Following his 36-year career in the Senate, Richard Lugar now spends his time running The Lugar Center, which focuses on global issues such as nonproliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, food and energy security, and foreign assistance. For his work, Lugar will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is given to those who make a lasting contribution to U.S. security or national interests, world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
In May, Lugar traveled to South Korea to meet with an international delegation about issues related to North Korea. He recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine about the Korean peninsula and other global hotspots.
TAL: Given the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world today, can the United States stop or rein in the increase?
Lugar: There are two specific areas that are up front for the moment. They are, of course, Iran, where centrifuges are being produced more rapidly with more highly enriched uranium. And there is always the question of, ‘At what point will there be the opportunity to make nuclear weapons out of this?' The other area is North Korea, which does have some nuclear shells. The question has been the development of missiles that convey these and how far they can go, including Japan, and potentially — as the Korean leadership claims — the United States.
I mention those two because surrounding the Iranian question is in the event that the Iranians do develop nuclear weapons and they are not stopped from doing so or they are not stopped through negotiations, at least voluntarily on their own. The fear then is other Middle Eastern states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might attempt to develop nuclear weapons too, claiming a need for defense in the area.
In the case of the North Korean situation, already there are thoughts on the part of some leaders in South Korea that they ought to begin thinking about enriching uranium and the potential for building a South Korean nuclear offset. That conversation is heard and some leaders in Japan indicated that was the case that the Japanese would have nuclear weapons because the neighborhood would have the Chinese, both Koreas, and so forth.
What did you learn during your trip in May about North Korea's nuclear weapons program?
Essentially I learned that the South Koreans take the situation very seriously. I felt general agreement from our United States military leaders and the South Korean officials. ... North Korea sees its current program for the basis for its longevity in office. In other words, a lot else could be negotiated. Elements such as the economy, fishing rights or other things may be negotiated but at least for the moment the North Korea leadership cannot give up its nuclear program without endangering the longevity of its regime.
For the moment, the South Koreans are prepared to listen to our thoughts. A couple more years of study must continue before we authorize their moving into any enrichment program. There are clearly those in South Korea who would clearly like to move in that direction. At least in the initial talks that our president had with President Park (Geun-hye), that issue has been postponed for at least a couple of years, which is fortunate. That should give more time for our relationship with China to strengthen and then the combined relationships with China, the United States, Japan and South Korea would have a greater impact on the North Korean program.
What would you advise South Korea and its allies to do going forward, given the regime in North Korea right now?
Essentially the economy and the prospects for progress in North Korea are very, very dismal. This means for example that if the North Korean regime would collapse today that the problems of North Korea would be vested upon the South. And it would be an overwhelming process. There simply is such a deficit in terms of education, job opportunities, basic food stuffs and so forth. It is a very dismal situation. In the past, there always have been rumors that the Chinese have rejected North Korean immigrants because they did not want to inherit any part of the problem. The South Koreans, by and large, look forward to a time when the peninsula will be unified. But they have a sober feeling of reality about the length of costs of doing that.
In the meanwhile, there exists the potential for people in South Korea to prey upon the North Koreans, which would create all sorts of law enforcement problems. It's a situation in which no one would ever be happy that there is this DMZ situation and there is not unity on the peninsula. But there is a sober feeling about when the realities come to pass. But the new leader is approaching this some vigor and optimism, the closing of the Khe-Sanh commercial situation was a blow because that was a way in which South Korea commerce did enter the country and some commerce would enter the other way. It probably will reopen in some way and perhaps other entry points of that sort. It is still going to be a long situation in which a lot of patience will be required because the regime in North Korea, if I've characterized it correctly, has managed to suppress dissidents there in a caste system of obedience to the government and therefore rewards that are commensurate with that. And have tried to maintain some pressure in the world with that fledgling program. These things will not go away without a change in the regime. And for the moment at least that is not going to be forth coming.
What's your view on what the U.S. policy should be regarding Iran?
I was on a panel at Leon Panetta's institute (in June) with Ehud Barak, former Israel defense minister and prime minister, and former Sen. Joe Lieberman. Both of whom have had problems with Iran and know the strengths of Israel. Leon Panetta was the moderator, which was broadcast at TV stations in California and streamed over their website.
