Richard Allen: Trouble on the Korean Peninsula

Richard V. Allen, Ronald Reagan’s chief foreign policy adviser from 1977 to 1980 and President Reagan’s first national security adviser, knows his way around the Korean Peninsula and the government corridors of the Pacific Basin as well as any American. Allen, who has visited Japan, Korea and China hundreds of times over the last 40 years, is a founding member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of both the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. Defense Policy Board, a group of outside advisers that helps the Pentagon formulate policy. To get his take on the international brouhaha over North Korea’s apparent detonation of a nuclear weapon, I called Allen Friday in Tokyo, where he was meeting old friends and talking to Japanese leaders.

Are we absolutely sure that North Korea tested a real nuclear weapon?

Richard Allen: Well, I’m not sure. I think it’s equally likely that it discharged a large conventional explosion deep in the ground as it is that a small, somewhat-fizzled nuclear device was detonated. So take your pick. Whatever you chose to believe this evening is probably valid until otherwise contradicted. The only way to contradict any point of view is to gather samples, and those are generally done atmospherically. There’s nothing on the ground that we have in the way of any intelligence, nor do the South Koreans. So there isn’t the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell that the site will be found, penetrated and sampled, because no one is allowed there and it is a remote portion of NK.

What is North Korea trying to do?

Allen: North Korea is attempting to extract, blackmail fashion, assistance for its perpetually failed system that is based on utter and complete totalitarianism, down to and including prison camps and death camps for dissidents. It is a failed state in every respect of the word, and it apparently has a maniacal desire to achieve nuclear status because it fears the United States. But all of the foofaraw about North Korea escapes the basic truth because we are so uninformed, generally speaking, in the United States about North Korea.
We fail to recognize as well that the only path to peace on the Korean Peninsula is the path that runs from Pyongyang to Seoul. The path to peace on the Korean Peninsula doesn’t run through Washington.

You mean the peace that was never really settled from the Korean War or this current episode?

Allen: Well, I don’t see any distinction. Peace on the Korean Peninsula implies just that. We have had 37,000 troops — now about 30,000, fortunately, which is less than we had before — as a tripwire in Korea and we have defended the Republic of Korea — South Korea — for over a half century.

It’s time for them to step up to the plate and for our troops to leave and get out of harm’s way. We can still fulfill all of our objectives and our obligations under the mutual security treaty with the Republic of Korea by using assets that are based off shore.

Withdrawing our troops from South Korea sounds to me like Cato Institute’s policy.

Allen: Well, Cato is a fine institution, but what it thinks doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. I’ve followed very closely the U.S.-Korean alliance over many years. I’ve participated in structuring it and fulfilling our obligations under it. I’ve spent a lot of time in Korea, especially in the past 30 years, and we now find ourselves confronted with an utterly perfidious South Korean regime that pursues objectives that are diametrically opposed to ours.

“South Korean,” you said?

Allen: I did say that – S-O-U-T-H. It’s a perfidious South Korean regime that has a number of objectives that are inconsistent with ours. This is causing us great heartburn. One of their objectives, by the way, is to gain control of wartime command of troops. I’ve been thinking that it would be one cold day in hell before we ever put our troops under a South Korean general on the Korean Peninsula. The South Koreans want us out, but they want us in. They want us in because we are a convenient tripwire. Anti-Americanism is rife, particularly among younger people. Whether that’s our failure or someone else’s is to be determined another time. But we’ve done our best by the South Koreans over many, many years. Our military, in my view, has a vested interest in staying in South Korea because it is a good place to get promotions and it’s one of the few places where you face the enemy across a demarcation line — in this case, the 38th Parallel or the DMZ.

But the time has come for us to withdraw. If we’re not wanted, and if the South Koreans want to command American troops in a time of war, and if our occupation of the real estate that they want is annoying to them — all of which are true — then it’s time to go. And still fulfill our obligations, I stress, by using assets deployed in the neighborhood.

What should the U.S. response be to Kim Jong Il’s latest provocation?

Allen: Well, it’s hard to say. We’ve been subjected to a series of provocations. The North Koreans never had any intention of not detonating a nuclear weapon, or what they say is a nuclear weapon. They never had any intention of not achieving some ballistic missile capability to hypothetically lift weapons… . They have achieved a certain minimal expertise in short-range rockets which could be armed with conventional warheads — they don’t have the ability to detonate nuclear weapons. So we’ve been under a series of provocations all the way from the ax murders of the 1970s, when they sent people out to murder some of our troops in cold blood with axes.

