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What Drives US North Korea Policy?

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Peter Lee: The US will not accept a rapprochement with North Korea with nuclear weapons, not because they are a real threat, but it would cause South Korea and Japan to seek nuclear weapons and thus weaken American dominance in the region.

Peter Lee: The US will not accept a rapprochement with North Korea with nuclear weapons, not because they are a real threat, but it would cause South Korea and Japan to seek nuclear weapons and thus weaken American dominance in the region.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Paul Jay.

The standoff, crisis, theater between the United States and North Korea continues. Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States is willing to have certain amount of negotiations with North Korea if they stop their nuclear weapons threat. And North Korea continues to say the United States should have some kind of peace agreement with it. You would think that would lead to some sort of talks. But apparently it’s more difficult than that. And to help us understand why that is—now joining us from Los Angeles is Peter Lee.

Peter is a journalist who’s covered China and its foreign relations over the last 30 years. He’s a regular columnist for Asia Times Online and a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. And he has a upcoming book called Collision Course.

Now thanks for joining us, Peter.

So if you listen to the two sides—so the United States wants North Korea to be less belligerent and all of this and willing to have talks, and North Korea says they want peace agreement, to be recognized as a legitimate state. So what’s the problem here? Why don’t they do it?

PETER LEE, JOURNALIST: Well, I’d say a lot of the problems are on the American side. Some of them pertain to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, which was for nuclear nonproliferation. And the North Korean government has made it clear that their plans for their continued existence include maintaining and perfecting their nuclear arsenal. One of the major problems for President Obama was that we deposed—or actually participated in the deposal of Muammar Gaddafi over in Libya. And until that happened, Libya was the poster child for negotiated denuclearization. I don’t know if people remember it or not, but Mr. Gaddafi had agreed to decommission all of his weapons of mass destruction. He had signed the more stringent protocol with the IAEA. He had set up a $2.5 billion fund for the Lockerbie bombing. And also he had contributed $1.2 billion to a special fund that would protect people doing business with Libya in the United States from lawsuits. And in response to that, both the Bush—George W. Bush and Obama administrations did education and counterterrorism cooperation with Gaddafi. And all that went out the window, of course, with the NATO-backed regime change program that was initiated there. And the North Koreans explicitly cited that as a reason why it would be foolhardy [incompr.] to abandon their nuclear weapons. And I think that that is a consensus which is also widely accepted in Washington that [crosstalk]

JAY: If you look at why North Korea has nuclear weapons, I mean, at the very most it’s kind of an Austin Powers style doomsday machine. Or should I say Dr. Strangelove? There’s no way it’s an aggressive posturing. It’s saying, if you ever come and try to do regime change here, we could blow a few bombs up. You can’t be an aggressive posture with only a few bombs when your enemy has, you know, hundreds or thousands of them. So everybody knows that. On the other hand, if everyone knows that, what motivates North Korea to make noises as if it would actually send missiles towards the United States and such?

LEE: Well, North Korea doesn’t have a lot of things to make noise with. It is economically insignificant compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars of trade that South Korea does with the United States and with China. The North Korean economy is close to being a basket case. And also it’s heavily sanctioned. And so the only way that they can really get attention from the United States is by increasing their nuclear capabilities. And if there is a model for North Korea, I would propose that it might be something along the lines of Israel—small country that can punch above its weight in regional affairs because it has a credible nuclear arsenal. And the North Koreans’ technical achievements, though we often mock them, are not inconsiderable, especially when it comes to missiles. And there is a good amount of evidence that they have been successful in downsizing and perfecting their warheads, their nuclear warheads, so that they can get on top of the missile. And they will be a credible nuclear-weapon state, as opposed to somebody who just has some plutonium and blows it up underground every once in a while.

JAY: But what do they want, then? I mean, this—at—you know, maybe this gives them some defense against some kind of regime change, although it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone marching into North Korea with soldiers or something. There’s too many North Korean soldiers. But the saber-rattling is towards what end?

