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Max Boot On The Handling Of The North Korean Crisis

Friday, April 5, 2013

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HH: Pleased to welcome back Max Boot, who is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council On Foreign Relations, the author most recently of Invisible Armies. Max Boot, one of the things we’re worried about in the North Korean peninsula is that they have their own invisible army, all these special forces that they allegedly have that can infiltrate and provoke mayhem in the South. Is that an overrated threat? Or is that real?

MB: No, I think that’s a real threat. I think that’s a more real threat than the prospect of North Korea shooting missiles at the South, or sending off nuclear weapons, or some of these other hyperbolic, over the top threats that they’re making. I think they’re much more likely to strike in some kind of sneaky fashion, which will be hard to trace to the North. And certainly using special forces as their own terrorist group is certainly something they’ve done in the past, and could well do in the future.

HH: So Max Boot, how dangerous is the situation on the Korean peninsula now in your estimate?

MB: It’s dangerous, but it’s been dangerous for decades. I think if there is a heightened element of danger now, it comes primarily from the fact that you have a new leader in North Korea, Kim Jong Un, who is untested, unprepared, and unpredictable. It’s hard to know what he’s going to do. In the past, his father, Kim Jong Il, always seemed to pull back from the brink and to know how far he could push things before provoking an outright war. Kim Jong Un is probably trying to do the same type of brinksmanship, but the question is, is he skilled enough to do it? Or will he miscalculate and trigger something that he doesn’t necessarily want to trigger?

HH: Now Max Boot, you are a military historian. One of the most alarming things in the last couple of days was the announcement by the new South Korean president that her generals ought not to take into account political considerations in responding immediately to any provocation. Of course, I thought about the shelling of the island, and the submarine attack on the ship. That’s sort of an open-ended prompt to her generals, isn’t it?

MB: It is, and I think it’s a response to the anger in South Korea over North Korean attacks like the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of the island, which did not elicit much of a reaction in the past from South Korea. I think there is a sense among the South Korean public, enough is enough. And that certainly heightens the danger of the situation, and I think that’s part of the reason why President Obama has been so forward leaning in sending the F-22’s and the B-2, and demonstrating American military might and commitment to South Korea to reassure the South Koreans that they’re not alone, they don’t have to attack if they’re attacked, that we will protect them.

HH: Has the President and his key senior advisors, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, said enough with enough specificity, Max Boot, about what will happen in the event of bigger provocations than we’ve seen in the past?

MB: I think they’ve done a pretty good job of signaling American might and commitment in drawing a clear red line for North Korea. In fact, I’m not always a fan of the Obama foreign policy to put it mildly, but I think in this case, they’re actually, in some ways, doing a better job than President Bush did, because if you remember towards the end of Bush’s second term in office, Condoleezza Rice engineered this deal with North Korea where they would get taken off the terrorism sponsorship list, and they would get some food aid and other things. In return, of course, they also promised to give up their nuclear program. They never actually met any of those commitments. Big surprise. So you know, I think it’s to President Obama’s credit that he’s not trying this kind of outreach which has failed so often in the past, and I think he’s taking a harder line. And North Korean actions warrant taking a harder line.

HH: How quickly would it escalate if the North Koreans, Max Boot, did something like launch artillery at Seoul, whether or not it’s the mass, they’ve got 10,000 artillery pieces, and a half million shells, allegedly, that can hit South Korea in an hour. How quickly does the United States have to respond in such a situation?

MB: Well, I’m not sure we have to respond, because there have been these kinds of limited attacks from the North before. I think we have to make clear that if it goes beyond a limited attack, that there will be a massive response. And I think that’s really what’s kept North Korea at bay, because they know that if they go beyond a certain point, and what that point is, it’s undefined, but they know that there’s a certain point, and if they go beyond that, they will trigger an overwhelming military response from South Korea and the United States that will end up in the destruction of their regime within a matter of weeks. They know that, and that’s ultimately what’s deterred them from going too far.

HH: Does the B-2, the stealth bomber, signal the use, if necessary, of nuclear weapons?

MB: That’s certainly the message we’re trying to send, because one of our concerns is that South Korea may want to go nuclear itself. And there is a faction within the South Korean leadership and public that thinks that South Korea needs its own nuclear deterrent to offset the North. We don’t want to see a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia, and so by signaling that we remain committed to keeping South Korea under our nuclear umbrella, which is the message that is sent by overflights of the nuclear-capable B-2, I think we’re not only signaling to North Korea, but we’re signaling to the South that they can rely on us.

HH: Is the deployment of only one carrier, the George Washington in Japan, sufficient for that region of the world right now?

MB: Well, I think our overall carrier deployments are troubling right now because of sequestration and the hit that our operational budget has taken. We’ve already lost a carrier because one has been retired, and a new one has not yet been launched. And so our ability to cover all the hot spots from Iran to North Korea is called into question by that. I would certainly be more comfortable if we had more carriers that we could deploy.

HH: It was announced yesterday that the acceleration of the THAD anti-ballistic missile system is apace. But at the same time that that was announced, the Pentagon said there will have to be offsetting cuts to pay for that. And that seems to me to be pound foolish and pennywise.

MB: Yeah, well, that’s unfortunately the result of this sequestration regime that we’re operating under, which Congress is unwilling to repeal. And so it’s forcing the Department of Defense to make very difficult budget decisions, including those that affect American deployments. I think this is, you know, when you see North Korea being as provocative as they are, China testing the limits of its sovereignty with its neighbors, when you see Iran edging closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, none of that suggests to me that the world is becoming a safer place and we can afford to disarm. But unfortunately, the budget cuts are imperiling our military capability.

HH: And last question, Max Boot, author of Invisible Armies, is there anything that you would like to see the President or his secretary of Defense or State do that they have not done in the context of the Korean crisis right now?

MB: I think they’re doing a pretty good job in North Korea. I mean, there’s a lot that I would like them to do when it comes to other countries like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and others, but in the terms of the North Korean crisis, I think they’ve been pretty solid so far.

HH: Max Boot, thank you for joining us, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council On Foreign Relations.

End of interview.

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