James Laney, U.S. ambassador to South Korea (1993-96) and president of Emory University (1977-93), celebrated his 90th birthday Nov. 8 with dire warnings about the possible destruction of Seoul, South Korea‘s capital, and called for intensified negotiations with North Korea.
One hundred fifty-plus well wishers attended the celebratory luncheon at the Blue House (Chung-Ki-Wa Catering Hall) in Duluth.
Organized by community leader John Lee, the event rallied senior executives from the Global Korean Network Foundation, the Korea Southeast U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Korean Association of Greater Atlanta and the National Unification Advisory Council.
The Korean Dance Association of SEUS performed a rousing traditional drum round and even Eldrin Bell, Atlanta‘s former police chief, sang a melodious version of “Georgia on My Mind.”
Japan‘s consul general for the Southeast, Takashi Shinozuka, also congratulated Dr. Laney on his birthday and his career, and spoke of the importance of positive Japan-Korea relations at this time.
But it was Dr. Laney who held the assembly spell bound during what turned out to be a half-hour address without notes during which he expressed his concerns about the current relations between North and South Korea and the United States, calling them “very perilous,” and “very, very serious.”
Dr. Laney was ambassador to South Korea in 1994 when relations with North Korea also were extremely tense during the reign of Kim il Sung, the North’s leader and dictator, who died later in that year.
Dr. Laney recalled how he and the U.S. commanding general, Gary Luck, “worked very hard to keep things from blowing up. We refused to allow Washington to build up forces in Korea because we knew that Kim il Sung at that time had said, ‘I (Mr. Kim) watched Desert Storm. The United States built up a huge armada and then they attacked and –BAM — it was over. I am not going to allow that to happen on this peninsula.’ “
“We were able to get through that situation, but today I think it is even more serious because the build up has already occurred,” Dr. Laney added.
President Trump’s Visit to Asia
Close to his opening remarks during which he outlined his early exposure to Korea as a Yale University student, he readily admitted that he is “not a fan of President Trump.” Yet he congratulated him on his visit to Asia, “especially to Korea,” because he said that he felt the president spoke “in measured terms. He made friends, cemented relationships with President Moon (of South Korea) and he made a speech to the National Assembly, which was — while being firm and unyielding — was not bellicose nor hostile to the North. He left the door open for talks with the North.”
“And I thought that he left Korea with the realization of how deathly serious the situation is on the ground in Korea and there needs to be some change in the dynamics between the North and the South, between Pyongyang (North Korea’s capital) and Washington. That in itself is historic,” he added.
He then expanded on his assertion that the “build up already has occurred” by referring to the “three aircraft flotillas in the general area of the Korean peninsula. We have stealth bombers in the area of the peninsula. We have the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system that can shoot down oncoming missiles.”
These military assets already in place have done little, however, to ease his fears. “We have all of that there now, and the situation is so tense…Fortunately, I don’t think that the United States is prepared to do a first strike.”
Somewhat easing his fears, he said, is a recent report from the U.S. Defense Department acknowledging the only way to “neutralize” North Korea would be by sending in ground forces.
“For a while I was really worried,” he said. “We have the means and the position for it. But just last week you may have read the Pentagon issued report that said that we would not be able to neutralize all of the nuclear weapons in North Korea unless we have a ground invasion. Now that is a sobering thought.”
“There is no surgical strike that would eliminate the problem of the North with a simple concise surgical strike. The report sobered, I think sobered President Trump, and it sobered all of us,” he added. “Many people before (that report was issued) — people who have never been to war, people who have never served — many people thought that we can go in there and with drones and a few aircraft missile strikes, we can wipe it out. That is not so.”
“We can defend Seoul, but we can’t protect Seoul,” he said, repeating “We can defend Seoul, but we can’t protect Seoul.”
“That is an important distinction,” he added. Seoul will be entirely destroyed if anything happens on the Korean peninsula. A city of 25 million people…It is important that we realize that that is the case. The THAAD anti-missile defense system that we have installed in South Korea is very effective, but it is not 100 percent effective. It won’t be able to handle the situation if the North sends a group of decoys and launches multiple missiles at the same time to overwhelm the system. There is no way (in that case) that the United States with its overwhelming power can protect South Korea from horrible destruction.
That is not to say that the North won’t be destroyed if there is a war. There is no question about that. But the carnage, the casualties on the Korean peninsula would be catastrophic. And I say that not to strike fear to realize how serious the stakes are. In that situation, what can we do.”
The Possibility of ‘Blundering’ Into War
At this point in his address, he referred to his greatest concern — that the U.S. or North Korea could “blunder” into war.
“We have made it clear that we won’t tolerate any activity in the North that would indicate that they are about to strike,” he said. “But in that situation where do we go, with tensions so high. This calculation is a very real possibility. It’s not that the U.S. or North Korea would attack first intentionally. But when you have tensions so high and so much buildup the possibility of a mistake is enormous.