LEE: I believe that the saber-rattling, as you put it, is—the intent is rapprochement with the United States. The North Korean regime is basically under the thumb of the People’s Republic of China, and their nuclear posturing is in many ways simply an effort to attract the attention and the negotiations of the United States so that they’ll have an alternative to Chinese domination, which, as everyone knows, in the economic field and in the strategic field is pretty much across the board.

JAY: So this sort of a reverse Mouse That Roared for people old enough to remember that movie reference. If you’re not, this was a post-World War II kind of story that if you could get defeated by the United States and then get a peace treaty, you’d get a Marshall Plan in return, and that was their aid program. This is sort of a reverse: if you make enough threats, you’ll get some kind of aid. Is that what you’re saying?

LEE: That’s what I’m saying. And, also, the United States has been playing this game on and off for the last 20 years, ever since President Clinton signed the first denuclearization agreement with North Korea back in the 1990s. And it should be pointed out that at the same time that all this nuclear posturing goes on, the United States retains a robust engagement with North Korea through North Korea’s UN mission in New York City. And, also, delegations go back and forth frequently, although they’re not publicized. The only thing you probably heard about was that Eric Schmidt of Google, he visited North Korea. And, of course, Dennis Rodman did, though he was, I don’t think, representing the interests of the U.S. government. But for the United States, to a certain extent, North Korea has always been that piece of low-hanging fruit, like, a regime which, like Burma, is dominated by the Chinese, but not particularly happy about being dominated by the Chinese. But there’s been the problem for North Korea, in terms of its relations with the United States, is that the United States always gives South Korea a veto, a de facto veto on its policy towards the North and any rapprochement. Until recently, the government in South Korea was hardline and confrontational under Lee Myung-bak. And what’s happened since then and I think has triggered a lot of these shifts and the posturing by the North Koreans is that the new president, Madam Park Geun-hye, has come in with a more conciliatory stance and offers the possibility that, you know, in order to pursue her goal of reunification between North and South, that she will countenance, you know, further U.S. engagement with Pyongyang.

JAY: Well, how much is this all really all about America’s China strategy? I mean, if the United States really wanted to sort things out with North Korea, it seems to me a significant amount of aid and helping with the electrical system and helping with food, I mean, just do it. And if you did it, you would think most of this tension would evaporate and over time there would be some rapprochement. But maybe they don’t want that. Maybe having a, you know, quote-unquote belligerent North Korea is a great rationale for having a massive military operation in South Korea and part of the China strategy.

LEE: Well, I think that that’s always been a factor. However, I think with the development of the U.S. pivot towards Asia we’ve discovered enough areas of friction directly with China that we can justify our military presence there over the Senkakus in the South China Sea, Scarborough Shoals, and so on. But I believe that the main problem, the main sticking point for the United States is the fact that we’re committed to a program of nonproliferation. And that’s not just to make President Obama and his Nobel Peace Prize look good. It’s to forestall nuclearization—or I should say weopanization—by both Japan and South Korea, both of which look at North Korea and say, North Korea has a nuclear weapons capability; maybe we should have one too. And conservative forces in both those countries have been quite vehement about insisting as a matter of national security and pride that Japan and South Korea should also have nukes.

JAY: Alright. So then why doesn’t the United States do what North Korea has asked for—a peace agreement, proper recognition, nonaggression treaty? I mean, if the issue’s nuclear weapons, it seems that’s what you would do.

LEE: Yeah. Well, I don’t think the issue so much is North Korea’s nuclear weapons; it’s the United States’ ability to retain its position of primacy in the West Pacific. If Japan and South Korea were to go nuclear, then they would be conducting an increasingly independent foreign policy, which would be very destabilizing to the region, and also a blow to [incompr.] ambitions to be the—how should I put it?—the peacekeeper, the lawgiver, the honest broker.

JAY: Some people say the hegemon.

