RAND Corporation’s Richard H. Solomon

The former ambassador weighs in on the world tension over North Korea’s nuclear threats.

Before becoming a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, Richard Solomon served as president of the United States Institute of Peace, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He was also a senior staff member of the National Security Council. Solomon is credited with negotiating the first U.N. "Permanent Five" peacemaking agreement for Cambodia and had a leading role in the dialogue on nuclear issues between the United States and South and North Korea. The author of several books, he began his career as a political science professor at the University of Michigan.


Tavis: Kim Jong-un inherited not only the leadership of North Korea from his late father, but also the military-first policy that seeks to destabilize the region. Despite U.N. sanctions, North Korea continues to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Joining me tonight to sort out threats from action is the former ambassador to the Philippines, an Asia expert, Richard Solomon. He’s now a senior fellow with the RAND Corporation and joins us tonight from Washington.

Ambassador Solomon, good to have you on this program, sir.

Richard H. Solomon: Thanks very much. This is the most timely issue to look at. North Korea, the situation is really the last hot conflict of the Cold War period. As you know, the Korean War ended in 1953 with only an armistice. Now the North Koreans have revoked the armistice and they’re creating the big problem for the new century, which is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missilery. So everybody is quite concerned.

Tavis: As I said at the top of this show, the saber-rattling from North Korea is nothing new. But what makes this, to your mind, at least different?

Solomon: Well, the North Koreans are in the middle of this leadership transition, and of course we’re concerned about these comments targeting us, and the hostility level that’s been raised.

But I think the way to look at this situation is the fact that the North Koreans really are facing a fundamental choice. It’s a militarized regime that has fallen behind all the progress in the world, and South Korea, which is their main rival, has just been a spectacular success in terms of its economic development.

Per-capita income in South Korea is about 10 times greater now than it is in the north. The north can hardly feed their own people, and yet they try to defend themselves against outside influence with this military capability.

The Chinese have been begging the North Koreans for two decades to open up their economy and to produce the kind of progress that has enabled China to achieve its tremendous economic growth, and the North Koreans refuse to do it.

But when Kim Jung-un came on just a year or so ago, he talked about instituting some Chinese-style reforms, and then he did a few things that began to suggest he might have wanted to do some reforms himself. He brought out a wife. His father, Kim Jung-il, never brought his wife out in public, as his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, never did.

There was a cultural show that had sort of Mickey or Minnie Mouse kind of figures in it. Dennis Rodman was brought over because Kim Jong-un is apparently a basketball fan from his time as a student in Switzerland.

So this young guy apparently was listening to the Chinese and understood that he needed to open up and build his economy. The Chinese don’t want to have to subsidize this failed regime.

Well, about two months ago, all of that stopped. The best that we can tell, and of course we’re guessing to some degree, is that there was a big fight internally, and the military, which dominates the show, probably said to him you cannot do what the Chinese did, because if we open up our country, it’ll expose it to the kind of political instability that China had some years ago at Tiananmen.

The military understands in North Korea that if the people, who have suffered in all sorts of ways under this military regime, if they were to see what happened in South Korea, the level of living and the standards of healthcare, all the things that are now taken for granted in South Korea, the North Korean population would go crazy.

So they, the leadership, the military, want to wall off this country. North Korea was traditionally, or Korea more generally, over the centuries, known as the hermit kingdom. They tried to isolate themselves from foreign influence. They had been run over in times past by the Manchus, by the Japanese. They had been a kind of semi-colony of the Chinese for a period. So the regime has tried to prevent foreign influence as much as they can.

Tavis: Let me jump in and ask a couple questions. Number one, what is there to be gained by these threats? There are some – I shouldn’t even say some – most persons who I have read deem these threats to be hollow, a bunch of empty rhetoric.

But even if you take the rhetoric seriously, what’s there to be gained by these threats? Is this some attempt to somehow cajole and convince nations to provide more aid to North Korea? What’s to be gained by the threats?

Solomon: I think the basic target of these threatening moves is the internal audience. That what the military regime wants to do is convince the North Korean people the outside world is very hostile to them, and they can’t open up or they can’t engage a world that’s hostile to them.

Now, you raise the interesting point about is this an effort to extort some aid and assistance from the outside world, which had been the pattern up until a few years ago.

But I think we’re now at a point where after two decades of efforts to negotiate with the North Koreans, agreements might have been reached but then were broken or were not followed up on, I think it’s unlikely in the short term we’re going to see the outside world inclined to respond to another series of extorted threats.