“We could blunder into war like we have blundered into other wars, and then the whole thing is unleashed. Now is the time for all of us to realize that the only way to stop this situation is to have a moratorium on the peninsula in the North of all missile activity and all nuclear activity, and a moratorium in the South, to some extent at least, on the amount of military exercises.”
“If that would be the case I think that we would at least have a pause. I know for a fact that North Korean envoys and retired military officers and foreign service officers have been meeting from time to time in Oslo (Norway), Geneva, Moscow and New York trying to find a way to break the log jam. This is critical. I don’t think any of us have to say that the North is so evil that it has to be destroyed. The North is brutal, vicious — there is nothing about the North that appeals to us.
“But there are millions of people in North who themselves deserve to live and we must think about the meaning of war on the peninsula. Having a conversation is not appeasement or capitulation. It is critical for the sake of the people who would otherwise die that we have got to take charge of the situation and not let the situation run away from us. That is a very critical issue. We have to take charge of the situation and not let the situation take charge of us.”
Although he reserved his pleas for Mr. Trump to stop tweeting personal insults at Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, toward the end of his address, he admitted that “You can’t trust the North.”
“I know that personally,” he said, referring to the agreement reached in 1994 to freeze the Yongbyon reactor from processing plutonium spent nuclear reactor fuel.
The Bush Administration Includes Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil’
While the administration claims that this agreement only exacerbated the current situation, Dr. Laney pointed to the administration of President George W. Bush for linking North Korea to Iraq and Iran as belonging to “the axis of evil.”
“…in 1994, we agreed with the North that they would freeze the Yongbyon nuclear plant where plutonium was being processed. They did for nine years. It was broken when President Bush linked North Korea and Iran and Iraq as the axis of evil. And the talks broke off and the North ejected the monitors who were on site at Yongbyon.
“The North immediately began to reprocess the plutonium. It already had enough for six to eight bombs. Three years later they tested their first bomb — a plutonium bomb from Yongbyon, and from then on all have been plutonium bombs and they have been processing, testing and developing until we have what we have today.”
Dr. Laney also criticized U.S. policies vis a vis North Korea, saying that the U.S. in its negotiations had promised to provide light-water nuclear generators in exchange for the freeze, and that the North had waited to no avail for seven years for the generators.
“We never fulfilled our obligation,” he added. “We have to realize that the North didn’t think that we were serious or trustworthy and that we were just going to pocket everything and walk away.”
To grapple with the current situation and to avoid having millions of Koreans die, he said that there must be a clear recognition of “What does the North want?”.
He answered the rhetorical question by saying that “first of all it was regime security and then it was respect.” For this reason, he called for the cessation of personal insults between Washington and Pyongyang. “It is important that President Trump realize that his tweets calling (Mr. Kim) a little rocket man is a ridicule that cuts very deeply in the North — all the North Koreans take that personally because they identify so closely with him.”
He said that acerbic personal insults were “silly things, impetuous that only satisfy vanity or macho feelings.” “We don’t want to do things that are stupid.”
In addition to counseling Mr. Trump to stop the name calling, he also said that he was concerned that Mr. Kim as a young man in his early 30s would respond militarily to assuage his vanity and ego.
“This is an important issue,” he added. “A young man swollen in his early 30s with pride and vanity because he has become an international celebrity — I’m worried about that — so much power.”
Dr. Laney then cited a comment Mr. Trump allegedly made to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that should war break out the only people to die would be in Korea and not in the U.S.
“As a former ambassador, missionary and service man and lover of Korea,” he said he was adamantly opposed to a war “that Korean themselves would have to bear all of the brunt.”
Reminiscing about conversations he had when he was ambassador with General Luck, he said they had worried about the consequences of a second Korean War. “A second Korean War would be utterly stupid for everybody,” they agreed. “Who would win? Who would it be for?”
The Need for ‘Direct Communication’
In order to avoid war, the U.S. has to enter into negotiations with the North Koreans, he said. “We have to have more than a tweet or a statement in the press,” he added. “That’s not the way to conduct serious business. We have to have direct communication.”
He cited the negotiations that avoided war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He also said that negotiations were possible due to backchannel communications between a U.S. embassy in Moscow and a Russian embassy in Washington.
“If it had not been for those two embassies and the possibility of backchannel communications, we would have blown the world up. It was because of that possibility we didn’t want to and we saved face on both sides.”
“How can we avoid this confrontation (with North Korea)? We don’t have contact with the North today. We have to have some sort of contact. We need to have that. Only then can we hope for peace on the Korean peninsula. This will take a lot of time.
“We have to be ready and strong. Only then can we hope for peace with firm warnings, but without revenge,” he added, calling for “restraint” in both Washington and Pyongyang and “an intelligent, thoughtful, honorable peaceful resolution of this terrible situation.”
A Methodist minister, Dr. Laney at the end of his address asked the assembly to join him in prayer. “On my dear 90th birthday, I ask you to pray for peace and wisdom and a sense of understanding and a desire for justice to come…”