INTERVIEW/ Colin Powell: Nuclear option suicidal for North Korea

July 11, 2013


WASHINGTON--North Korea should realize that its nuclear development is only putting the country at risk and is suicidal, even though its leaders hold onto the illusion that nuclear weapons give them standing in the world, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

The United States would destroy North Korea immediately if it ever used or came close to using nuclear weapons, Powell warned.

In recent years, Powell has been a key supporter of a movement toward a nuclear-free world promoted by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and others. Addressing the prospect for nuclear weapons reduction, Powell noted the United States has come a long way in its reduction of nuclear stockpiles. He said he hopes its track record of "drastic" reductions will convince the world that it is heading to lower numbers, ultimately down to zero.

Asked about the possibility of Japan going nuclear, Powell wrote it off outright, calling it "not sensible" and saying he has never seen any such signs in Japan's political and defense circles. If Japan reaffirms its position that it would never go nuclear nor have such a desire, it would benefit bilateral relations between Japan and the United States and would give leverage in their efforts to push for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Excerpts of the interview follow:


Question: Why do you think that nuclear weapons are useless?

Answer: Because they're such horrible weapons. And so no sane leader would ever want to cross that line to using nuclear weapons. And, if you are not going to cross that line, then these things are basically useless.

Now, I mean that in the military sense. Politically, they have deterrent value, and the North Koreans think that their weapons give them some strength, some value. So, that's why I have been a big proponent in nuclear weapons reduction. Can we really, at this point, go down to zero? And the answer is no, but it's a good aspiration, it's a good objective, to go to zero.

And I remember, during a crisis between India and Pakistan (in 2002), calling the Pakistani president (Pervez Musharraf) and saying to him, "You and I both know you couldn't use these. You want to be the country or the leader who, for the first time since August of 1945, has used these weapons? Go look at the pictures again, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! And you want to do this, or even think about it?"

Of course, the answer from the Pakistani president was, "No, no, no, no." The same was true of India. And they stepped back, and the crisis was over.

It is important that we all come together to capture and contain the devices, the technology that is out there, the uranium and plutonium sources that may be out there that a terrorist could get his hands on to try to develop a rudimentary or real nuclear weapon. That is the real threat now.

Q: For the United States, are conventional weapons alone enough to deter North Korea?

A: My own personal view is that we probably would not have to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. The conventional forces are significant. What I have said many times was I would let the North Koreans know that if they ever used anything like this, or if we thought they were getting ready to use anything like this, we would destroy the regime the next day. So I cannot, in my own military mind, my diplomatic mind, see a reason why North Korea would use such a capability.

Well, it's a funny family, the Kim family. And they feel that having nuclear weapons gives them standing in the world. And they also have this philosophy that the military is the most important institution in Korea, and everything is devoted to making sure the military is the strongest and the best. But, it is not protecting them. It is putting them at risk. Nuclear development is suicidal for them.

Q: China is also planning to modernize its weapons?

A: Their capability is rather modest. So, they're modernizing their weapons system. But, we modernize ours all the time! I want them to modernize, if the weapons become safer and more reliable.

Q: If a crisis were to occur between the United States and China, could you persuade China, "Are we really going to use nuclear weapons?"

A: I don't even think about it, because it's not going to happen. We are in no hostile relationship with China. We have created a situation that has allowed China to grow, has allowed Asia to be peaceful.

There are many people in the world that think China is going to become an enemy at some point, and the richer China becomes, then the more of an enemy it's going to become. I don't accept that judgment because I have been going to China for 40 years. And I've watched and what China has done is bring people up out of poverty, become the second-largest economy in the world. I say, "Look how well they've done by not being our enemy! So, please, tell me why they would want to suddenly become our enemy!"

But then, we have to understand that China is not the poor China of 1972. It will demand more influence in the world, but that influence comes principally through its economic ability. So, I have never seriously thought about any kind of nuclear or conventional conflict with China.

Q: Nuclear deterrence is still present in international politics. But, as you said, the nuclear weapons are actually militarily useless. So, how are you going to change this situation?

A: Well, I think the situation has changed. When I go back to when I first became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our stockpiles (of nuclear weapons) were enormous. We have drastically reduced our stockpiles. We got rid of all the Navy ones except for the ballistic missile submarines, all Army weapons, and there are some Air Force tactical ones left.

I hope the examples that we have given to the world of reducing stockpiles, will convince the world that we are heading to lower numbers, and maybe the day when there are none.

