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AEI’s Michael Rubin on North Korea and the Axis of Evil

Friday, April 5, 2013

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HH: I’m joined now by Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

MR: Hey, thanks for having me, Hugh. It’s always great to talk to you as well.

HH: How serious a crisis do you think the North Korean situation is?

MR: I think it is serious. I think it’s a mistake to simply dismiss it as bluster. On one hand, the North Koreans have always thought to achieve diplomatic concessions by blackmailing the world. But on the other hand, we have a young, untested ruler who may actually believe what the people around him are telling him, which is that he can successfully win. Remember, while it’s doubtful he can nuke San Francisco or Los Angeles, he may be convinced the Americans are a paper tiger, and he basically holds Seoul as a hostage, the South Korean capitol.

HH: Now Michael Rubin, has the President and his senior advisors, Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry, have they done enough to communicate what needs to be communicated to the new dictator?

MR: Well, they certainly are doing a decent job so far by sending a flotilla towards Guam helping prop up the missile defense in Japan, and sending forces to the region. Unfortunately, while we can credit them for reacting well, the fact of the matter is by eviscerating the United States Navy by projecting an aura of weakness, what we really have done is convince the North Korean leadership that we are a paper tiger, and it’s not a surprise that they’re trying to test us right now.

HH: Now the South Korean president, I pointed this out to earlier guests, has gone online or gone public with a very hard line set of remarks to her generals, saying we will not hesitate. At the slightest provocation, we will respond. And of course, North Koreans do crazy stuff. They shell islands, they sink ships. Does that alarm you that we’re in sort of a guns of August thing, where the South Koreans are now locked into having to respond to anything that he does?

MR: Well, I think we actually should be listening to the South Koreans on this part. If we go back to 1994, and again in 1998, the South Koreans were warning us not to trust North Korea with our nuclear deals and so forth. And in the end, it turned out they were right. The fact of the matter is that while under the demilitarized zone, we found three North Korean tunnels, tunnels so side that you can drive a tank through them. The South Koreans believe that there’s about 14 others which are undiscovered right now. Certainly, North Korea seems to be preparing for a war one way or another, and it’s time we step up for them. Hugh, what really worries me is the reaction of people like Bill Richardson, a former special envoy for North Korea, by saying that we have to put diplomacy first, that we have to appoint a special envoy. What he’s basically saying is we have to go tit for tat back to the bargaining table and offer North Korea even more. I’m not sure whether we should be rewarding their defiance right now.

HH: Now Michael Rubin, tonight, CNN is actually going to do a special right after this show concludes at 9pm in the East. They’re doing one on 9pm in the East, and I’m glad that someone’s paying attention. But I generally get the sense from the American media that oh, don’t worry about those crazy North Koreans, they just had Dennis Rodman there, and they’re not really serious. Do you get that sense? And how wrongful is it to project that blasé attitude?

MR: It is very, it’s darn wrong to do that. North Korea’s been up to no good for quite some time. If you look at something, for example, like the Congressional Research Service report, they’re nonpartisan, apolitical, what they basically have done is compile what’s known about North Koreans. And North Koreans have been indeed, with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, this recently defeated terrorist group, and they’ve also been up to their eyeballs with Hezbollah. Most of those tunnels which Hezbollah digs underground to hide their missiles and their command centers were actually constructed by the North Koreans.

HH: Wow.

MR: Presumably, the North Koreans are doing the same thing in Iran, too. There really is something to the Axis of Evil, no matter how much diplomats want to instead engage with smoke and mirrors. We have to deal with reality.

HH: Now we know the North Koreans were behind the aborted nuclear facility that the Israelis took out in Syria at the end of the Bush administration. Do you suspect them of having any hand in propping up Assad?

MR: Certainly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trying to help him get as much weaponry as possible. And here again, the whole Axis of Evil things comes through. The Iranians just finished a 72 day deployment of their navy to the Pacific Ocean. It’s the first deployment of the Iranian navy to the Pacific Ocean since the 10th Century. They were stopping in Shanghai, they were stopping in Sri Lanka. But if the Iranian navy gets those logistical hubs, they can increase their trade exponentially with the North Koreans. It’s something to worry about.

HH: Now in terms of Iran, I’m switching on you here, but there was a New York Times story today that referred to the mullahs as the traditionalists, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, who is being presented as transforming himself into a populist. What did you make of that, and of the maneuvering inside of Iran as they come up on their successor to Ahmadinejad?

MR: Well, certainly Ahmadinejad has always been a populist. When you see him on Iranian television, for example, he’s sitting down, eating off the floor in a room without furniture while many of the traditional clerics live in opulent, almost palace-like structures. That said, it’s always a mistake to read too much into the factionalization whether in Tehran or in North Korea, because ultimately, the regime has solidarity against certain principles. And unfortunately, those principles revolve around terrorism, and ultimately, the destruction of the United States of America.

HH: All right, so Michael Rubin, to finish off in Syria as we do this tour de force, yesterday, Jake Tapper on this show said his reporting is that President Obama is restraining hawks in his administration from assisting the Syrian opposition. Frank Gaffney says no, in fact, President Obama is arming the Syrian opposition, in Frank’s view, a mistake. What do you think is going on specifically with the United States in Syria? And what do you think ought to be going on?

MR: Well ultimately, it’s important to look at Syria not as a replay of the Libyan civil war, but something more akin to the Bosnian civil war. We’ve had ethnic and sectarian cleansing. The face of Syria has forever changed. Now there’s a conceit in Washington, Hugh, which says we can carry on debates as long as we want, and we’re always going to have the same options and choices on the table. Unfortunately, that’s naïve. The range of acceptable strategies really constrains with time. I’m not sure there’s any good outcome. I’m actually much more with Frank on this right now. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The Syrian regime is like dying of a heart attack. The Syrian opposition is like dying of cancer right now. Unfortunately, we didn’t take the preventative medicine when we could have.

HH: Is there something we ought to be doing vis-à-vis Lebanon or Iraq that we’re not doing at least?

MR: Well, as much pressure as possible on both Iraq and Lebanon. The Iranians have been getting in deep in Northern Lebanon, and that itself is a mistake. But basically, what American national security is, is to prevent the fall of any of the 40 or so Syrian chemical weapons caches into the hands of radicals, whether those radicals are Shiite radicals like Hezbollah, or Sunni radicals like the Nusra front. That should be our main concern.

HH: Has that happened yet? Are you satisfied that has not happened yet?

MR: I am satisfied that has not happened yet. Remember in Libya, when we were wrapping up their weapons of mass destruction program in 2003, is took us about ten days to do that, and the government wasn’t shooting at us when we were trying. I’m not sure whether we realize the complexity of what that operation would entail in Syria.

HH: Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, thanks for joining us. We’ll check back as the crisis around the world, both in Korea and Syria, continue to escalate.

End of interview.

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