the Korean War never ended. It’s still in an armistice. And along with a peace treaty and a peace agreement could come a lot of things, like cross-recognition of the United States and North Korea and vice versa. So moving toward this with some kind of talks is just, that’s what has to happen. AARON MATE: Right. I should mention that Joseph Dunford, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he came out very forcefully against not just the possibility of withdrawing US troops as Bannon said he was open to, but also even putting on, putting these war games on the negotiating table. He said, “My advice to our leadership is that we not dial back our exercises. The exercises are very important to maintaining the ability of the alliance to defend itself.” And he stressed that these are not a possible bargaining chip at all. But this raises the question, Tim. I’m wondering if you can answer it. If proposals to freeze the military exercises have been on the table for a while, but they’ve been rejected not just by Trump but also by Obama too, what is the US interest in maintaining this huge military presence on North Korea’s doorstep? TIM SHORROCK: Well the interest is not only against possible use against North Korea, but this combined force can be used in all kinds of situations in other parts of the world such as Iraq or other parts of Asia. They’re also designed as a kind of … against China as part of the whole US encirclement of China and it’s part of the US-Korea, also Japan military alliance is included here too, so it seems it’s basically the forward posture of the United States and Asia. And so it’s very important for generals like Dunford, you know, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to have these exercises so they claim to maintain readiness and be able to do their job at any time. You know, after all, the slogan of the US forces in Korea is, “We can fight tonight,” and so they have to be ready at a moment’s notice in case their is a war. But these exercises cover a lot of things, including, as I just said, assassination, and overthrow of the North Korean government. They’re not just practicing defense. So I mean, and there’s certainly elements of these military exercises that could be scrapped or eliminated completely, and the US could still maintain its so-called readiness with its Korean allies, South Korean allies. So I think Dunford’s statement is more of a bargaining position himself, so to put the strongest position forward, so you can move later in talks. AARON MATE: Right, and the point of my question there is simply that if you have this US pivot to Asia which began under Obama, you have something like 60% of US naval forces now stationed in Asia. Perhaps there is a US interest in maintaining this constant level of tension with North Korea to justify that massive military presence there, including 28,500 troops inside South Korea, that it’s not just about North Korea, but rather than North Korea is, in fact, a tool for the wider posture that you’ve talked about. TIM SHORROCK: Well yeah, definitely. I mean, I think it’s especially valuable for the military industrial complex, and especially the defense contractors, military contractors that are involved in missile defense, which is sort of the key point of US policy now against North Korea is the bad missile defense system that they put into South Korea, and also the anti-missile defense systems that they’ve been deploying with Japan and South Korea on ships in that region. So I think that’s a big part of it. AARON MATE: Okay, Tim, so speaking of that, let’s talk about South Korea. There was massive pro-peace protests inside South Korea this week, and Moon Jae-in came out pretty strongly playing down the possibility of war, saying basically that there will be no war. Can you talk about what he said this week about the North Korea-US standoff? TIM SHORROCK: Well I thought what president Moon Jae-in said was extraordinary and deserved the attention it got here as a major story in The New York Times, for example. It’s very, very unusual. I can’t even think of any precedent for a South Korean president to warn the United States about taking unilateral action, and I think this is, you know, he reflects the concern of many South Koreans that I’ve been writing about for months. South Koreans have been far more worried about what Trump might do, what the United States might do than North Korea. They’re used to North Korea making threats like they do and sounding like they’re about to take military action and they know that they often back off of these statements, and they’re used to it. So I think that’s … Moon was speaking from his heart, but I also think that a few days ago, actually it was about a week ago today, NBC News ran a story on its nightly news with very specific information from the Pentagon about its plans for preemptive strikes in North Korea that included targets. Two dozen missile sites were being targeted and the whole plan was to send B-1 bombers from Guam and attack these sites. But was especially alarming in this NBC report was the fact that the US told the reporters that they might fire their missiles from these B-1s from outside of South Korean air space so they could do it unilaterally. And it was within a few hours of that report coming out that Moon Jae-in’s national security advisor called a meeting on the telephone with H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, and they agreed at that meeting that the US will not take any unilateral … will not take any steps without consulting South Korea. So I think the reports that the US was actually planning a preemptive strike without consulting South Korea was something that was quite alarming to Moon Jae-in. After all, he came to office saying South Korea must take the lead in the tensions, in resolving the tensions with North Korea. And he knows very well that the last time the US came close to doing a preemptive strike on North Korea which was in 1994, that President Clinton was about to launch an attack without consulting the then president Kim Young-sam who also made a similar, but private statement to Clinton that that would not be advisable from the South Korean point of view, and so I think Moon’s speaking about his own concerns, but also reflecting the views of many of the people in South Korea who think that South Korea is just being cut out of any decisions, and that all the fallout, almost literally, would be on them. AARON MATE: Right, Tim. You know, a few points to add here. I mean Moon, I imagine, was also speaking from his most recent experience where he campaigned based partly on opposition to that missile system. Accordingly, as he was about to take office, the US rushed quicker to install it without fully informing him. Meanwhile, as we were talking, you mentioned Guam and B-1 bombers. Well there are B-1 bombers arriving there now, which would certainly seem to validate Moon’s fears if he had [inaudible 00:14:08] strike. And finally, I want to read you a quote from The Wall Street Journal from this week talking about internal White House discussions of a strike that you’re talking about and The Wall Street Journal reported, “Persuading Mr. Trump of a certain course of action typically requires advisors to make the argument repeatedly, officials have said. Military advisors who don’t believe in a preemptive strike know they will have to keep the president convinced the US would be unwise to take that approach.” Your comments on that? TIM SHORROCK: Yeah, that was some pretty amazing statements from the Pentagon there. I mean, the thing is, you know, I’ve been saying this for quite some time that it’s actually a lot of people at the Pentagon do not want a war. I mean, they have to use these … they use exercises and these kind of war games as a way to, they have to have contingencies in place to do their job, right? And so when they’re asked to do a preemptive strike, they’ll make plans on how they might do that, but their question to Trump or to any US leader is always, “Okay, we do a preemptive strike. What comes next? What do we do next? What happens after that?” And there’s no answer to that, because there would be complete war and chaos and you know, North Korea would fire back and we’d be … it’d be escalating very soon. So I think that that quote shown that there has been these kind of discussions where Trump has probably said, “Oh, why not do this preemptive strike?” And they’ve said, “Well, we could physically carry this out, but then what happens?” I mean, they know how difficult it would be. North Korea’s very mountainous. There’s no guarantee you would hit everything you wanted to hit, and there’d be huge amounts of casualties and then, of course, there’d be, North Korea has tons of conventional weapons that it can fire at South Korea and that US bases in South Korea and Japan and Okinawa and possibly even Guam. And so I think that the US military is very wary of a war, and particularly a president who’s so eager for this kind of confrontation, so while those quotes were pretty amazing and also showed that, to me, that there’s a lot of concern there at the Pentagon about being ordered to do a strike that might escalate into all that war which they do not want. AARON MATE: Tim Shorrock, journalist covering the Korean peninsula. You can read his writings about South Korea and North Korea at The Nation and in other publications. Tim, thanks very much. TIM SHORROCK: Thank you. AARON MATE: 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.