Lawrence Wilkerson On North
Korea Crisis: U.S. Should Stop the Threats & Own
Up to its Role
By Real News
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson,
former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, says the
U.S. should resolve the North Korea nuclear
crisis through negotiations and should reckon
with the impact of its previous actions.
Posted April 19, 2017
MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté.
Amid rising tensions, the U.S. and North Korea
are both making threats. In a visit to South
Korea, Vice President Mike Pence said while the
U.S. prefers peaceful means, all options are on
MIKE PENCE: And I'm here to express the resolve
of the people of the United States, and the
President of the United States, to achieve that
objective through peaceable means, through
negotiations, but all options are on the table.
AARON MATÉ: A top North Korean official says the
country's army is on maximum alert, and is
prepared to, quote, "launch merciless military
strikes against the U.S. aggressors," unquote.
It's the latest salvo in a growing nuclear
standoff. A recent North Korean missile test led
the Trump administration to move a U.S. navy
force into the Korean Peninsula.
Last week, North Korea warned of potential
nuclear war, and this weekend, North Korea
staged an annual military parade that showed off
new weaponry. It followed that with another
missile test that quickly failed.
So, where is this headed? Well, joining us is
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, retired U.S. army
soldier, and former Chief of Staff to Secretary
of State, Colin Powell. He's an adjunct
professor at the College of William and Mary,
where he instructs on U.S. national security.
Colonel Wilkerson, welcome.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATÉ: Vice President Pence saying today
that the era of strategic patience is over.
That, along with a series of bellicose messages
from President Trump's Twitter account, where do
you see this going?
LARRY WILKERSON: I really am alarmed when people
make statements like that without the diplomatic
finesse to deliver them properly. Strategic
patience, as it were, has produced no war on the
peninsula since 1953. That's a pretty darn good
record. Although I don't know what he means by,
"the period of strategic patience is over".
I'm prepared, I think most Americans, and I know
most Republic of Korea citizens - that is, South
Korea - are prepared to be patient forever, if
there's no war in that forever.
AARON MATÉ: I believe it was the National
Security Advisor, McMaster, who said this
weekend that the status quo is not tenable. You
have the situation where North Korea is armed
with nuclear weapons and threatening its
neighborhoods, so a new course is needed, also
pointing to previous agreements with the regime
not working out. How do you respond to that?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, I respond to that by
saying the previous agreements with the regime,
the agreed framework for example, that Bill
Clinton's administration engineered, didn't work
out as much, because the United States didn't
live up to its obligations under those
agreements. As for any other reason, so we can
throw rocks at both sides with regard to
What I'm concerned with is, if people run around
this town, Washington, and they talk about
people not being deterred by the fact that we
have more nuclear weapons than everyone else in
the world combined, except for Russia. If Kim
Jong-un or any Kim dynasty leader, in fact any
leader in Pyongyang with his hand on their
button, were to fire a missile at Tokyo, Japan,
or South Korea, or Guam, or Okinawa, or any
place they might be able to currently hit. Or
ultimately if they were to fire one in
California, they would cease to exist.
No U.S. president would restrain himself, or
herself, from responding. Pyongyang would cease
to exist, and I dare say, the entire Kim
dynasty. Whose objective, sole objective, is
preserving themselves in power, would disappear
in the flash of a mushroom cloud. So, I mean,
this is ridiculous to think that they're not
AARON MATÉ: You know, you mentioned the history
of U.S.-North Korean agreements, the recent
history, and you talked about throwing rocks on
both sides. Well, you have an inside take on
this because you worked for the Bush
administration, which abandoned the Clinton
agreements, the key one being North Korea
agreeing to freeze plutonium production.
There also was some sort of indirect deal about
buying up North Korean missiles. But President
Bush abandoned this policy. Can you tell us what
happened there and how that helped lead to
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, our intelligence
community, really I don't think can say whether
the chicken came first, or the egg in this case.
What we do know is that the money that we had
promised, that the Europeans had promised, for
the light water reactors, which were supposed to
replace the dangerous plutonium-producing
reactor at Yongbyon, actually didn't come
Europeans pretty much put up their billions, but
our Congress was very reluctant, and in the end
didn't put up hardly anything. And in terms of
the heavy fuel oil shipments we promised, the
Congress was either dilatory in shipping it, or
didn't ship it to the amounts that were agreed
to, or both.