And so, I would give the same message to Iran and North Korea. "Look, we think you're wasting time, you're wasting money, and you're, essentially, ruining your country because of sanctions and other things, just to have a couple of nuclear weapons? What is wrong with you?" The most powerful political force is not nuclear, it's economic growth, wealth creation.

Q: The idea that nuclear weapons are useless is a strong argument, but we have not yet succeeded in persuading those countries that nuclear weapons are useless.

A: We have persuaded a lot of countries. We persuaded Libya. We have persuaded a number of countries that this doesn't make sense, or they persuaded to themselves, "What are we doing this for?" (Brazil and Argentina said,) "We are here in South America; we've got other things to do (than develop nuclear weapons)! We need to build our economies." For those that have not come to believe this, it's essentially Iran and North Korea.

Q: That means nuclear weapons are still politically useful?

A: Of course! But, we're making the case that we can deter, at much lower levels. And that's what the president did with his New START Treaty. It's what I did when I was secretary, with a new treaty, the Moscow Treaty; and it's why the president wants to start negotiations again with the Russians. But, what I've always said, in the last 10 years or so, is that we can reduce nuclear weapons without having a negotiation!

And people say, "Well, you know, North Korea, they're crazy, they'll do it (use nuclear weapons)." I say, "They've got a crazy system, but within that system they're very clever, and they don't want to commit suicide." Iran is the same way, I think they won't commit suicide.

Q: In his recent speech in Berlin, President Barack Obama outlined a plan to reduce deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third from current levels through negotiations with Russia. There are people in Russia who say that without an agreement on missile defense it would be hard for Russia to agree to additional cuts. What do you think about the goals described in President Obama's speech and how would you respond to this Russian view?

A: This attitude on missile defense has not prevented negotiations that resulted in two treaties in the past 10 years that reduced the strategic nuclear stockpiles in the United States and Russia. President Obama has suggested a further one-third reduction in strategic stockpiles. Let missile defense and the sizes of the stockpiles be discussed in negotiations.

Q: Some in Japan say we should keep the civilian use of nuclear power so that it can be a potential capability, to go to nuclear options in the future, if necessary. What do you think of that idea?

A: I think that nuclear power should rest on the need for nuclear power, not weapons. So, Japan is facing an interesting challenge right now, after the earthquake and the tsunami and the damage to Fukushima. My own view (is that) in a day and age when we need power more than just about anything should we really say that nuclear power no longer has a role to play? If it doesn't have a role to play, and the demand for power is greater and greater, then how are you going to satisfy that demand? More fossil fuel? More contamination of the air? Will solar and wind compensate for the loss of nuclear power, or will you have to build fossil fuel plants? So, Japan has to make a very careful judgment.

Q: You don't have any worry or concern about the possible Japanese nuclear option?

A: No. There are two reasons. One, I've never met a serious Japanese politician or any of my colleagues in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, who think that we really ought to think about nuclear weapons.

Secondly, I wouldn't think that's a very sensible thing to do. Japan has grown, and has changed enormously over the last 60 years, from total devastation, because of nuclear weapons and the war, to one of the most successful countries on Earth, with a remarkable economy, a remarkable standard of living, without having nuclear weapons.

Q: How do you think Japan and the United States can cooperate to move toward a world without nuclear weapons?

A: Well, one way, certainly, is for Japan to reaffirm its position that it does not have nuclear weapons, nuclear programs, and has no desire for one. If Japan no longer has that position, then that would not be helpful to the process of denuclearization.

Japan and the United States, in the six-party framework have always said, "We want to see a denuclearized Peninsula." If Japan starts to suggest that we should move in a nuclear direction, what will our South Korean friends do? Just look at the history of the last 60 years and what no nuclear programs or weapons has done for you! The world is more peaceful now than it was in the Cold War period. Japan does not have nuclear weapons. This gives the president the flexibility to point to Japan as an example.

* * *

Colin Powell, who was born in New York City in 1937, is a retired four-star general in the U.S. Army and has earned numerous military, civilian and foreign honors. He has served four presidential administrations in a variety of roles. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93) and secretary of state (2001-05), the first African-American to hold either position.

(This interview was conducted by Fumihiko Yoshida, deputy director of The Asahi Shimbun's Editorial Board and Takeshi Yamawaki, American General Bureau Chief of The Asahi Shimbun. )

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 Colin Powell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

Colin Powell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

  •  Colin Powell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)
  •  Colin Powell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

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