Col. Wilkerson on Korean Peace: ‘We’ve Been Here Before,’ But it Fell Apart
Over the past 20 years or so there have been several opportunities for peace between North and South Korea, but each time it fell apart because of stumbling blocks on both the North Korean and the US side, says Col. Larry Wilkerson
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.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. On Friday, April 27, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the demilitarized zone and met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. You have likely seen the two holding hands in celebration. The two pledged to pursue peace talks that will officially end a war that has been going on for nearly seven decades.
While the world was celebrating this move towards peace, many were also worried about how realistic it is given the U.S.’s historic military presence in the region.
On to discuss all of this with me is Larry Wilkerson. Colonel Wilkerson is the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Good to have you with us again, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright Larry, tell us how optimistic we should be about these peace talks.
LARRY WILKERSON: I don’t see it as quite the way some others do. And let me add immediately that Mike Green and Victor Cha and Evans Revere, and a host of other North Korea experts who are far more expert than I, agree with me, at least in general, that we’ve been here before. Not with this Kim, but with previous Kims, particularly this Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il. We were at a denuclearization agreement, and we were at the Sunshine Policy, and we were at all manner of peace is going to break out on the peninsula.
In 2000 we were at a point where Madeleine Albright came to Pyongyang as Secretary of State of the United States, clearly making the ground clear for President Clinton’s later visit and for normalizing relations, or at least growing closer in our relations, to include opening an embassy in Pyongyang and doing the kinds of things that nations do with one another on a more or less routine basis. We were at a point where we were looking towards a peace treaty. We were at a point where both sides, North and South Korea, were going to break out in economic relations that would include South Koreans managing North Koreans working in North Korea, and so forth. And indeed, some of these states actually came to fruition.
But it all fell apart based on some very fundamental factors, one of which was that North Korea was not going to agree to what the United States wanted, which at that time was essentially everything gone with regard to nuclear paraphernalia. And the United States was not going to agree to what North Korea wanted, which was essentially everything gone that smacked of the United States, including the Seventh Fleet moving much further off the Korean peninsula, with regard to North Korea’s wishes.
So this is not some place we’ve not been before. And Donald Trump acting like it is just another testimony to his ignorance of history. The man doesn’t read anything, so I wouldn’t expect anything else. The difference this time is Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in. He may call it a different policy from the Sunshine Policy, but it looks very much the same. And what we’re getting right now, of course, is interpretations of Kim Jong-un not only through the Korean, North Korean spokespersons, who are notoriously unreliable, but also through Moon Jae-in and his spokespeople, including himself, who have proven in the past under the Sunshine Policy to be somewhat unreliable in their pronouncements of peace breaking out on the peninsula.
Couple that with the fact that we have an extraordinarily inexperienced team in President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo. The only real experienced member of this team right now is Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. And I’m worried. I’m worried that Trump will use this in some kind of explosive way to try and satiate his base. At the same time, he doesn’t really care about the real national security interests of South Korea or the United States, and probably certainly not Japan either, an often not mentioned partner in all of this. And watching, I’m sure, with great trepidation about what might be going to happen on the Korean peninsula.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Larry, as you know, the Korean Peninsula is a heavily-militarized area with various exercises taking place. And we also know that Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director who is now Secretary of State, quietly took a trip to North Korea over the Easter weekend, which was the preface to some of these talks that took place between the two leaders. What exactly happened on Pompeo’s visit that you may know of?
LARRY WILKERSON: I really have no idea. I know that Madeleine Albright sat down with Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il for three hours of substantive talks about these very same issues, six hours, I’m told, in total, and that we came out of those talks with every expectation, I think, that things were going to get a lot brighter on the Korean peninsula. They didn’t, partly because the United States was not willing to live up to its side of the agreement thus fabricated. And the North Koreans, apparently, were not willing to do anything but to hedge their bets, too, with regard to their side of the agreement. So we’re looking at that potential only in the respect that we have a different president of the South Koreans on that side and a different president of the North Koreans on the other side. And we have arguably the most inexperienced president in our post-World War II history on the U.S. side. I wouldn’t say much more about Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, either.