It is a cruel society and an estranged society. The Koreans of the north speak differently from the Koreans of the south now, after this long period of separation and utter isolation. Starvation is used as an instrument of policy, which I consider to be provocative. Human rights are denied. The abysmal, awful prisons are on the scale of the gulags of World War II. So I view the actions of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Song before him, as a series of nonstop provocations. The hatred of the United States is apparently so deeply rooted among those of the leading clique, the nomenklatura of North Korea, that it can’t be eradicated. Their existence is a provocation.

So this nuclear test is nothing special then?

Allen: I’m not a slight bit surprised by the detonation of some instrument that may or may not be a nuclear weapon. I never had any doubt they would proceed. They have no intention of keeping any agreement — ever. They do not keep their agreements. They exist by selling weapons, by counterfeiting our money — they’ve even counterfeited our new bills with ink and paper that are the equivalent or better than ours. They sell dope abroad. They sell bogus cigarettes. That’s the way they earn foreign exchange. It’s not a normal state in any sense of the word. It’s not a state that can be negotiated with and then relied upon to keep its agreements if there ever were an agreement.

So what should the U.S. response be to this nuclear test?

Allen: It should be harsh, in every respect, including but not limited to continuing to press for meaningful sanctions — including the interruption of commerce. The Japanese have banned all ships. We already have in motion a program called the Proliferation Security Initiative — the PSI, to which some 90 nations belong — under which there is broad cooperation to intercept and remove from any North Korean ship weapons of mass destruction that are en route. We’ve already had one success in that regard. We lifted some missiles about 18 months ago out of a North Korean ship going into Yemen.
Our problem is that neither the Russians nor the Chinese are going to cooperate with us, which of course is ridiculous. Nor will the South Koreans. They will not take a hard line. So I think we have to look past the South Koreans and do our best to keep the pressure on China, because China is definitely embarrassed by whatever occurred in this detonation of an instrument. China, however, finds it very convenient to keep North Korea exactly the way it is.

Is China the key to solving this diplomatically?

Allen: The key is in Pyongyang with the nut-cake that runs the place. And he’s very clever and very persistent. China is useful. If China would simply stop supplying energy and food, that might get some results. The Chinese said they are not going to do that. And as I said, our erstwhile South Korean allies, our once-upon-a-time allies, have no intention of doing anything serious, either. Neither do the Russians.

Is there something that the United States should make sure it does not do?

Allen: Well, we shouldn’t send troops across the border (laughs).

I guess there are a lot of things we shouldn’t do.

Allen: I can’t think of anything that stands out that we should not do. We shouldn’t do what the Chinese did to the Russians when they were in a period of tension 25 years or so ago, which was to drop their drawers and moon the Russian soldiers… . I guess you could say what we should not do is ease up the pressure on everyone else to take a stand. This is not a European problem. The Europeans yammer and mouth off about North Korea but they haven’t the faintest idea what goes on there — not the faintest. Can you imagine a Jacques Chirac calling for restraint in North Korea (laughs)? He doesn’t have the faintest idea. I think we’d have to give him a map and color it red to show him which is the bad part.

Should the U.S. meet with North Korea one-on-one?

Allen: No. I believe everyone who has said that is absolutely dead wrong. We have plenty of opportunity to meet the North Koreans. We can meet them secretly in New York and have in the past. But where we need to meet them is in the framework of the so-called six-party talks.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t attack President Bush for going it alone and then attack him for going at it in a multilateral context. The critics are never satisfied. But what is the most shameful of all — and I landed in Tokyo just as the explosion was occurring — is that it immediately became a political tool (in the United States) on the side of the president’s critics. Some vigorous critics attacked him mercilessly.

To say that the fact that there was an explosion of some kind, nuclear or not, in North Korea was a failure of United States policy? Idiocy. There was no failure of U.S. policy. Was it a failure when France got the bomb in the ’50s? Was it a failure when China got it? Was it a failure of U.S. policy when Pakistan and India developed a nuclear capability or when Israel developed its own latent capability? Were these all failures? To what extent is the United States responsible for things it can’t control?  So, no, we should not be speaking to the North Koreans one-on-one. We can speak to them one-on-one in the context of 12 pairs of eyes looking on.

What would be the ideal ending to this current situation?

Allen: The ideal ending would be the decision of Kim Jong Il to walk away and seek asylum some place in another dictatorship. The second ideal ending would be regime change. A third ideal ending would be that Korea could be reunited on South Korean terms, as opposed to Kim Jong Il’s insistence that it be united on the terms of North Korea.