Thursday, December 2, 2010

US embassy cables: Former Singapore PM on 'psychopathic' North Koreans

Thursday, 04 June 2009, 09:08
EO 12958 DECL: 06/04/2029
Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Daniel L. Shields. Reason 1.4 (b) and (d).


1. Former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew says China does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons or to collapse, but would prefer the former. He doesn't believe Pyongyang will give up nuclear weapons as a form of defence and describes North Koreans as "psychopathic", but holds out hope for change under a new leader. Key passage highlighted in yellow.

1. (SBU) May 30, 2009; 6:30 p.m.; The Presidential Palace; Singapore.

2. (SBU) Participants: United States

The Deputy Secretary Glyn T. Davies, EAP
Acting Assistant Secretary Daniel L. Shields, CDA (Notetaker)


Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew
Chee Hong Tat, Principal Private Secretary to MM
Cheryl Lee, Country Officer, Americas Directorate, MFA

3. (S) SUMMARY: Deputy Secretary Steinberg used his meeting with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to stress the importance of Chinese cooperation in addressing the North Korea nuclear issue and to elicit MM Lee's views on China and North Korea. MM Lee said the Chinese do not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons and do not want North Korea to collapse. If China has to choose, Beijing sees a North Korea with nuclear weapons as less bad than a North Korea that has collapsed. MM Lee asked Deputy Chief of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Ma Xiaotian what China can do about North Korea. General Ma's answer was that "they can survive on their own." The Deputy Secretary noted that the DPRK could have a fair and attractive deal if it would change its approach. If not, North Korea faces a change of course by the United States, the ROK and Japan. MM Lee said he believes Japan may well "go nuclear." MM Lee also offered views on the Chinese economy, Taiwan, Chinese leaders, and U.S.-China relations. End Summary.

China and North Korea

4. (S) Deputy Secretary Steinberg met with Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on May 30 on the margins of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual international security forum held in Singapore. The Deputy Secretary used the meeting with MM Lee to stress the importance of Chinese cooperation in addressing the North Korea nuclear issue and to elicit MM Lee's views on China and North Korea. MM Lee said the Chinese do not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Chinese do not want North Korea, which China sees as a buffer state, to collapse. The ROK would take over in the North and China would face a U.S. presence at its border. If China has to choose, Beijing sees a North Korea with nuclear weapons as less bad for China than a North Korea that has collapsed, he stated.

5. (S) MM Lee said he asked Deputy Chief of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Ma Xiaotian what China can do about North Korea. General Ma's Delphic answer was that "they can survive on their own." MM Lee said he interpreted this as meaning that even if China cut off aid, the DPRK leadership would survive. This is a leadership that has already taken actions like killing ROK Cabinet Members in Burma and shooting down a KAL flight. If they lose power, they will end up facing justice at The Hague, like Milosevic. They have been so isolated for so long that they have no friends, not even Russia. They have not trusted China since the Chinese began cultivating ties with the ROK, given China's interest in attracting foreign investment, he said. The Deputy Secretary noted that the DPRK could have a fair and attractive deal if it would change its approach. If not, North Korea faces a change of course by the United States, the ROK and Japan. MM Lee expressed worry about the effect on Iran if the DPRK persists. MM Lee said he believes the DPRK can be contained and will not proliferate, but Iran has very high ambitions, ties to Shiite communities outside Iran, and oil wealth.

6. (S) The Deputy Secretary noted that North Korea's decisions will have an impact in Japan. MM Lee said he believes Japan may well "go nuclear." The Chinese must have factored this into their calculations and concluded that the prospect of Japan with nuclear weapons is less bad than losing North Korea as a buffer state. The Chinese take a long-term view and must think that within a few years the DPRK's current leadership will be gone and there will be new leadership, with new thinking. But there will still be a North Korea, he said.

7. (S) MM Lee said he wishes the USG well in its efforts on North Korea, but he would be surprised if the North Koreans agree to give up nuclear weapons. They might give up a first-strike capacity, but they want nuclear weapons in case the USG decides to seek regime change. They are psychopathic types, with a "flabby old chap" for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation. MM Lee noted that he had learned from living through three and a half years of Japanese occupation in Singapore that people will obey authorities who can deny them food, clothing and medicine.

8. (S) MM Lee said the ROK, after seeing what had happened with German unification, does not want immediate unification with the DPRK. There is "nothing there" in the DPRK, other than a military organization. Kim Jong-Il has already had a stroke. It is just a matter of time before he has another stroke. The next leader may not have the gumption or the bile of his father or grandfather. He may not be prepared to see people die like flies. China is calculating all this. They have their best men on the job. They want to help the United States to advance common objectives. But they do not want the South to take over the North, MM Lee said.

Chinese Economy

9. (C) Regarding the Chinese economy, MM Lee said the global economic crisis has hit many countries, but the feel on the ground differs considerably from place to place. The Chinese economy is reportedly in the doldrums, but when MM Lee visited Jiangsu Province on May 24, his impression was one of continued prosperity. Shanghai has been harder hit, with container port traffic down 30-35 percent, similar to the situation in Singapore. There is no sign of deep unrest in China. The Chinese are very confident they will be able to sustain eight percent growth. The government is pumping resources into the economy, with a focus on developing Western China. Whether such policies can be sustained for three to four years is unclear, but China can certainly sustain these policies for at least a year, he said.

