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It is possible to make a peace deal that would denuclearize North Korea, but don’t expect Donald Trump to deliver it, says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Fresh off his historic decision to meet with Kim Jong-un, President Trump says he thinks that peace is possible. On Saturday, Trump spoke to supporters in Pennsylvania.
DONALD TRUMP: South Korea came to my office after having gone to North Korea and seeing Kim Jong-un and, no, it’s very positive. No. After the meeting, you may do that, but now we have to be very nice because let’s see what happens. Who else could do it? I mean, honestly, when you think, they’re not going to send missiles up. Think of it. They’re not sending missiles up. And I believe that. I believe that. I really do. I think they want to do something. I think they want to make peace. I think it’s time. And I think we’ve shown great strength. I think that’s also important, right?
AARON MATÉ: A report today out of South Korea says that Kim Jong-un will likely seek a peace treaty with the US as a condition for any giving up of nuclear weapons. Well, joining me is someone with inside knowledge of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served under the Bush Administration when nuclear talks fell apart. He is now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Welcome, Colonel Wilkerson. Let’s start with your reaction to Trump’s decision. What do you make of it?
LARRY WILKERSON: First of all, unlike he portrayed it, it’s nothing new. In October of 2000, the Secretary of State of the United States, Madeleine Albright, went to Pyongyang and was involved in over six hours of intense meetings, three hours of which is, I understand, the record, actually discussed what Donald Trump will be discussing with Kim Jong-un but with Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father. It was every expectation after that meeting and a series of talks they had in Pyongyang that President Bill Clinton would follow up with a presidential visit to Pyongyang. You will recall that intervening was the hung chad election, the recount in Florida, the Supreme Court decision, and a very short time for President Clinton to make such a historic visit. And so, he got cold feet and didn’t make it.
So, we’ve been here before. We’ve been here in spades before. What happened as a result of that, of course, was George W. Bush became president and George W. Bush was very dilatory. We were very dilatory in doing our Korean policy review and didn’t until the summer of 2002, as I recall, actually produce a policy statement. Jim Kelly, the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific, then ventured to Pyongyang himself with the “new” policy of the George W. Bush administration. By this time… Kang Sok-ju, Jim Kelly’s interlocutors in Pyongyang, had become quite irritated, as you might say, with the United States having taken so long after it already failed to live up to its obligations under the previously espoused policy. Think Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and nuclear agreement with Iran right now, Aaron. The same thing is happening. And one president doesn’t deliver on another president’s promises, foreign policy, unlike during the Cold War does not have a continuity to it. And so, we lost the agreement, and we lost the policy, and we tried to pick up the pieces afterwards, as you well know, with the multi-party talks.
AARON MATÉ: Right, which came only after North Korea conducted a bomb test, which I think was the deciding factor in prodding Bush and his people to get back to the table. Let me ask you, based on your experience with the North Koreans back then and observing the talks that you were a part of, how willing do you think the North Koreans are to make a deal now?
LARRY WILKERSON: This has been a policy of the Kim dynasty since 1954, 1955, that is to say, to get a peace treaty and to do that by having the United States sit down with it, preferably in Pyongyang and talk. Look what this does for North Korea. First, it recognizes them as a state to be reckoned with, the US President is sitting down with it. Second, it does so unilaterally, that is to say there’s no South Korea present, there’s no Japan, no China, no Russia present. So, that’s a coup for North Korea, for Pyongyang and in this case for Kim Jong-un. The third thing it does is get the United States on a negotiating track towards an end to the Korean War, a peace treaty, there never was one, just a ceasefire and a demilitarized zone. That’s a good end product but one has to be extremely wary of the other two objectives that accompany that end product, to be specific, the objective of splitting the South Korean-US alliance and two, ultimately getting the US forces off the Korean Peninsula.
Now that’s not necessarily a bad end product if it’s handled carefully, judiciously, and wisely, but I have absolutely no expectation that this inexperienced president who does real estate deals will have the kind of acumen, diplomatic and otherwise, to accomplish those objectives.
AARON MATÉ: And do you think that Trump, let’s say Trump wanted to negotiate the removal of US forces from South Korea. I mean, do you think that the Pentagon or how would the Pentagon react to that?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think that would be a tremendous bureaucratic battle because you’ve got a four star Army billet there that they are simply not going to want to give up. Go back to Jimmy Carter and John Singlaub, and Carter trying to more or less reduce the presence of US troops on the Korean Peninsula with an end of maybe ending it altogether. Whoa, what a bureaucratic battle that was and Carter wound up backing down. Trump is not going to have a lesser battle. He’s going to have a more significant battle.
