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Col. Austin Bay on the North Korean crisis

Monday, October 9, 2006
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HH: We bring on Col. Austin Bay, retired United States Army. You can read his work at www.austinbay.net/blog. Col. Bay, welcome.

AB: Good evening, Hugh. How are you?

HH: Good. What’s the significance to an old military professional like yourself?

AB: Well, right now, we’re still in a diplomatic phase. But here is what I hope. The Clinton administration tried to buy the nuke away from the Kim regime. The Bush administration with the six nation talk forum in its A version, version one, tried to pry it loose. Now we’re going to move to six nation version two, and that’s after seeing that North Korea cannot be trusted when you try to bribe them, when you try to squeeze them. So what happens now is that we’ve moved into an era where Chinese action, not Chinese words, but Chinese actions are absolutely critical. And also, because of Japanese reaction, and that’s Japanese beligerent reaction, Japanese willingness to consider new offensive arms, and possible nuclearlization on the part of Japan, means that the military component should become much more credible to Pyongyang, the military response by the United States, Japan, and potentially China. I should also say South Korea, as well.

HH: Now I’d like to ask you, Austin Bay. As you watch this unfold, are you blaming the Clinton administration? Or are you crediting them with delaying what has happened eight years?

AB: Can I do both, Hugh?

HH: Go ahead.

AB: Is it possible to do both? Here’s one…in 1994, I wrote a column, and I got a lot of negative feedback on this, when I said at some times, you have to put something on the table, and see who reaches for it. So I was not, per se’, against providing, or offering, North Korea heavy fuel oil, even light water nuclear reactors, in an attempt to provide its energy needs, in order to engage, to see if you could bring them out. And I actually think for the first two years, from roughly ’94-’96, the Clinton administration was fairly focused on it. But here’s the problem with the Clinton administration. It never stayed focused on anything to see it through. And by ’98, it was clear that that was not working, and the even that made it clear that engagement with North Korea was not working, was the missile test in the late Summer of 1998, where part of the missile fell in the Sea of Japan, and the other part of the missile fell on the other side of Japan, and North Korea essentially told Japan, we’ve got you bracketed. They had produced, continued to work on a delivery system. We had indications that they were cheating, and then of course, two or three years later, they admit that they were cheating. Buy it didn’t work. So I give them some credit. At the same time, here was the consistent problem with the Clinton admininstration. They didn’t stay with it. And in that column, where I actually praised them, I said the problem with the Clinton administration is you take a look at Somalia, you take a look at Bosnia, they tend to say something, and then they go lackadaisical. So anyway, that’s from March of 1994, and it’s in cold type. Now you move to the Bush administration, I though the six nation approach was really a good one, because that limited North Korea’s ability to play Russia, China and the United States and Japan and South Korea off against one another, and it was an attempt to make a concerted effort to squeeze, and I call it a python strategy, to squeeze that nuke out of Pyongyang. It’s failed. Now we move into a different situation now, where they’ve shown that they are…can’t be dealt with in that manor. It’s going to take stiff, and that means potentially, you have to have military action on the table.

HH: Now Austin Bay, have you ever deployed to Korea? Have you spent…

AB: I have not. I have not deployed to Korea.

HH: This is a Navy question. I feel funny asking an Army guy, but I know you’ve done lots of joint task force stuff in the past.

AB: I’ve actually done…I actually worked on two logistical issues involving shipping troops to Korea. That was quite some time ago. But they were log issues, okay?

HH: Do you think that we have the Naval assets, whether alone, or in concert with our allies, to actually embargo, and enforce a quarantine on North Korea?

AB: All right. Maritime? Yes. But you have to have cooperation from Russia and China to seal the northern border. I believe you would have cooperation, of course, from South Korea to seal it, with the possible exception of some humanitarian aid, which of course, is going to be stolen…some of it’s going to be stolen by the North Korean military, and the North Korean government. But I believe South Korea is still going to look at that as something that they would allow through, even in an embargo situation.

HH: So you do think the assets are there if they negotiate…

AB: Oh, yeah.

HH: Okay, so that if the Security Council’s serious, they can really bring…

AB: Now would it be impermeable? No. It would still be….but the thing is, though, you could substantially enforce a maritime embargo.

HH: Now you’ve got 13,000 artillery pieces just north of the DMZ. You’ve got WMD all over the country. It’s just a big toxic waste dump of all sorts of different things. Does the United States wait very long into any kind of hot conflict before massively retaliating?

AB: What’s the scenario for the hot conflict, Hugh?

HH: Robert Kaplan was just talking about a barrage on Seoul.

AB: Oh, we have to respond quickly. And that’s what I was going to ask you. If you are attacking Seoul…let me just give you an example, and I think this is going to be my lead for my column this week, for my newspaper column, is that Samsung happens to be one of the largest private employers in Travis County, Texas, where I live. Samsung is headquartered where? In Seoul, South Korea. The central Texas economy is tied to what goes on…of course, I mean, we know this in a globalist situation, but directly tied to the economic and political stability of South Korea. Not the entire economy, but 1,200-1,300 jobs here in Travis County. Now that’s just a small increment of what’s at stake. But it’s indicative of how personal some of these economic and diplomatic and political issues can be.

HH: Sure.

AB: We have to respond if Seoul is under attack. There’s no question about that.

HH: Okay, Austin Bay. Now a question I have posed to Robert Kaplan. After five years of war, and 140,000 troops still deployed in Iraq, although casualties are not where they were at the worst part of the post-invasion operation, is the American military too small?

AB: The American military was arguably too small in 1995, for the burdens that we put on it by somewhere from 30,000-50,000 people. And I will point out the 1997 Army budget request, which asked for a plus up of 30,000. In 2003, I would say that we were short somewhere still between 30,000 and 70,000 in in-strength. That’s part of why Pete Schoomaker has made, the chief of staff of the Army, has made it so important that the Army receive a plus up in its support, both for equipment, maintenance, and toop in-strength. And that’s some of the in-fighting you’re seeing going on in the Pentagon right now. So that’s a full answer to say yes.

HH: Colonel Austin Bay, we’re out of time. Always a pleasure. I’m watching your blog closely, as I always do whenever there’s a military issue, America. Go to www.austinbay.net/blog.

End of interview.

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