Circles and Squares

Insights into Korea's Sudden Rise

Asia Institute Seminar with Larry Wilkerson “The Real Issues on the Korean Peninsula”

Asia Institute Seminar

 

“The Real Issues on the Korean Peninsula”

 

August 28, 2012

 

 

Asia Institute Seminar

 

“The Real Issues on the Korean Peninsula”

 

August 28, 2012

 

Larry Wilkerson

Pamela C. Harriman Professor of Government and Public Policy

College of William & Mary

(former Chief of Staff, Department of State) 

 

Emanuel Pastreich:

So the conflict between North Korea and South Korea just goes on and on. We can blame this state on this president or that administration on the Northern side, or the Southern side but clearly the problem goes beyond the capacity of one individual, or even a group, to change. What might be a new way of tackling this problem?

Larry Wilkerson:

I have a solution. I am not sure that it is a politically acceptable solution. Certainly it would not be acceptable to any United States administration we are likely to encounter soon. But this solution deserves to be discussed. I can sum it up succinctly: get the United States out of the process. When I say “get the United States out”I don’t necessarily mean, although it may be possible in the future, the removal of United States forces from South Korea. That is a step that would come later.

The first step is to get the focus away from nuclear weapons and nuclear power in all interactions with North Korea, and also to take the focus off of the United States and its concerns. The United States has developed a lumbering bureaucracy related to East Asia with its own complex security concerns in Northeast Asia that cannot represent the interests of the Korean Peninsula. Let us put the focus back on the Korean people themselves in both North Korea and South Korea.

I am convinced that if we let South Korea and North Korea go forward in their discussions without the constant interference of the United States, they will find a route to accommodation or reunification, whether through a “sunshine policy” or some very different route. Let them deal with the problem themselves. Although the man in the street is not aware of it, the United States is constantly interfering with the attempts of the Koreans to determine their own future.

The United States can offer its support to Korea, but not in the sort of obstruction and interference we have seen so far. When and if necessary, Korea can invite China, Russia and Japan to enter into the effort. That is the only real way to move towards reunification. Consistently the United States has gummed up the works. Requiring all these countries to be part of the process through the Six Party Talks is a perfect example.  

Emanuel Pastreich:

So how has the United States gummed up the works?

Larry Wilkerson:

One problem is simply American arrogance in its attitude towards Koreans. That arrogance on the part of United States representatives just increases apace. After serving in the Bush administration, I had some confidence that the Obama administration would ameliorate the situation in significant ways. But in fact the people around Obama have turned out to be just more subtle in their arrogance that they show towards Korea and the world. Hillary Clinton, for example, is a little bit better at peddling that arrogance, but overall the Americans are not accessible or accommodating of the problems Koreans face on the ground.

The second problem is the complete inability of Americans to see the big picture. For example, today the United States cannot see the big picture in the Middle East when it deals with Syria, Iran, Israel.  Similarly, we cannot see the large issues, the complex factors underlying developments in Northeast Asia. We cannot see the big picture anywhere, it seems, and I feel that the real problem is simply that the United States lacks a vision for what could be beyond our perceived self-interests.

And the third and most tragic part of the problem is the American obsession with “national security.” We have this overwhelming focus on national security issues to the exclusion of everything else in our foreign policy. As a result, the degree to which the United States is a national security state, keeps it from effectively engaging with others in good faith to bring about compromises and original solutions. This concern with national security keeps us from treating our partners as equals. We cannot consider the problem of the Korean Peninsula without a serious reflection on the structural problems within the United States itself.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What are some concrete examples of how the United States’s structural problems effect its diplomacy?

Larry Wilkerson:

Let us look at one aspect of this national security cancer. The United States is now top in arm sales by an order of magnitude according to the New York Times. We sold 66 billion dollars of arms in 2011, which tops the US previous record of 26 billion set the year before. That comes to $9.50 for each person living on the planet.