So, the North Koreans, as Jim Kelly, our
Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific
found out October 2002 -- when he visited
Pyongyang and talked with Yi Jung and Kang
Sak-ju -- found out that they probably did hedge
their bets, and had a secret program for
enhancing uranium, to back up the plutonium
program we had frozen.
Whether they did that because we weren't living
up to our end of the deal, or they did that to
hedge their bets, is still a question I think.
But if either way, let's just look at that.
We had frozen the most dangerous aspect of their
program at Yongbyon, reprocessing plutonium,
making a plutonium-based bomb. So, we had at
least eliminated half of it, and at that point
we didnt have any nuclear weapons.
Now we've got ten or twelve nuclear weapons, and
we don't have any agreement at all. We're not
talking. We're not doing anything. So, the
negotiations in the past, even if they only half
worked, they worked a whole lot better than the
non-negotiations of, say, my administration
after October 2002.
AARON MATÉ: SO, let me ask you, I mean, this is
speculation, but do you think if President Bush
had lived up to Clinton's commitments, and also
perhaps not put North Korea on the infamous,
'Axis of Evil', whether you think North Korea
would have nuclear weapons today?
LARRY WILKERSON: I'm not sure. That's a hard
question to answer. It's a hypothetical; I'm not
sure what the situation would be. If I... let me
put it this way as a military professional, if I
were Kim Jong-il, or Kim Il-sung, or Kim
Jong-un, I would want to hedge my bets against a
power that arrayed itself in front of me as
threateningly as the U.S. does.
If I look out from Pyongyang - now, I'm trying
to be empathetic. I'm not condoning the Kim
dynasty or anyone in North Korea. I'm simply
saying I'm being empathetic -- I'm looking out
from Pyongyang into the Pacific. I'm looking out
across the inland seas; I'm looking down at the
ROK, the Republic of Korea. I see 600,000 highly
trained ROK troops. I see B2s on Guam; I see
Vincent aircraft carriers steaming towards the
Peninsula. I see all this threat to me; I'd want
a nuclear weapon, too.
So, if you want the bottom line, there isn't
anybody in the world today, after seeing us
invade Iraq, after seeing us bomb Syria, after
seeing us do - we're at war with seven or eight
countries right now in terms of drones. We're
flying across their borders and killing people
inside their territory.
So, if I were anyone in the world who thought my
regime was in trouble, I'd think the trouble
came from the United States, and I'd want a
nuclear weapon too. That's not at all to say I
condone the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
I'm simply stating the obvious. I'm stating the
AARON MATÉ: On the subject of U.S. policy
influencing North Korea's thinking, there was a
piece in the New York Times yesterday analyzing
the current crisis. And they made an interesting
point near the end, where they pointed to the
fact that Libya, under Colonel Gaddafi, they
made an agreement with the U.S. about giving up
on their nascent nuclear program, in return for
some financial relief.
Now, the financial relief never came, and then
of course when you had this uprising against
Gaddafi years later, the U.S. joined the side of
the uprising and actually helped overthrow
And the Times says that this experience has
heavily influenced the leaders in North Korea.
That actually, Libya is often talked about in
North Korean strategic writing and discussion.
LARRY WILKERSON: Absolutely. Look at Iraq and
the invasion in 2003. Many have maintained, and
I think with some reason, that it was an illegal
war. Look at Libya. Look at the strike on Syria
recently. If I were someone out there looking
around and considering my threats, and I thought
a nuclear weapon would help me, at least in some
ways, to keep that threat from coming my way and
overthrowing my regime, I'd surely want to build
I was there when we did what you just described
briefly with Gaddafi. Tony Blair was wined and
dined, and Condi Rice, and everyone was all
hunky-dory loving Muammar Gaddafi at that
particular point. And then suddenly we'd move a
few years down the road, and bang, everybody's
getting rid of him. And we haven't seen a good
analysis of that conflict, yet.