So here we are, with the only changed the ingredients being those characters, those personalities, and the chemistry they may have between them. I wouldn’t say that the permanent interests of all sides have not changed, but they haven’t. So there it is. The interest s are the same as they were for the previous characters. And this is an extremely inexperienced team. I would not say that of Kim Jong-un on the North Korean side. He seems to be quite deft and quite adept at what he does. So we’ll just have to see what happens. But I fear and I’m concerned about it being adverse to the interests of Japan, South Korea, and the United States as it ultimately rolls out, much the way it turned out to be adverse after the 2000 brouhaha about peace breaking out on the peninsula.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Larry, John Bolton, Trump’s new extremely hawkish national security adviser, said that the U.S. is pursuing a Libya model to try to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. What did he mean by that, and you know, we are particularly concerned given what we know of what happened to Libya. Is he serious about this proposition? And, and what’s your reaction to it?
LARRY WILKERSON: Well, if I were Kim Jong-un I would not be very happy about that. I mean, after all, that ended in we came, we saw, and he died. I believe it was the way Secretary Clinton in her warmongering stance characterized it. And just looking at Libya today, and looking at what Libya has been made to turn into without Gaddafi there, and with the removal of Gaddafi the way we did, I’d be very alarmed if I were North Korea if that was the proposition I was looking at coming from the Secretary of State and the President of the United States.
I don’t think Kim Jong-un’s going to be very concerned about it, because Kim Jong-un realizes something very fundamental about this administration, something that I think 60 percent at least of Americans realize. One, it is nonstrategic. Two, it is grossly inexperienced. And three, it has a political, a domestic political objective for everything it does on the international scene. The German foreign minister characterized it that way. Macron, President Macron, has characterized it that way. This president, Trump, makes decisions based on domestic political considerations, and not on national security or foreign policy considerations. So if I were Kim Jong-un, I’d be salivating at the prospects of dealing with these people.
SHARMINI PERIES: And finally, Larry, let’s take a look at the role of China in all of this, and of course how this is going to play out in Japan, as well.
LARRY WILKERSON: China’s going to be looking at it with some skepticism with regard to what’s actually going to happen. I don’t think the Chinese politburo, or Wang Yi, or any of the more astute foreign policy people in Beijing think anything positive is going to come out of this. But there might be something negative, negative in the sense of Chinese interests come out of it. Even a reunification of the Koreas and 70-plus million Koreans beavering away on the Chinese border with the kind of zeal and energy the Koreans bring to capitalism would be somewhat of an alarm to me if I were in Beijing. But the other prospects that might come out of this meeting, as it were, also might be thought of in Beijing as harboring more negative than positive.
But one of those is Japan. And you can’t dismiss Japan from the equation of Korea, China, and Japan. You have to put them in there. I call it a triangle of power. If Korea is reunified, it will be reunified with a nuclear weapon. You can count on that. The South Koreans will want that nuclear weapon as much as the North Koreans appear to now. So if it’s unified, and if Korea becomes a powerhouse as a result of that, it’s already a powerhouse in the south, of course, and nuclear, then we’re talking about a different dynamic in that region. We’re talking about Japan going nuclear immediately. We’re talking about Japan being a full great power, if you will, with a full panoply of nuclear weapons. And you’re talking about China having to considerably revisit its nuclear strategy, something it’s already doing just based on some of the things Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Russia have said, and probably revising that strategy so that we start an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in Northeast Asia.
So the prospects here, a bunch of amateurs fooling in this matter of really serious security policy, we’re apt to have a result, a conclusion, an outcome, if you will, that’s not too positive for anybody in the region, let alone the global community.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And I must add to that that Japan has, under its right-wing nationalist government, the current government is apparently rewriting its pacifist constitution to a militarising one, adding to what you’re saying, Larry. Thank you so much for joining us for today, but obviously there’s so much more to discuss about all of this. We’ll keep an eye on that peace deal and the upcoming meeting with Trump and the North Korean leader, and we’ll be looking forward to having you back, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks, Sharmini. I’ll be watching it closely, too, you can bet on that. This is a region I’ve been 40 years in, so it’s a region that most concerns me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.