Russia was second in arms sales with a paltry four billion dollars. This is an unbelievable figure. A country like the United States that is so involved in the national security business, for whom income from arms sales is so important, is simply not capable of the sort of delicate, subtle and prolonged negotiations required for the careful diplomacy necessary to address the problems of the two Koreas. The priority is weapons systems, not developing personal relations, or engaging in complex discussions on multiple tracks over years. That is the primary reason that I suggest that the United States can do the most good by simply getting out of the North-South discussion. If our structural needs go against the concerns of the Koreans we cannot realistically help in the discussions between the two Koreas.

No place shows the limits of our ability to engage in diplomacy in the traditional sense than our lack of engagement with Iran. One of the reasons that our rhetoric with Iran is so strident, that the United States is so hostile towards Iran, has nothing to do with Iran itself. We are not so much concerned about scaring Iran as we are about scaring the nations around Iran like Saudi Arabia who might have some disagreements with Iran– so completely, we hope, that they will buy our arms.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Returning to Korea, what do you think about the Sunshine Policy as it was practiced starting with Kim Daejung?

Larry Wilkerson:

I won’t say the Sunshine Policy was perfect, but there really was no way for the Sunshine Policy to succeed when it faced such a level of hostility from the United States—particularly from the fist George W. Bush administration, the one I served. If you engage with your enemies, sometimes you have to hold your nose as you do so. Anyone who assumes that the process of engagement has to go perfectly without any dissimulation, hiccups, or seemingly intractable complexities, is simply naïve about how any real diplomacy works. If one has the superior position in the discussions, which I believe South Korea has—economically, financially, governance-wise, and so on–in its engagement with North Korea, one can wade through the prevarications along the way because one can be clear about the ultimate goal and magnanimous at the same time. South Korea has shown such remarkable economic development that it is now a subject for study. So South Korea is in a position to engage and to transform North Korea through its model. South Korea has the superior position, but it does not have to be arrogant about it.  Instead, it has to use that superiority subtly to co-opt.

So from the secure position of South Korea, you can legitimately take the position that I am going to suffer all sorts of abuse in order to get to my ultimate goal which is, after all, to absorb North Korea. But you cannot pursue that rather complex route if you have this enormous giant hanging over your shoulder at every turn that is focused exclusively on the nuclear issue—i.e. the United States. The United States falls over itself to stick the North Koreans in the eye at every turn, and insult them. That situation made the Sunshine Policy simply impossible to carry through.

Emanuel Pastreich:

The man in the street is confused about North Korea: can you trust them, or not?

Larry Wilkerson:

Of course there is some truth about all aspects of what the man in the street sees and reads about North Korea. Let us face it, the Koreans are a proud people, and North Korea is a proud country. We should not expect them to just bow down and do whatever they are told. And remember, the Koreans, North and South, are the same people. There are regional differences, but Koreans north and south are both proud people, as John Feffer said.

I certainly can understand how the man on the street in South Korea is confused by what he reads in the newspaper. It’s a question of leadership on the South Korean side. How does the leadership in South Korea mount a sustained campaign that convinces the citizens that it has a policy that is consistent, productive and sustainable? Sustainable is the most important part, for the process is long and the policy of engagement must be sustained through multiple administrations in order to be successful. We cannot achieve a transformation of the Korean Peninsula in one administration. And bouncing around from Roh Moo Hyun to Lee Myungbak, with their opposite policies, makes the whole matter just all the more confusing for the man in the street. Let us start with one long-term and strategic plan.

Ultimately with the right leadership, and without the interference of the United States on a daily basis, Koreans can build a consensus for reunification at home and achieve some success over the course of a generation. The Koreans are entirely capable of doing so and I have seen the wisdom and the intellect in Seoul. Of course you also have to deal with the regional powers that have their own dogs in this fight—but the primary issues are a domestic vision and consensus and north-south diplomacy.   Concomitant but less vital is regional diplomacy—with China, Japan and Russia primarliy.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Tell us something about what Korea’s neighbors are thinking about the North Korea problem.

Larry Wilkerson:

Russia is not that engaged in the region. Russia right now under Putin is remarkably hesitant to develop its Siberian far east. So why is Putin reluctant to develop that area which has so many resources? Because the region is being overwhelmed and overrun by the Chinese! Why develop a region that will just be for the benefit of the Chinese who are flooding in in search of opportunities, and also in search of land to settle.