I've had students write papers on it, good
papers. And this is not a moment of U.S.
brilliance, to be sure. Look at what we've got
now. We've got, for example one of the biggest
arms bazaars in Northern Africa -- if not the
world -- to include shoulder-fired missiles.
Gaddafi's armed caches going out to the rest of
the world, including ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba,
Al-Qaeda, and other groups like that.
So, Libya is not a success story. Not at all a
success story. But it is something that teaches
other leaders in the world to beware of the
AARON MATÉ: Since we're talking history, I want
to go back even further to the wider historical
context for U.S.-North Korea tensions. We often
don't hear about the impact of decades of
U.S.-North Korean tensions. And specifically the
Korean War going back to the 1950s, and I want
to read you a quote from Air Force General
Curtis LeMay, who headed the Strategic Air
Command during the Korean War.
He said, "Over a period of three years or so, we
killed off what 20% of the population." And Dean
Rusk, who was later Secretary of State, he said
the U.S. bombed, quote, "...everything that
moved in North Korea, every brick standing on
top of another."
Talk to us about this context that we often
don't talk about.
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, this was a really bloody
war, there's no question about it. The North
invaded the South, the South responded by
retreating all the way to Pusan. The United
States was ill prepared for the war, and so
joined them in that retreat, and then held out
at Pusan until Douglas MacArthur, of course,
conducted the brilliant amphibious invasion at
And we cut off the North Koreans, and then we
pursued them all the way to Bealu(?), with
Douglas MacArthur, saying, no Chinese will enter
the war, telling Harry Truman that on Wake
Island, when they met. And then the Chinese
intervened with some 300,000, quote,
"volunteers", unquote, and then the casualties
really mounted, as we fought three years of
bloody stalemate. Finally coming to an end at
approximately the same point we started. But we
had preserved South Korea.
And that was a great deal. It turns out that
South Korea is one of the few, if not the only,
major country in the world that has gone from
being a debtor nation, to a creditor nation, in
one generation. And is a flourishing democracy
So, in the long run, that turned out all right
for South Korea. But for the other millions of
Koreans north of the DMZ, it put them in the
so-called, Hermit Kingdom. And it gave them, as
you said, these memories of the times when the
Chinese intervened, the United States was on
their territory. Even had Douglas MacArthur
recommending that nuclear waste be sowed all
across North Korea, in order to make it
unpalatable, and to keep the Chinese out, and so
Yeah, the history is a long, bloody history. But
the history since that 1953 truce agreement,
peace agreement that was not, but truce,
ceasefire, and we still have the war condition
going on. Look at the DMZ. It spans the country
right now at the point where we stopped. We have
a lot of bitter feelings on both sides, I think.
Most people probably couldn't tell you what
those feelings were really about today, on
either side. In the North, the people were kept
so poor, and so ill fed and in such conditions
of poverty that the regime holds on by
essentially keeping them worshipful of Kim, and
not eating very much.
In the South, you have this robust, dynamic,
successful economy. I think if you were to leave
the situation alone, that is to say a great
power like the United States, or for that
matter, Japan or China, were not making it
different every day by their very shadow of
their power, you would probably already have
North and South having worked out
You'd have unification, and the capital would be
Seoul, not Pyongyang. And you'd have a whole
bunch of Koreans in the North joining a whole
bunch of Koreans in the South, and becoming a
very dynamic economy over time, a generation,
let's say. And maybe even giving China some
competition, which is one reason why I think
China likes that buffer zone between it, and
that very prosperous, economically vivacious
AARON MATÉ: Yeah. On the issue of buffer zone,
we often forget that there are 28,500 U.S.
troops in South Korea. So, that would seem to be
an incentive for China to keep North Korea as
its ally, even though it causes it a lot of
LARRY WILKERSON: You put your finger on
something there. I would suspect even, let's
just hypothetically think for a moment about a
collapse scenario, which I've done as a
strategist in the army, and we even war-planned
one of the war plans off of this.
Let's just say that all of a sudden the Kim
dynasty is no more, that this Kim is the last
one, for example -- which incidentally a lot of
more conservative South Koreans believe -- and
say it collapses and the generals take over.