AARON MATÉ: Let me go to a clip from Trump’s rally in Pennsylvania, where he was talking about previous presidents who have tried diplomacy with North Korea.
DONALD TRUMP: North Korea, Kim Jong-un, would like to meet with President Trump? This doesn’t happen, you know, they’re saying, “Oh well, Obama could have done that.” Trust me, he couldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t have done that. He would not have done it and by the way, neither would Bush, and neither would Clinton. They had their shot and all they did was nothing. Well, Clinton gave away billions and billions of dollars and as soon as they made the deal, the following day they started working on making more nukes, okay? So, that wasn’t, that’s not the great deal.
AARON MATÉ: So, that’s President Trump in Pennsylvania. Colonel Wilkerson, what do you make of what Trump’s motives were here? He is correct in pointing out that no president before him has met directly with a leader of North Korea and he was speaking of his decision now at a campaign-style rally. So, I’m wondering do you think that the prospect for actually making peace with North Korea is something he’s taking seriously, as possibly a campaign talking point in 2020?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, every president does this sort of thing with an eye towards his political position, and his political power, and his eventual being re-elected if he’s in his first term. But let’s just examine that statement. That statement was false as are so many statements coming from President Trump. As I just reiterated, President Clinton was on the verge of going to North Korea, following up on Secretary of State Albright’s visit.
One of the reasons he got cold feet was Republican policy. He knew what George W. Bush being elected to the presidency rather than Al Gore would probably mean. Bush had been very explicit and was gathering around him people like Dick Cheney, and John Bolton, and others who had made it a point of life to eliminate the agreed framework that Bill Clinton had negotiated with North Korea. So, he knew we were headed into a new policy. It would have been very dangerous, I think, for him probably to go on, for his reputation post president and everything, to go on and do it and then be proved more or less a fool by Dick Cheney and George Bush as they abrogated the policy and made North Korea look like the culprit.
North Korea, let’s face it, North Korea has never been the real culprit in dismantling, or disabling, or abrogating agreements. The United States and its partners but primarily the United States have been the guilty party here. I realize that Bill Clinton’s main diplomat, Robert Gallucci, would probably not go as far as I have, but I’ve seen what’s happened. I know what happened with Jim Kelly. I know what happened with the policy review with the Bush Administration. I was more or less the right hand man of the Secretary of State for actions vis-à-vis North Korea and South Korea all the time I was at the State Department. I know the track record here. I know the documents. I know the archives. If anybody derailed anything in the relationship between the United States and the DPRK, it was the United States.
Did the DPRK have a hedging strategy? Probably, yes. I would have had, too, had I been they because the track record of the United States, particularly of late, is just abysmal. From president to president, we do not continue the same foreign policy. Ever since the end of the Cold War we have been on this rollercoaster ride of idiocy with regard to President Here and President There, Democrat versus Republican and so forth. There’s no longer any continuity in US policy. I bring you back again to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with regard to Iran. That was negotiated by President Obama. It is now going to be abrogated in May by the President of the United States, who happens to be a Republican. This is idiocy.
So, everything Trump said there was basically false or it was hyperbole, that if he knew the real record he probably still would be saying because he doesn’t seem to care about the truth.
AARON MATÉ: On that front, Colonel Wilkerson, since you mentioned the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s commitment so far to undermining it, do you think it’s possible and, of course, this is speculation, but do you think it’s possible that he leverages the political capital he might gain from making a deal with North Korea to further undermine the deal he despises with Iran?
LARRY WILKERSON: I can’t see how, first of all, Kim Jong-un, who I attribute a lot more shrewdness to than I do to Donald Trump, accepting a deal with the United States when he sees the same president getting ready or maybe already having done so abrogate the nuclear agreement with Iran. I just don’t see Kim Jong-un being that stupid, that incompetent. So, I have to think that if any deal is achieved with North Korea, and I doubt very seriously that one will be, it will be more on Kim Jong-un’s side of the calendar than it will be on the United States’ side.