LEE: The hegemon. Exactly. But—I don’t know if it’s widely known, but the Japanese nuclear establishment is only a very brief period away from weaponization. Under a rather dubious decision by the United States, they were allowed to close the nuclear fuel cycle, which means they retain and enrich their own plutonium and they have at least 10 tons of plutonium in-country. They have an active space program. They have all the technology needed to turn their nuclear material into nuclear weapons very quickly. And, in fact, it’s been proposed that the Iranian strategy of tiptoeing up to the weaponization line was actually done by studying the Japanese precedent. And the main sticking point for South Korea in its negotiations with Secretary Kerry on this trip is also the South Koreans, as a matter of politics and security and national pride, they’re saying that they want the same enrichment deal that Japan has. Currently, South Korea is not allowed, under its obligations with the United States to retain its spent fuel rods, it has to—you know, I should say it’s unable to process them; it just has to store them in increasingly insecure and growing ponds of material. And so, really, the North Korean dilemma is always how do you—how does the United States, you know, take away this rather ridiculous tension but at the same time keep the nuclear genie in the bottle in North Asia?

JAY: But doesn’t that then say if you want the North to give up the weapons it has, if that’s the trigger for other countries wanting to go forward, then you do your peace agreement, you do your nonaggression agreement. [crosstalk]

LEE: Yeah. Unfortunately, [crosstalk] I think, as I said, I think it’s a consensus of everyone everywhere that the North Koreans see their nuclear program as the key element in their diplomatic as well as military arsenal, and they’re not going to denuclearize. And I’m going to look at what I printed out here from Secretary Kerry’s remarks. He said North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power. But that’s not the same in my mind as the previous declarations that North Korea must immediately and demonstratively denuclearize. What’s he’s saying is that—I think he’s leaving some wiggle room in there so that North Korea can say something like, oh, yes, you know, under the proper circumstances, we will denuclearize, contribute to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But I think that any hope of progress on North Korea does not involve [incompr.] ahead of everything else.

JAY: So if you were running U.S. policy towards North Korea, what would you be doing?

LEE: Good question. I would say that the benefits of rapprochement with North Korea are close to a win-win situation for all the parties involved, I think even Beijing, as long as North Korea was maintained as a buffer, which China could maintain its economic and strategic interests. They’d be willing to have the United States go into North Korea just as China has countenanced the U.S. move into Burma. I think the main issue would be how to manage the expectations of Japan, especially, and also South Korea. But I think [incompr.]

JAY: So it seems rather reasonable. What’s stopping the U.S. from doing that?

LEE: Japan is—how should I put it? Let’s start with South Korea. South Korea, the most important change in administrations, even though, you know, the Chinese switched their leadership cadre and President Obama has changed his people and Abe came into power in Japan, the most important change was in South Korea with the election of Madam Park and the departure of Lee Myung-bak, who had basically put any sort of relations with North Korea in the deep freeze. Under his MB policy, he was basically, you know, pushing for regime change on the cheap regime collapse, absolutely no interactions. And that extended to his relations with the Chinese. And it was written that during the Lee Myung-bak presidency, he never once spoke on the phone with the Chinese leadership, while on the other hand the Chinese leadership in Beijing has actively reached out to a successor, Madam Park. And they are hoping for some sort of grand bargain in which South Korea becomes more amenable to managing its relationship with North Korea to the benefit of both China and South Korea.

JAY: Alright. So just finally, how worried should people be about this current standoff and threats and all of this?

LEE: I have to admit I’m not worried, and I don’t think the United States is particularly worried. There is, of course, always the possibility of some miscalculation, but Secretary Kerry clearly offered the olive branch during his visit to Seoul. They’re going to start negotiating. The South Koreans also put the possibility of negotiating on the table, but they were rejected by the North Koreans simply because the North Koreans feel that the United States is where the power and the authority is. And so they will not negotiate with South Korea unless the United States is actively on board. So I think that we’re actually headed for a reduction in tensions, and we don’t have to worry about getting nuked by North Korea anytime soon.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.

LEE: Pleasure to be here.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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