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Military documentarian Robert Kaplan on North Korea

Monday, October 9, 2006

HH: The most important book of 2005 was Imperial Grunts by my guest, Robert Kaplan, the Kipling of the American military. It’s just out in paperback, by the way, and you should read it if you want to know what the American military’s going in the war against terror around the globe. And it just turns out that Robert Kaplan also probably has the most important magazine article of the year. It is the cover story of the October issue of Atlantic. It’s linked at, and it is called When North Korea Falls. From the United States Naval Academy, Robert Kaplan. Welcome back, always a pleasure to have you.

RK: It’s a pleasure to be here, Hugh.

HH: You woke up to the news that we all did. Unfortunately, you’ve been writing about it and predicting chaos in the peninsula. Does this advance or stymy the forces of chaos that you charted in your article, Robert Kaplan?

RK: Well, I think it’s a sign that the regime is increasingly in trouble, because what this is, is when he fired missiles a few months ago, he was basically saying pay attention to me. Kim Jung Il was saying pay attention to me, United States. Have direct talks with me. That gives me leverage against China, which I’m really afraid of, because China covets my territory, but doesn’t really think much of my regime. Well, the U.S. response was not great. We didn’t dispatch Condi Rice. We dispatched an assistant secretary of state. And so we played it cool. So now we have an underground nuclear test. He seems to be getting desperate. It seems to be a way to try to legitimize a regime whose stability we don’t really know much about. This is a country where half of its population is starving. So while right now we have a nuclear potentially proliferating power on our hands, months down the road, a year down the road, Hugh, whatever, we could have, you know, a state that’s on the verge of collapse as well.

HH: Robert Kaplan, is there anything in your understanding of this regime that would deter Kim Jung Il, or his people that work for him, from selling the plutonium or uranium enriched weaponry that he attempted to test, and perhaps successfully did test today.

RK: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s really a problem, because you have to look at the links between North Korea and Iran, places like that. Remember, North Korean diplomats, for decades, have essentially run crime syndicates. This is a crime state, a crime regime. So it’s going to be really difficult, and now is when the Chinese really have to step up to the plate. And they have an incentive to do it. They have more contacts inside the regime than anyone, they have more infrastructure projects there, they are keeping the regime alive, and they want stability on the peninsula up through the 2008 coming out party, otherwise known as the Beijing Olympics.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, in your article in Atlantic Monthly, once again, it’s linked at, you take a completely different view of Kim Jung Il than the American people have been led to believe about him, the world police, Team America worldview of a nutty dictator who’s wrapped up in his own psychosis. Explain your take on Kim Jung Il.

RK: Well, we tend to think of him as a crazy guy from Team America: World Police. In fact, remember, he was tutored maticulously by his father, Kim Il Sung. And Kim Il Sung was an honest to goodness, authentic, guerilla leader hero, against the Japanese during World War II, who built the North Korean state with Soviet help. He tutored his son, he prepared for his son’s emergence. And when his son, Kim Jung Il, emerged, Kim Jung Il successfully played the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Americans, a little bit off each other to aid and subsidize his regime. 17 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, North Korea plods on, Hugh, relentlessly.

HH: Now is there any reason to hope…we saw a coup in Thailand just last month. We have always heard about Rommel and the generals plotting against Hitler. Is there any reason to believe that the state within the state, that is the North Korean military, might grow tired of the supreme leader’s machinations?

RK: I have no idea. And that’s part of the problem. Nobody knows. There’s very little known what goes on inside this regime, and there’s very little known what the state of the countryside is from month to month, outside the showcase capital of Pyongyang.

HH: Talk to us about the American military on the peninsula, Robert Kaplan. I’m sure you’ve spent time with them…

RK: Yes.

HH: …their state of readiness, and their deployment.