I would indicate that our conversation came to the point that we — the United States, as well as the citizens of Israel — have made clear that an Iranian nuclear program that moves toward weaponization is unacceptable. And that all cards are on the table.
Ultimately, this means that we are on a course of taking military action to destroy it. That military action can take many forms, perhaps, including the use of bombers. But given the fact that much of the program is deep in caves, and there may be other aspects that are not well known or not well publicized that require more covert activity.
What needs to happen before such an action?
It would be very well to outline much more publicly in the United States and Israel what the cost are going to be of eliminating that program by military action. This is not to say that we should be raising the question of whether we should do it or not. Both countries have long been committed to doing that. It is very important for the publics in both the United States and Israel to understand that the potential costs of the risks to our service personnel and to our equipment, whether it be aircraft or whatever else we want to use. The aftermath in terms of potential retaliation on the citizens of Israel or even American troops nearby in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Middle East. In other words, it's one of these situations in which the American public really needs to have the benefit of that discussion well before we get into actual hostilities. Or a proposal by the president to Congress — and I hope he would come to the Congress — for what amounts to a declaration of war. To make certain that we would educate ourselves to the possibilities. The point of the public is so that Iranians will understand the seriousness of which we base this proposition.
In the meanwhile, we can do a great deal more to enhance this kind of debate in Iran through our ability to get our messages to the people of Iran. I was surprised to learn the other day that in our economic sanctions against Iran that we have already eliminated pretty much the sale of iPhones, other communications gear that used to come into the hands of the younger Iranians. During the previous election season, a good number of young Iranians had these devices in hand to send pictures back to the United States of demonstrations occurring in Tehran or elsewhere. It was a means of trying to engender more of a debate in Iran itself than has been occurring without that information. I think that we underestimated the power of getting word through the social media or regular broadcast so that there really is much more of a tie-in between the people of the country instead of simply our dealing with the leadership that does not want to deal.
I think we are going to have to work much more carefully to provide information to Iranians, as well as to provide comprehensive information to the citizens of the United States and Israel. A showdown may be inevitable but perhaps can be changed by negotiations that make it possible for Iranians to develop legitimate nuclear power stations for their own civilian economy but are short for the enrichment of nuclear weapons.
Has the recent attention on Al-Qaida and splinter groups, chemical, biological weapons and suitcase bombs helped or distracted from your mission?
I think the awareness of nuclear weapons and the potential for nation-states to build them has always been there and has not diminished. The specific threats to the United States have now become more various and it is possible that agents of al-Qaida, al-Shabab or other terrorist organizations might reside in a host of nations throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. Obviously, we know of cases there and maybe elsewhere. The defense of our country — or more specifically the defense of any one of our cities, military installations or locales is going to require much more extensive intelligence and often cooperation with other nations in intelligence gathering.
It will probably involve drone strikes or something comparable to that which does not require battalions of troops to be transported to a specific country and occupy a territory there for a while. Rather through much more mobile means. We are able to eradicate the problem in terms of malefactors who might do us harm. And I suspect that this transition has been under way for a while. And it is not as explicit as it will need to be. We're in a situation now where the United States is the only country currently that can transport troops to any country in the world. The only country that has mastery of the high seas and can guarantee the free-trade system of the world works. These are huge responsibilities for and given the different kinds of threats, multiple varities of groups, my guess is that we are going to move toward what I suggested with the use of drones and intelligence sharing, then massive invasions of countries like Iraq or Afghanistan like has been the pattern in the last decade or so.
As you push for nuclear nonproliferation worldwide, what would success look like?
The overall view, my guess, is that the best view is that we continue with a new START treaty to reduce in the United States and Russia the nuclear weapons that we've pledged to produce, that we work with our friends in Asia so that there are no new nuclear powers, and that North Korea gives up its program eventually. And likewise in the Middle East where we work to make sure that Iran does not develop one, and thereby encourage a whole raft of others. In short, we hold fast to where we are as opposed to a world where the other nations feel whether for their means of defense or prestige that they need to get into the nuclear business. There are always hopes for moving toward a nuclear-free world. That is not in the offing and it appears to me that the work we are now doing principally with regard to Iran and North Korea is absolutely critical ... and that success would mean really in those two instances and the influence it would have in those two areas would have on other countries in those regions.