Putin does not want to develop infrastructure that will just be helpful to those Chinese. As a result Putin would rather develop Western Siberia as a counterweight to this region that he sees the Chinese so rapidly overtaking. So that flow of Chinese throughout the region is a factor we should keep in mind when thinking about North Korea.

Russia has enormous problems with Eastern Siberia, which is the region that will be most directly impacted by what North Korea decides it will do regarding integration with the rest of East Asia. That tension between China and Russia is a major factor in the background.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Will Siberia become part of the greater Chinese sphere of influence? What are the implications for the Korean Peninsula?

Larry Wilkerson:

We see that the Chinese most certainly wish to expand outwards as individuals and as a country and Russia is underpopulated and resource-rich. Chinese are rapidly availing themselves of this opportunity. Some 4000-5000 Chinese cross the Amur River on a weekly basis, of which a thousand will not return to China. They are beginning to settle in and to develop the region, both in the immediate vicinity of the Amur River and even further north. The implications are immense and we should remember the similar pressures of Germans settling in Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries that caused such geopolitical struggles.

The Chinese are developing the area in terms of China’s own economic and trade interests. The whole development is somewhat disturbing in that the Russians have made military moves to increase their presence sufficiently that they have the option of reducing the spread of this massive settlement by the Chinese by cordoning off the region—beyond the range that Russia thinks they can control the situation.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So would we say that this immigration is massive illegal immigration? Similar to the immigration of Mexicans into the United States that has caused such political trouble in the United States?

Larry Wilkerson:

The situation is quite similar and has the potential to be quite destabilizing if it is not properly handled. The implications are enormous. We need to think about borders and the flows of people as a big part of the security picture and move away from an obsession with conventional arms. If you’re familiar with studies about transforming forces in human history, you know that one of the most powerful of those forces is human migration.

Emanuel Pastreich:

If you think about it Mexico is not a geopolitical superpower like China. So the migration issue could be even more destabilizing.

Larry Wilkerson:

Certainly the influx of the Chinese into Siberia could be massively destabilizing, but equally significant are the vast resources that lie just beneath the surface of Eastern Siberia. According to some of my friends at ExxonMobil, there may be 20-30 trillion dollars in oil, coal and gas just beneath the surface waiting to be exploited. Now that is a serious geopolitical issue that dwarfs disagreements on the DMZ. And if global warming continues, there will be even more land to settle in new ways that were not possible—all at the same time as enormous amounts of methane gas are released that will speed up global warming significantly—with dire consequences for all of humanity. We have to see North Korea in the context of these larger movements that are transforming the region, not in a vacuum.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So let us consider the total region and the larger shifts going on that may impact the future of the Korean peninsula. What will the neighborhood around Korea look like in the future?

Larry Wilkerson:

Let us take a look at China which stands to be the main player. The People’s Liberation Army’s advice to the Politburo now includes the concept that North Korea is a very critical buffer between what they see as American interests (South Korea and Japan), and American forces as well, and themselves. That Chinese perception is something you would have to deal with quite directly in a crisis situation. If we had a political collapse in North Korea, a scenario that I think is possible, I assume that the Chinese have contingency plans for moving forces some forty to sixty kilometers into North Korea under the guise of stabilizing the country if they perceive any risk of collapse. But those troops would set up a new buffer zone for China. That is to say that those troops would not intend to leave. China has an immediate concern with the immediate military implications of reunification.

In the long term, China is thinking that if they allow the Korean Peninsula to be peacefully reunified, and if they allow for the Chinese-North Korea border to remain the same, that the reunified Korea would ultimately become part of a Northeast Asian, United States-dominated security complex. That total complex would include all of Japan and 70 million united Koreans. In addition other players from ASEAN and elsewhere who were somehow unhappy with China for one reason or another (about the South China Sea, or whatever) might align with this group at any time. Chinese fear that this situation would give the United States a more formidable leverage in Northeast Asia and East Asia as a whole.