Well, the first thing I would think China would
do, would probably be to move some of those
forces it keeps up there on the border, the
Yalu, into North Korea, say 15, 20 kilometers,
and establish a buffer zone. And then make that
another DMZ, or like a DMZ between what would
then become an ultimately reunified Korea, and
the Chinese border.
The only thing that might preclude that, and the
Chinese might withdraw their troops, and not
declare a buffer zone, is if once unification
occurred, the United States left the peninsula
entirely. You may have seen Doug Bandow's
article recently where he suggested that we
ought to leave the peninsula. I'm not sure Doug
is not onto something.
U.S. presence there is no longer required,
really, for checking China, as we say, or for
doing the kinds of things we say we have to do
with proximity. We can fly B2s from Missouri, we
can do most of the things we need to do from
internal to the United States. So, this $70
billion a year we're spending on over 800 bases
overseas every year has got to stop sometime.
And we might have a situation that is
strategically more palatable, more peaceful and
more stable, if the United States were not on
the peninsula, than what we have now with the
United States being on the peninsula. That's
something that ought to be looked at, and ought
to be analyzed.
AARON MATÉ: I want to play the comments of
former Defense Secretary William Perry about
North Korea. This is what he said.
WILLIAM PERRY: I think this is a time for us to
some creative diplomacy. Paradoxically, the
dangerous situation were in right now has
created the environment in which now this
diplomacy actually might be successful.
AARON MATÉ: Colonel Wilkerson, what do you make
of what he said, and what do you make of the
prospects for talks? I mean, people often look
to the North Korean regime and say; this is the
worst government in the world. So, how could we
talk to them?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, Bill Perry's pretty
smart. Bill Perry and I were the two characters
- huh, if you will - on the U.S. side in the
last Pyonghwaa simulation we ran in Seoul. Bill
played the U.S. Minister of Defense, and we had
ROK Minister of Defense on the other side, and
we did sort of a war game together. He knows the
peninsula well. He was there when we came very,
very close to war in 1994.
And I think he's right. This is not an insane
regime. It's a very rational regime. It wants to
preserve its own power. So, the very idea that
deterrents wouldn't work against them is simply
But it's also a high stakes poker regime. They
do their brinksmanship, they play their high
stakes poker games, they drop artillery rounds
on South Korea, they sink a South Korean boat,
or some other brinksmanship-like move. And they
do it because they want us to come back to the
Well, I say we need to be the kind of power that
recognizes it could eliminate them from the face
of the earth at any moment that it wanted to,
but be magnanimous and deal with this, deal with
the situation as you have it. Go back to talks.
I don't care if we talk until we're blue in the
face, as long as strategic patience continues to
work, and prevent a war.
These people who walk around and pontificate
about, oh there'll be a war, oh, there'll be a
war, oh, they'll shoot Japan, oh, they'll shoot
South Korea, oh, they'll shoot Guam, oh, they'll
shoot California. That's just what those
people's place in life is about: starting wars.
I like strategic patience. I like no war. I like
stable situations where no one's dying, and no
one's dropping bombs on someone else, least of
all my own country.
So, I don't see any problem with talking again,
and I hope - I hope - I don't have a lot of hope
with this administration of amateurs, but I do
hope that what Trump is seeking is high ground
in the eventual talks that he will conduct. I
hope that he revivifies the five-party talks. I
hope that we talk to the North Koreans. My
goodness, we couldn't even talk directly to the
North Koreans during the five-party talks with
George W. Bush, because Dick Cheney wouldn't
So, if we had meaningful talks, and we offered
something meaningful to the North Koreans in
those talks, we would not get a non-nuclear
North Korea. We're beyond that. They're never
going to give up their nuclear weapons. But we
might get a situation where the North and the
South were talking to each other more regularly,
dealing with each other more regularly.
We back out of this situation, sort of, and you
wind up with an agreement within a generation or
two - talk about strategic patience - that
brought the peninsula together, and brought it
together, as I said, with a capital Seoul and
not Pyongyang. Which I think is inevitable.
AARON MATÉ: In this scary situation, we'll leave
it there with that hope. Colonel Lawrence
Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of
State Colin Powell, thanks as always for joining
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The
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