Tavis: How much does Mr. Kim concern you? I ask specifically about him, and I don’t mean to be ageist in the asking of this question, but he is such a young leader, having taken over from his father, and oftentimes, the younger you are, the more susceptible you are to being pulled one way or another way.

How much does the very nature of his young age and his inexperience concern you about who’s actually pulling the strings?

Solomon: Excellent question. I think the short answer is look, this young man has not been in a leadership position very long. His father, Kim Jong-il, had over two decades to sort of work himself up to a leadership position within North Korea.

This young fellow has only been in a position for a year or two, so the question is who controls whom. Is he really controlled by the military? Does he really have significant influence, much less control, over those who have dominated the economy and the political system for all these years?

I think that’s a question, and I myself believe there is internal political factionalism that as the North Koreans debate, can they survive strictly as a military regime, or don’t they have to reform their economy? As I said earlier, the Chinese are telling them look, you’ve got to reform.

Tavis: Right.

Solomon: It’s not clear that internal politics will support a reform process.

Tavis: So that’s what the Chinese say. What does the U.S. say? Obviously, we have tried sanctions in the past. At this particular juncture, what do we do?

Solomon: In my view, our primary responsibility is to reassure our allies – South Korea, Japan in particular, other Asian allies – they’re all watching the United States now. We’ve been through two wars over the last decade. We want to stay at home and deal with our domestic situation.

So people abroad are wondering is the United States going to continue to play the stabilizing role that we have done since the end of the Cold War, since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We, in many ways, made it possible for the Chinese economic takeoff. We enabled not just East Asia but other parts of the world to go through this tremendous period of economic growth. So they’re looking to us for continuing leadership, and the reason that we engaged in the military exercises that have been well-reported in recent times is an effort to reassure our allies that we’re still around and we intend to try to maintain stability.

Tavis: How much longer can North Korea go before there is – this is my word, not yours, some sort of uprising amongst the people about the conditions inside the country? We’ve seen examples of this time and time around the world and of late, whether you’re talking Tunisia or Egypt.

You mentioned Tiananmen Square years ago earlier in this conversation. So if the domestic agenda isn’t addressed, if the economy of the country isn’t addressed, then how much longer do you see this kind of bluster being the answer to the problems that everyday people inside of North Korea have to navigate every day?

Solomon: Again, I think you’re pointing in just the right direction. I would, however, say I would look to the leadership splitting up. One of the more interesting things was, as you may recall, Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, was over there recently with our ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson, and they were talking about bringing the Internet and cell phones into North Korea.

I would be very surprised if that happened, because it was the information revolution that made possible, in many ways, facilitated the Arab Spring, the kind of public uprisings we’ve seen in other parts of the world. So I think the place that you’re likely to see the conflict, if not the uprising, is within the leadership.

That you’re going to have one reformist faction that says we’ve got to deal with our economic problems, the world is passing us by, we can’t just stand here huddling behind our nuclear weapons and our missiles.

That is likely to be an issue that undoubtedly has already been debated, and the Chinese, as I was saying earlier, are undoubtedly urging elements in the leadership to do this opening up. So it’s cracks within the leadership that I would focus on for the moment.

Tavis: I’ve got a quick 30 seconds here. What’s your sense, at least to this point, of South Korea’s response?

Solomon: I think they’re really fed up with the provocations. The recent sinking of a South Korean ship by a North Korean torpedo, the shelling of one of their islands. They’re spring-loaded now to respond in some violent way to further North Korean provocations, and again, one of our challenges at the moment is to keep any response from the South Koreans, should there be another North Korean provocation, from escalating.

We don’t want to see this situation get out of control. I don’t believe the North Koreans want a full-scale war. What they’ll try to do is, again, keep the hostility level up to a point where negotiations just don’t seem possible.

Indeed, Kim Jong-un at a party congress just a few days ago said that they would never negotiate away their nuclear weapons. So I don’t see negotiations as something likely to resume in a profitable way any time soon.

Tavis: We will see how this story develops in the coming days, or hopefully does not develop in the coming days. Ambassador Richard Solomon, former ambassador to the Philippines, Asia expert, joined us tonight from the RAND Corporation in Washington. Ambassador Solomon, thanks for coming on the program, and we appreciate your insights.

Solomon: Thank you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.





Tavis: Up next, a conversation with Doctors Jacob Warren and K. Bryant Smalley about a serious health crisis facing our children. Stay with us.