I personally doubt that such a scenario is possible. The Chinese concerns are misplaced and if we look at history and previous great powers, the answer is clear: the United States is so over-extended that it cannot engage in that sort of power game. Just being able to hold together what we have now in East Asia, or Europe, or the Middle East is going to be extremely challenging. The chance that we would be able to build something even broader, more like NATO embracing the entire region with Japan and Korea at the heart, that I think is a pipe dream. It will not happen.  But admittedly it would be hard to convince the PLA of that reality.

Now if China were to become a real threat, a clear and present, in your face, blow your ship up, kind of a threat, then the entire situation would change. But I don’t see the Chinese being that strategically stupid.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I think that with the massive budget cuts within the United States today, perhaps the greatest threat for us will come from the United States inability to properly control the dangerous materials, dangerous chemicals, nuclear materials and weapons, stored within the continental United States. We have to be worried about the United States itself.

Larry Wilkerson:

Well put. And our infrastructure is falling apart, creating unimagined dangers. There are many dangerous assets that are not secure in the United States, and the situation will get worse. We did a study as part of the New American Foundation’s Smart Strategy project that looks at the 4 trillion dollar infrastructure of the United States today. We looked at housing and transportation (light and long-distance rail, highways, bridges), sewer and water systems, electrical grids, etc. We learned to our dismay that not only is the United States falling apart, but there are no real substantial plans to rebuild the United States;No plans to rebuild the United States not as what it was in the past, but with a sustainable and resilient, energy efficient and rational infrastructure.

I will say this, however, what we have found across the country is that states are making efforts to rebuild infrastructure in the United States and efforts are being led by the states in defiance of Washington D.C. We identified over two hundred metroplexes that are investing in infrastructure, from Seattle to New York City from Detroit to Houston, where local governments are actually taking the first steps to building infrastructure for the future.

We Americans need to think less about North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs and more about our own infrastructure issues, immigration issues, environmental issues. And the same thing goes for Korea. North Korea’s nuclear program is just one problem that blinds people to the significant long-term challenges for Korea. For example, climate change and its potential for devastating impact on human populations is not a hoax. It is as real as the melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Let us talk about the Kaesung Industrial Complex, a project with some achievements that has fallen into a sort of limbo. What is your assessment of the Kaesung Industrial Complex?

Larry Wilkerson:

Overall, I felt that the Kaesung Industrial Complex was a brilliant strategy and I told Secretary of State Powell exactly that at the time back in 2002. I told him that the project was extremely well thought out. What I meant was that the Kaesung Industrial Complex was a policy of engagement that was ultimately aimed at absorbing North Korea, to cajole, to wheedle, to convince (whether you see the terms in positive or negative sense) North Korea to change. The strategy was to have the North Koreans wake up one day and find themselves, for all intents and purposes, having become part of a South Korean economic and financial system.

Moreover, following that strategy, North Koreans would become so enamored of the products produced by Kaesung, and the economic potential of that complex, that over time they would have no choice but to continue on with liberalization. I realize that the process is very hard to pursue when you are dealing with a regime whose only concern is its political survival— and maintaining the life style to which the powerful have become accustomed. But we need to be patient. The idea was smart. I spent a good amount of time speaking with Korean generals, diplomats and policy makers in Korea back ten years ago. When I mentioned such possible problems, they smiled and they said, “we can deal with that.” These sorts of changes will be painful and contradictory, but the important thing is to go forward.

In a sense you are buying the North Koreans off. But that’s better than having a highly destructive war with them.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So you are suggesting that at some level there is always some sort of a transaction taking place. That as with the Soviet Union, we have to admit there is a buying off, but that is just how it works. We should not be so squeamish, not wait for some perfect opportunity. To say we are buying them off sounds terrible, unacceptable.

Larry Wilkerson:

I told my South Korean colleagues, “I have played the war games. Those were war games that took into account just about every angle of every possible scenario. Let me assure you that it is cheaper to buy off North Korea than it is to have a war.”

