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The US has suspended war games as part of Trump’s commitment in Singapore, but his administration can’t be trusted to deliver a comprehensive denuclearization deal with North Korea, says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

At the Singapore summit last week, President Trump announced he would suspend U.S. war games on the Korean peninsula. Now the Pentagon has followed through, canceling a major military exercise set for August. Speaking to Fox News, National Security Adviser John Bolton said North Korea now faces a decisive and dramatic choice to give up nuclear weapons.

JOHN BOLTON: The President made it very clear to Kim Jong-un, he faces a decisive, a dramatic choice; whether after decades of development, North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons program, its chemical and biological weapons, its ballistic missiles, and turn away from from that approach to international relations. And if it does, can have a very different future. If it doesn’t-.

SPEAKER: What do you think? Did they indicate to you, John, that they were willing to do this, for the first time in your career?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, they’ve said they would do it, and I think now we’ll see Secretary Mike Pompeo and others meeting with them, discussing it with them. And we’ll find out soon enough, I think, whether they’ve made this strategic decision.

AARON MATE: Now, that Fox News host’s question about North Korea being willing to give up nuclear weapons for the first time was based on a false premise. In talks with the Bush administration, which Bolton served under, North Korea in 2006 agreed to abandon, quote, all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, unquote, and also allow for international inspections. But it was the Bush administration, including Bolton, that effectively killed that agreement.

Now for Singapore the two sides are trying again. As part of that process, the U.S. says it has identified the first North Korean test site that Kim Jong-un has committed to destroy. Defense Secretary James Mattis will visit South Korea next week for talks with his South Korean counterpart.

Joining me is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome, Colonel. Your assessment of the prospects for this process coming to a resolution and seeing North Korea denuclearize? Do you think it’s going to happen?

LARRY WILKERSON: The interview clip you just gave was fascinating, hearing John Bolton add chemical and biological weapons to what heretofore, as far as I know, has been strictly nuclear program and ballistic missiles associated therewith, was very fascinating. Because there is no way on this earth that Kim Jong-Un, or any Kim dynasty member, is going to give up all of this. They would be foolish to do so, because they still have a security problem. That security problem includes Japan, China, and South Korea.

So what happened in Singapore was show. It was pure reality TV show. It’s what Donald Trump excels in. But unfortunately for America, and for China and for Japan, and others, too, possibly, South Korea most prominently, it was a show that probably won’t produce anything but just what Trump wanted it to produce for the moment, and that is to get his name in the klieg lights and to look like he was doing something positive. Who won this so far is North Korea, clearly. They have given up absolutely nothing; promised only words, which, as you showed, they did in the 2000s; and they have gained quite a bit to include a cessation of military exercises by South Korea and the United States on the peninsula. And, most importantly, what Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, and now Kim Jong-un himself have sought desperately and now have: international recognition, signalled most dramatically by sitting down in Singapore with a U.S. President.

Kim has already made three trips to China, so China is already relaxing its sanctions. We have got nothing, and North Korea has gotten a great deal. That’s what I’ve seen so far.

AARON MATE: Colonel, Colonel, I’m surprised to hear this take from you, because you’ve long been a critic of the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, including these war games, which Trump called provocative and which have now been suspended. But they’ve only been suspended temporarily. Trump has said that if there’s no progress he can immediately resume them. And to say that North Korea offered nothing, I mean, even before the summit they released hostages. They suspended tests. They also destroyed a certain facility. Now, the, the magnitude of that move has been debated. But you know, some have viewed it as being significant. And now, again just this week, as I said in the intro, North Korea has, according to U.S. officials, has identified the site that it will, the nuclear testing site, which is related to ballistic missiles, that it will destroy.

LARRY WILKERSON: It had already destroyed the site itself. Self-immolation, if you will. All it was doing was using that as a chip in what it considered the preliminary negotiations, which is what North Korea loves to do. It also destroyed Yongbyon, you will recall; its most dangerous, because it was a plutonium producer and reprocessing facility in the 2000s. That didn’t deter its development of nuclear weapons one whit. It still developed nuclear weapons that it now has. It still developed ballistic missiles that it now has.

These are all ceremonial moves by North Korea. And I might add, I might add very importantly, I think, these are moves programmed well in advance by North Korea, unlike the moves of the U.S. administration which are dreamed up out of Trump’s mind moments before he sits down and begins to talk. Just talk to the people from the White House who will tell you that they had to scramble murderously post-Trump announcement of the summit to even began to try and put a package together, and then had great difficulty doing it as they approached the actual date of the summit.