Tavis: The crisis facing so many American kids, childhood obesity, has caught everyone’s attention of late, but just how best to combat the problem is less clear-cut. Wading into that controversy are researchers and healthcare experts Doctors Jacob Warren and K. Bryant Smalley.

Their new text is called “Always the Fat Kid: The Truth About the Enduring Effects of Childhood Obesity.” It pulls no punches when it comes to what needs to be done, and so I’m honored to have the doctors on this program. Good to have you both.

Dr. K. Bryant Smalley: Thank you for having us.

Tavis: Thank you for your work. When I first saw this text come across my desk, I knew we were going to talk about it on the show. But what got me was the title: “Always the Fat Kid.” I thought “fat” was politically incorrect.

Smalley: Yeah.

Dr. Jacob Warren: It is. That’s part of why we used it. (Laughter) We seem to have gotten into a culture of avoiding calling things what they are, and so a lot of people talk about this in terms of obesity and overweightness, which is technically correct, but the core issue is that our kids are too fat, and until we start calling things what they are, we think the conversation is just going to keep getting held up where it is.

Tavis: When we say “too fat,” what do we mean?

Smalley: Well, considering that we’re at a stage where a third of children currently are overweight, and that’s the stage where we feel that children – well, really as a nation we’ve reached a point where we’re at a critical point in our history, and that’s the stage, at this moment in time, given the fact that on one hand we have advances that are just extraordinary in our history in terms of medical advances.

The vaccinations that we have, the medical advances that we have with medications, with surgeries that can extend life, and then on the other hand we’re hearing news from researchers that this may be the first generation of children who actually will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

So with hearing those two things together and the juxtaposition of those, it really indicates that we’re at a crisis point.

Tavis: What’s driving that?

Warren: I think there’s a lot of factors with it. There’s things that we hear a lot about, so increase in portion sizes, increase in the availability of foods, decrease in physical activity.

But a lot of it comes down to other factors, such as aggressive marketing of unhealthy food items to children, which continues today, despite all the evidence that it is actually affecting the quality of the food that they eat. The availability of foods in certain areas, where sometimes you don’t have a choice; even if you want to buy those foods, you can’t. Until we address those issues, then it’s going to continue.

Tavis: But to your point, Dr. Warren, when Mayor Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg in New York, went after the soft drink industry, the super-sized drink, he got a smackdown in New York.

Warren: Yeah, he did.

Tavis: So to your point about advertising and the fact that it works, so what? He tried to push back on it, he got smacked around.

Warren: I think there’s got to be a strategy of combining smart legislative action with actually targeting people to change their behaviors. Just approaching it from a legal standpoint isn’t going to have the full effect that it could.

There are legislations that need to happen. Changing the availability of food in schools, for instance. We shouldn’t be selling our children’s health in schools. But then also teaching people how to make those decisions in an affordable and healthy way.

Tavis: Yeah

Smalley: With that as well, just to add in, we very much believe that Mayor Bloomberg’s intent was good, because we really do need to take bold action when it comes to childhood obesity. But there are some issues with the regulation itself, the implementation of that regulation, and as Jacob mentioned, we definitely need to take other action in terms of the regulations and the legislation that we implement.

But also, this starts at home. This is an individual-based issue just as much as it is a state and federal issue. So this is one of those moments in time where truly, it takes a village to solve this type of the crisis that we’re in.

Tavis: The challenge, though – I was going to say problem; I don’t want to put it in that category. But the challenge certainly to getting parents to do that is real. This is one of those issues, unlike other health consequences that we have to navigate our way through, this is one of those issues where you see, physically, literally, visibly see the evidence

Smalley: Yes.

Tavis: You do not have to have 20/20, whatever is better than 20/20. You don’t need perfect vision to see –

Smalley: Absolutely.

Tavis: – that our kids are overweight, that they’re obese, that they’re fat, to use the language of the text that we’re talking about tonight. Yet with all that evidence that we visibly, visually see every day, the evidence doesn’t suggest to me that we’re making progress in getting parents to understand the problem.

Warren: And we’re not. There seems to be this perception that it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a little baby fat, that it’ll go away over time. But the evidence is definitely that it’s not, because 80 percent of overweight children will be overweight adults, and we’re reaching the point now where almost 75 percent of adults themselves are overweight.

So it’s an issue of how do we teach parents to teach behaviors to their children that they themselves are struggling with.

Tavis: So against that backdrop of negativity, why then spend the time (unintelligible) just writing “Always the Fat Kid?”