Emanuel Pastreich:

You are saying something here that I think is quite profound and which many people have not thought about. The principle criticism of the Sunshine Policy is that it is just like the tribute to the Barbary Pirates: we are paying them off and rewarding them for being bad. But you are suggesting there is a more profound strategy behind that action because the process is transformative.

Larry Wilkerson:

There is a more subtle strategy that is obscured in the sensationalist media reporting. The strategy is to get S. Korean managers in those factories, to get N. Korean workers exposed to the culture of those factories, so that over time, and this process might take a generation, we can look forward to absorbing North Korea. And the Northerners will say, “we like this. This is good.” And at the same time, we have to deal with the 300 or so at the top leadership who are vehemently opposed to such changes because they see them as eroding their own power. We will have to deal with those people separately. Most South Koreans who think about this issue carefully say that if you offer the elite a deal, you can buy them off too. I do not see that “buying off” as an immoral action. It is the way such transitions are handled and Koreans should be realistic, even as they hold up their ideals.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I guess I feel uncomfortable looking at the problem just in terms of money. Of course you buy people off in all cases; in democracy we are constantly making political deals based on offering money in one form or another to interest groups in return for their support. I understand that reality, and politics has always been that way. But at the same time, there is such a disturbing trend in our society today to see everything in terms of money and monetary value.

Larry Wilkerson:

I look at the issue from the perspective of what one intelligence analyst told me back in 2006. He said, “We, NATO and the United States, have spent so much money in Afghanistan that if we had just taken the money and given it to the people of Afghanistan as cash, we could have given each person $40,000 each.” That puts the problem in perspective. I would rather see the money handed over by some corrupt bastard from the CIA in a suitcase to the people, than for that money to be spent on killing and the destruction of homes and communities in a war. That is our choice.

But there is reason we cannot just give the money away. I will be very frank with you on this point.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Please!

Larry Wilkerson

The United States today, because of its enormous military budgets and twisted policies, needs North Korea to be an enemy. It is as simple as that. If North Korea were not perceived as an enemy, if North Korea were not perceived as an intractable, implacable, inflexible Stalinist dictatorship—as a dangerous threat that cannot be won over, then there would be no long-term reason to continue to remain in South Korea. The United States does not have the imagination, or the incentive, to come up with a different reason.

The United States can’t do whatever it feels like in Northeast Asia claiming some sort of “national security agenda” unless it has another “national security state” that it is playing against. In this case, it has two such states, one for certain—North Korea—and the other aborning—China. The two are part of the problem and the US has no incentive to solve the problem. Of course with China, the economic dimensions are so huge that the U.S. dare not say that China is the new Soviet Union, though there are those among the national security elite in America who would like to so declare. The unfortunate development of an enormous national security bureaucracy within the United States informs everything we do in East Asia and, for that matter, in the entire world.

We do the same, for examples, with Iran and Cuba. In the case of Havana (Cuba) it is comical that it is presented as some sort of a national security threat to the United States.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So let us talk about Japan. Japan has suddenly started to talk directly with North Korea. What is going on behind the scenes? How can we interpret this shift in a larger context?

Larry Wilkerson

Japan has always had the strong desire to discover all there is to know about its abductees—those citizens kidnapped, more or less, by North Korea. So that has to be at least part of Tokyo’s motivation. Likewise, Japan is not content with U.S. policy nor with the 6-party talks.  Often, bilateral talks can accomplish more than multilateral talks.  Japan, after all, is beneath the North Korean missile envelope as well as South Korea.  There is a strategic interest in coming to some sort of understanding with Pyongyang.  I don’t blame Tokyo for wanting to engage.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So let us consider the implications of growing Chinese influence in North Korea, and consider that in light of the less than constructive role the United States has played at times. The problem is this: there are discussions going on between North Korea and China about far greater economic cooperation.

If the South Koreans think they are at an advantage with regards to North Korea, they may have a rude shock. This could be the end of a reunification process in which South Korea is in the driver’s seat. China could insist in being involved in all discussions with North Korea and be the main player in economic development there.

Larry Wilkerson

All possibilities to contemplate. Would it not be ironic if China were to adopt essentially the Sunshine Policy and make it work!

 

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