So North Korea has scripted all of these steps. They were going to take the steps anyway, or they are steps that are innocuous to them in terms of their strategic objectives. So North Korea has won everything up to this point. And to your original point about my position on the peninsula, that has nothing to do with negotiations. If you are going to sit down and we’re going to negotiate from the position, from the foundation that Trump created by his bellicose remarks and his other rather undiplomatic statements and so forth, then you better come to that thing and begin to win from the very start, because you don’t have much distance to go, while North Korea, as it has proven many times in the past, has lots of distance to cover, and lots of things to do in that distance. You look like a fool every time North Korea winds up not doing what you asked them to do, or put something ceremonial forth rather than something substantive. And you look even more like a fool when you put substantive things forth that North Korea has wanted for some time.

I’m really worried about this process having no real strategic rationale behind it other than, and this is a frightening prospect, other than they want to get to the point where North Korea does do something that’s readily identifiable as deal-stopping. And then we have an impasse where Trump has no other alternative but to say, well, we’re back where we were before. And where we were before was very close to war.

AARON MATE: OK. You know-. But I guess where I might differ from you here, though, is this notion that the status quo anti is preferable to Trump being a whimsical dealmaker here, as strange as that sounds. Because in this case, because-.

LARRY WILKERSON: You’re not getting my point, Aaron. My point is that we’ve been here before, first. Second, Kim really knows how to go here, and how to move out from here. And third, what we have done to this point is change a strategy that Trump liked to call strategic patience, that like to call keeping the peace, or containment, if you will, that did not allow for war for over half a century, from 1953 to the day that Trump was inaugurated. Trump has majorly altered that strategic approach to the Korean peninsula, first by bellicose, almost idiotic and moronic, psychopathic, even, statements about Kim Jong-un and about the situation there, and now by using that leverage, if that’s indeed what it has gained, to go to a summit in Singapore and do something no other president has ever done, though Bill Clinton got very, very close to it.

That’s only fortuitous for the United States if there is a strategy for followup that actually produces peace on the peninsula. Peace, Aaron, that we’ve had for over half a century. We’re in, we’re jeopardizing that peace right now if there’s not a strategy, if what we’re going to do is move down the road to a place where Kim finally has to be called out, reveals that he’s never going to get rid of the weapons, let alone his chemical and biological, never going to stop ballistic missile development, resumes all those things in a way that’s blatant, and we don’t have any choice but to go to war.

AARON MATE: OK. But what you call peace I think is misleading, because there never was an official end to the Korean War. There was an-. There was an armistice. And so, and so the U.S. never would have been-. Had been officially, had been officially-. Colonel, if I could just finish my question. The U.S. and North Korea have been officially at war for decades. That’s seen the rise of the U.S. nuclear presence on the peninsula, and also these military exercises. All this prompted North Korea to develop a nuclear weapons program they didn’t have before.

LARRY WILKERSON: All this kept the peace, too.

AARON MATE: Well, but, but peace, you’ll agree, was a very dangerous situation. And so now you have Trump breaking with the Washington playbook, meeting with North Korea, freezing military exercises, which I know you favored before.


AARON MATE: I don’t see, I don’t get why that is as troubling. And by the way, the foundation on which this is taking place in terms of concessions on both sides is not just a foundation built by Trump. There’s also a foundation, I think, from the North Koreans’ point of view, which should be noted. Which is that A, you know, decades ago the U.S. destroyed a large part of the country with a massive bombing, killing a sizable proportion of the population. Then you have the nuclear buildup. Then you have this deal under the Bush administration where, you know, there was a chance there of a real, of real progress. The U.S. was supposed to help provide a light water reactor. It reneged on that and killed the agreement, and reimposed sanctions.

So North Korea is coming from a place-. It’s not a blank slate. They’re coming from a place of mistrust. So if the U.S., to show some goodwill and just temporarily suspend some war games, I don’t see why that’s a bad thing.

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, I don’t see it’s a bad thing, either. I just don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. You have trust, you have reliance in this administration, Aaron, that I simply do not have, period.

AARON MATE: Well, I certainly don’t trust this administration, but I certainly trust Trump’s-. Or I have more faith in Trump at least wanting the the public relations win of peace, which he seems to at least be trying for here, hopefully winning out over people like John Bolton, who have long tried to undermine peace.