Smalley: Well, one of the things that we noticed, and we both have experienced – and kind of the journey that led to this was both personal and professional. We talk about in the book our own journeys of and experiencing being overweight as children, but we’re also university-based health researchers.

As we really started to delve even deeper into the research, what we noticed is that some themes started to emerge that were really consistent with our own experiences, but also we noticed that there were some severe gaps in the literature and some gaps in the discussion related to childhood obesity.

A lot of attention is focused on physical health, and it should be, and certainly physical health is extremely important. We spend a lot of time in the book talking about physical health. But also, part of what’s missed in the discussion are the psychological issues related to childhood obesity.

That children who are overweight – well, overweight children are far more likely to become bullied as children, which only compounds the issues. There are also social consequences. Even if a child loses the weight in their childhood, these consequences can last into adulthood. So all of that led us to say we need to have this discussion.

Tavis: This subtitle is called “Truth About the Enduring Effects of Childhood Obesity,” to the point you’re making now, Dr. Smalley. What are the truths that you think are not being told about what we’re doing to our kids?

Warren: I think one of them is that these effects are long-term. That it’s not something that will go away once they reach adulthood. Even if they have been able to lose weight, there are these effects that accumulate over time and are going to stay.

One of the other things that we like to talk about is that obesity, when it comes down to it, is not a disease. Obesity is a behavior. While that at first sounds a little depressing, it’s actually empowering, we feel, because that means you also have the choice to change the situation.

So yes, there are all these negative effects that we talked about, but it also at the same time provides the path of how to get out of the situation.

Tavis: Dr. Smalley, you mentioned earlier that this book is a result of both professional and personal journeys.

I wonder if I could ask each of you to tell me about your personal journey and what it was like being one of these kids back in the day.

Smalley: Well for me, I was a bit fortunate. I experienced being overweight as a kid, but I had a lot of motivation as a kid to overcome being overweight. I certainly experienced some of the negative consequences associated with being overweight, but around middle school time period I said I had enough.

I want to overcome this. So I would sit in front of the television, I would do sit-ups. I would go run in the afternoons after school. I noticed a big change in myself, and also how I felt internally.

Not just physically, but also how I felt internally. I know that Jacob’s story was a bit different, but there are some similarities in terms of the hangover effects that are there in relation to self-esteem, body-image-related things that may come up.

So there are certainly consequences of being an overweight kid, and I know your story was a bit different.

Warren: I was overweight my entire childhood, so it’s one of those that from birth to 20 I was overweight. Until I got to college, I didn’t start addressing it, so I was that bullied kid. I was the one on the school bus that everyone picked on. I had that whole experience.

Then when I got to my twenties I started addressing it, but I still noticed, even once I lost over 80 pounds, I still didn’t like to eat in front of people, I didn’t like to be photographed, all those issues that I would have thought would have evaporated.

But it really is that long-term effect of having grown up as a fat child. Even if I’m not overweight as an adult, I will always have been a fat child.

Tavis: Yeah. I wonder, to both of your points now, I wonder why it is – the thought just hit me – why it is that we don’t see more kid ambassadors for fighting obesity. I think of all the TV commercials now that just pop into my head that I see for all these weight-loss programs all the time that always feature adults.

I wonder how this conversation might change if somebody – our government or somebody – got behind a campaign that featured kids who we could see losing the weight in their childhood. Not when they’re 12 and 25, but when they’re 10 and 13 or when they’re 13 and 16.

I wonder whether or not, since we are a visual people, I wonder whether or not seeing that sort of campaign on television and magazines, that kind of campaign, everywhere you look, you see kids who are losing weight, and they’re the ones that are being featured in the campaigns. I wonder if that might not have an impact, why that hasn’t happened yet.

Smalley: I think that could be meaningful, because what children look for, certainly from their peers and their parents, are models. Models for how do I make this happen, how can I get through this. It is a challenging thing. We’ve experienced it. We’ve been there.

So certainly to overcome being overweight or obese as a child is a challenging thing, so being able to see those models certainly could be helpful.

Tavis: Just an idea. Maybe somebody will take it and run with it. (Laughter) The book by Doctors Warren and Smalley is called “Always the Fat Kid: The Truth About the Enduring Effects of Childhood Obesity.”

You don’t want your kid to be dealing with these issues for the rest of his or her life. You might want to get this book right about now. Good to have you both on the program. Thanks for your work.

Smalley: Thank you.

Warren: Thank you.

Smalley: Thank you very much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 3, 2013 at 10:25 pm