RK: Right. The military in South Korea, the United States military, has been on a war footing for over a half century. There are constant drills, there are setback bunkers. Everything you find in Iraq is in South Korea on U.S. military bases. We are in the midst of a gradual draw down from about 42,000 troops near the DMZ to what will be about 25,000 troops about 40 miles south of the DMZ in 2009. We’re increasingly putting more and more emphasis on air and sea power, and letting the South Korean military, which we’ve been training for 50 years, kind of step up to the plate more. So the hope is that we’ll have less troops on the ground, so less to anger the South Koreans, but we can ramp up very quickly in terms of a crisis. And a crisis could go either way. You could see, like, in a super desperate state, 13,000 North Korean artillery pieces raining about 300,000 shells down on South Korea, on greater Seoul. But you could also see the collapse of the regime. And if that happens, U.S. Military could not go into North Korea, I don’t believe, without the tacit approval of Beijing and the Chinese people’s army. It would have to be a joint operation between the Chinese, the Americans, the South Koreans, and others.

HH: Robert Kaplan, in your conversation about this, the fearsome nature of the North Korean military machine, and the fact that they have WMD all over that country, and nobody argues with that, would that, if there is the kind of artillery barrage you’ve just referenced, would that not call for the Western powers, with or without China, to do a massive attack upon the North Korean regime, perhaps…

RK: Not necessarily. We don’t want the regime to collapse suddenly. Nobody should want that regime to collapse suddenly, Hugh, because it could be an even more dangerous and chaotic situation than Iraq. You have a population of 23 million, roughly the size of Iraq, even less prepared for democracy, no previous British or Western influence. It’s near a semi-starving situation. You have lots of WMD, chemical, biological weapons. We want a slow…you know, a soft landing there.

HH: Does that mean unification, with South Korea taking on the burden? And would China be indifferent to that?

RK: Well, I think what the Chinese envision is a gradual kind of changeover through their cronies, that would create a kind of Tibet-like buffer state in the north, that would have a lot more liberties and political freedom than what currently exists, but would still be a kind of puppet state of China, and would have enough contact with South Korea that would be a transitional mechanism towards complete reunification.

HH: And the West would rush supply after supply to such a Tibetan-like state?

RK: I think…I actually think that the problem in North Korea should draw us closer and closer to China.

HH: Now let me ask you about Japan today, because Japan’s new prime minister is in China, spent fifteen minutes on the phone with the President, and the Japanese have traditionally, of course, not wanted to be a nuclear state for obvious reasons.

RK: Yes.

HH: Do they have a choice?

RK: Yeah, well, they’ll resist and resist and resist going nuclear for real reasons of history. They may not have a choice, at some point. We have to look towards the future where Japan will be a normal military nation. And what we’re going to have to do is really play balance of power in the region between China, India, Japan, South Korea.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, last hour, I spoke with my old friend, actually one of my college roommates who negotiated the 1994 agreement with Galucci, his name is Dan Poneman. And Dan is suggesting that the plutonium that could threaten us could be sent out on anything out of North Korea. It’s really less than a basketball-sized amount of plutonium, and the device that accompanies it. With that in mind, should we embargo, and do we have the ships to enforce such a thing?

RK: We might. I mean, certainly in cooperating with the Japanese and South Korean navies. And one of the challenges is going to be to get the South Koreans and the Japanese to work together on this.

HH: Does the United States Navy think that they have the assets to conduct such an operation, which we have not done since Cuba, I don’t believe?

RK: I can’t answer that. You’d have to ask the Navy. The Navy, in general, has been complaining about we don’t have enough ships, that we’re going to have less and less ships in the future.

HH: Last question, Robert Kaplan. You’re off to CNN, and which show are you going to be on? I’ll watch that.

RK: Anderson Cooper.

HH: Oh, good. After five years of war, and an extensive amount of travel I think unmatched by any American correspondent, is the American military big enough for the world in which we live?

RK: Unfortunately, it isn’t. We really do need a larger Army with more ground troops. We need to modernize our air to air refueling force. There’s a lot we need to do.

HH: Would you expand the Army or the Marine Corps, in doing that?

RK: Both, actually. And I think that to tell you the truth, given the burden Iraq has become, and I did support the war as a disclosure, 2007, I believe, is going to see a real draw down.

HH: Robert Kaplan, always a pleasure. We’ll look for you on Anderson Cooper 360 tonight. Thanks for spending some time with us. The Atlantic Monthly Article is linked at It is called, ominously, When North Korea Falls.

End of interview.

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