LARRY WILKERSON: There’s another principle, if you will, operating here, though, that is underlying all of this. And it’s covered in Michael Glennon’s book about the national security state and double government. There is an element within the U.S. institutional architecture that simply does not, one, want to leave the peninsula. Two-. And it has strategic reasons for that. It has nothing to do with North Korea. It has everything to do with China, and the defense of Japan, and the military industrial complex, and the four-star position for the Army on the Korean peninsula. All that bureaucratic reason for staying is operating.

Second, I’m not so sure that that bureaucratic reason operating the way it is wouldn’t welcome some sort of fracas on the peninsula more that it would the ousting of the United States permanently from the peninsula. This is something that Trump is completely unaware of. And even John Bolton, as I know from my own conversations with the man, is not cognizant of to the extent that he should be, and disregards to an alarming sense. So there are so many other things operating here, including, I haven’t even mentioned the interests of Prime Minister Abe, and ultimately the Japanese Self Defense Forces, and ultimately Beijing, as well.

There’s so much operating here that Trump and his team seem to be utterly ignorant of as they seek simply TV highlights that it’s very disturbing to see what’s happening and understand all this as backdrop. All I’m saying is yes, there are some moves here of which I’ve been in favor for a long time, including ultimately, perhaps, a diminution of if not outright withdrawal from the U.S. presence in Korea. But that’s something that’s got to be done very carefully, and in concert with our allies, for instance with Japan and South Korea.

I don’t see that happening here, and I know John Bolton very, very well. I don’t see it happening, I don’t see John being in favor of it. And just him throwing out chemical and biologicals, which I haven’t even heard before, means that he’s well beyond Trump on what he wants from the North Koreans. And I know the North Koreans. They are not going to give up any of these things. So where are we six months down the road when it becomes clear that they’re not going to do so, and yet we’re still standing there demanding irretrievable, confirmable, reliable, you know, all the things that we have said and Bolton just added to in terms of what Kim has to surrender in order to meet our demands?

AARON MATE: OK. In terms of our allies, let me ask you a question, though. You mentioned the need to work with Japan and South Korea. But isn’t that not a contradiction? Because, you know, certainly South Korea has favored this process. The government is the one that spearheaded it. And-.

LARRY WILKERSON: The government in power right now.

AARON MATE: Right. And the majority, and the majority the people support it. Japan, though, the government there feels very differently. Japan, at least from the way I see it, has been, has been, not been so supportive of this process, and maybe trying to undermine it.

LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s more complex than that. I think Prime Minister Abe and the LDP in particular, and to a certain extent the Japanese elite, if you will, are looking at this with real concern. First, because they liked Trump in the beginning. They always like Republicans, and they always warm the bellicosity if it’s aimed at their purpose and their interests. But now they’re having some concerns, some deep concerns. They’re even hedging their bets. I would be willing to guarantee you that there is a plan right now on Abe’s desk for a fully nuclear power called Japan, and that they’re looking hard at it.

They’re very concerned about what they see as less than strategic operations by the United States from this administration vis-a-vis North Korea, and for that matter vis-a-vis China. Let’s just look at what’s happening right now in that regard alone, this narrow little regard which is nonetheless important. China has already started back off its enforcement of the sanctions against North Korea, and nothing really has happened except the meeting. So what’s happening with this third visit of Kim to Beijing? I guarantee you China is consorting, consulting with Kim about what they’re going to do further on, and all this trade business right now is disincentivizing China in some really major ways to be cooperative with the U.S. versus being cooperative with Kim, or moreso with Kim than the U.S.

So it looks like an absolutely uncoordinated approach to the problem, whether you’re looking at the alienating trade practices almost amounting to a trade war, or you’re looking at the lack of substance from the Singapore summit. I’m just alarmed that we’re going to go down this road and get to some juncture where Trump is going to be desperate and he’s going to have to regain some ground, and he’s going to do that by returning to the more bellicose policies that he commenced this thing with.

AARON MATE: I take your point. And it’s a really interesting way to look at it. It’s, in this time of shifting stances where you have Democrats leading the charge against the prospects for peace and opposing the suspension of war games, and Trump trying to paint itself as a peacemaker, it’s a bizarre time. And we really appreciate-.

LARRY WILKERSON: You put your finger on something that just appalls me with the Democrats out there. You know, maybe you interpreted my position that way initially. But I’m not like the Democrats who say let’s don’t have peace simply because it’s politically unpalatable for me, for this Republican to have peace. I’m all for peace. I just don’t see the kind of expertise and genius being exercised here that might bring it.

AARON MATE: On that we’ll leave it there. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thank you.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.