I don’t know what that will do for Iran if the deal has been abrogated, and in May he has promised, Vice President Pence as much as said it, I think it was at AIPAC, that he’s going to abrogate the deal in May. So, that means he’s probably going to meet with Kim Jong-un after having abrogated the deal. Were I Kim Jong-un, I would use that as the highest leverage point that I had in my arsenal for my end of the negotiations. I don’t see how Donald Trump comes out of this with a victory. What he might come out of it with, if it does happen and I’ll be surprised if the meeting actually comes off, but if it does happen, he might come out of it with, “I went there and I tried and I’m the greatest deal maker in the world and I failed.” Well, he won’t say it that way, he’ll say, “That son-of-a-bitch wouldn’t do anything for me. He simply wouldn’t do anything for me,” and then we’ve got to worry about what he does next.
AARON MATÉ: And to be clear, you doubt the prospects for a deal with North Korea based on what mainly? Because you don’t think Trump will ever agree to removing US forces from South Korea?
LARRY WILKERSON: No, I think it’s even more serious than that, Aaron, or more immediate than that. I don’t think a meeting will take place. I think Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are doing their best to play with one another right now. The South Koreans are involved. I’m not even sure that what happened with regard to the National Security Advisor for South Korea and Kim Jong-un, allegedly, was transmitted completely accurately through Moon Jae-in’s administration. I’ve seen this before. I’ve been there. I’ve seen this happen to us and so, by the time we get to the point where Donald Trump has made all of his statements and Kim Jong-un through the press or whomever has made his statements, we probably won’t even have a meeting.
What I’m saying is that if we do that it’s probably going to come out to be one that Trump comes home from and wonders about what his next step is rather than one where he comes home waving a Munich Agreement peace treaty.
AARON MATÉ: Well let me say, you know, at the time that we’re recording this, North Korea still has not officially responded to Trump’s statement, which is, you know, an omission that’s been noted.
LARRY WILKERSON: That’s to be expected. This is a kabuki game that we play between Pyongyang and Washington. And with the South Koreans now with a more or less liberal administration it’s an even more dramatic kabuki game.
AARON MATÉ: Finally Colonel, let me ask you about China and go back to what Trump said about China at his speech in Pennsylvania.
DONALD TRUMP: And I must tell you, President Xi of China has really helped us a lot. They’ve really helped us, and because 93% of the goods come in through China going into Korea, North Korea. 93%, so that’s pretty powerful and they’ve been very good. They could have done more, but that’s okay. I say to them, “You’ve been great. You could do more,” but they’ve done a lot. China has done more for us than they have ever done for any other president or ever done for this country and I respect that. I respect that…
AARON MATÉ: That’s President Trump speaking in Pennsylvania. So, Colonel Wilkerson, China at least as far as we know was not involved in this decision, which seemed to be spur of the moment by President Trump at the White House when the South Korean envoys were there. How does China, do you think, react to this news? And also, meanwhile Japan, with its right-wing government there having been vocally opposed to engagement with North Korea?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think what Trump just said about China is pure hyperbole. China was helping the George W. Bush Administration as much as it could under the circumstances that confronted it. We all understood those circumstances. It has not helped Donald Trump much more than that, it’s just the hyperbole that he says they have. What’s happening, I think, more than anything else, is a concern on the part of Beijing with the whole nuclear situation in the world and I would be concerned if I were they, too.
Mao Tse-Tung’s philosophy of nuclear weapons was basically that they were very un-useful. He recognized that nuclear weapons would, if they were used, be a catastrophe and so they should never be used. So, all he did was allow for enough nuclear weapons to deter anyone from using them against China. Now China is talking about, and this is what Mr. Trump should be pointing at, this is very dangerous and destabilizing, China is talking about building far more nuclear weapons, far more capable nuclear weapons, far more diversified nuclear weapons, far more modern nuclear weapons, in order to ride out a first strike and then have an ability to strike back.
This is a very different Northeast Asia when China goes that route. That will spark Japan immediately, even more so than North Korea having a few nuclear weapons, into being a nuclear state. We’ll have two full up nuclear powers. The Japanese have probably more plutonium than anybody else in the world. They will have full capability and we’ll have an arms race in Northeast Asia, a nuclear arms race God forbid, between Japan and China. And that will spur the Korean Peninsula, both sides of it, probably to have their own nuclear weapons and even build more despite any agreement that might be achieved with respect to a peace treaty, and so forth, in the interim.
So, this is a recipe for real problems in Northeast Asia, and I don’t see the slightest recognition of that from Donald Trump, other than, he said from time to time that maybe a lot of nuclear weapons would be a better world.
AARON MATÉ: We thank you for joining us, Colonel 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.
AARON MATÉ: 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.