10. (C) MM Lee stated that in the absence of a social safety net in China, the Chinese savings rate is 55 percent, exceeding even Singapore's 50 percent level. Consumption accounts for only 35 percent of Chinese GDP, as opposed to 70 percent of U.S. GDP. The Chinese leadership may be loath to shift permanently to a more consumption-oriented economy, but the leadership will do so temporarily, if only to avoid unrest. 20 million people have moved back to the countryside because of economic dislocations. The government is providing microfinance to facilitate the transition. The pragmatists are in charge. There is nothing Communist about it. They just want to preserve one party rule. The Deputy Secretary expressed concern that current Chinese policies designed to counter the economic crisis could undermine reform. MM Lee said this cannot be helped. China wants to prevent riots like the ones that happened in Guangzhou in March when Hong Kong-connected enterprises suddenly shut down, he said.



11. (C) The Deputy Secretary asked MM Lee for his assessment of Taiwan. MM Lee said former President Chen Shui-bian had left Taiwan in a weak economic position, which had enabled President Ma Ying-Jeou to come to power with his pledge to strengthen the economy through means including expanding the three links with China. In Beijing, former President Jiang Zemin was wedded to his eight-point approach, but President Hu Jintao was more flexible. Jiang wanted to show he was a great man by solving the Taiwan issue in his lifetime, but Hu is more patient and does not have any fixed timeline. In Chinese domestic politics, Hu had wanted Vice Premier Li Keqiang from the Communist Youth League to emerge as his successor, not Vice President Xi Jinping, but Hu did his calculations and accepted Xi when it became clear that Xi had the necessary backing from the rest of the leadership. Similarly, on Taiwan, Hu will be pragmatic. It does not matter to Hu if it takes 10 years or 20 or 30. The key is building links with Taiwan. As in the case of Hong Kong, if necessary the tap could be turned off, he said.

12. (C) In this context, MM Lee said, Hu could live with Ma's positions on the '92 consensus and on not addressing the reunification issue during his term in office. What mattered to Hu was that Taiwan not seek independence. If that happened, China has 1,000 missiles and is building its capacity to hold the U.S. fleet at a distance. The implicit question for Taiwan's leaders is if that is what they want, MM Lee said.

13. (C) MM Lee stated that the alternative is Mainland investment in Taiwan stocks and property. The Mainland has already assured Hong Kong that it will help out economically. The Mainland has not said this to Taiwan, but the Mainland's Taiwan Affairs Director, Wang Yi, did urge Chinese companies to invest in Taiwan. In four years Taiwan's economy will pick up and Ma will win re-election. The DPP lacks strong potential candidates. Su Zhen-chang is promising, but seems unlikely to be able to win. Meanwhile, even the traditionally DPP-supporting farmers in Taiwan's South need China's market for vegetables and other products. Taiwan's continued participation in the World Health Assembly depends on Beijing. Beijing's calculation seems to be to prevent Taiwan independence in the near term, then bring Taiwan "back to China," even if it takes 40 or 50 years. MM Lee said he is looking forward to visiting Fujian Province, where preparations are underway for a new southern economic area linked with Taiwan.

Xi Jinping

14. (C) The Deputy Secretary asked if in the future a leader like Xi Jinping would continue the policies on Taiwan followed by Hu Jintao. MM Lee responded affirmatively. Xi is a princeling who succeeded despite being rusticated. When the party needed his talents, Xi was brought in as Shanghai Party Secretary. Xi is seen as a Jiang Zemin protege, but in another three and a half years Jiang's influence will be gone. The focus now is on maintaining the system. There are no more strongmen like Deng Xiaoping. Jiang did not like Hu, but could not stop him, because Hu had the backing of the system and he did not make mistakes.

Wang Qishan

15. (C) MM Lee said Vice Premier Wang Qishan, whom the MM saw in connection with celebrations in May of the 15th anniversary of Singapore-China Suzhou Industrial Park, is an exceptional talent, very assured and efficient. Wang handled SARS superbly when he was in Hainan. He excelled in coordinating the Beijing Olympics. Li Keqiang may not get the Premiership and the Party is looking for a way to keep Wang on past his 65th birthday until he is 70. MM Lee said he had met first Wang back in the 1990s but had forgotten their meeting. This time when they met, Wang told Lee he had reviewed the records of all Lee's meeting with Chinese leaders going back to the days of Deng Xiaoping to see how Lee's thinking had developed. Wang told Lee he respects him as a consistent man.

China's Rise

16. (C) MM Lee said China is following an approach consistent with ideas in the Chinese television series "The Rise of Great Powers." The mistake of Germany and Japan had been their effort to challenge the existing order. The Chinese are not stupid; they have avoided this mistake. China's economy has surpassed other countries, with the exceptions of Japan and the United States. Even with those two countries, the gap is closing, with China growing at seven-nine percent annually, versus two-three percent in the United States and Japan. Overall GDP, not GDP per capita, is what matters in terms of power. China has four times the population of the United States. China is active in Latin America, Africa, and in the Gulf. Within hours, everything that is discussed in ASEAN meetings is known in Beijing, given China's close ties with Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, he stated.

17. (C) MM Lee said China will not reach the American level in terms of military capabilities any time soon, but is rapidly developing asymmetrical means to deter U.S. military power. China understands that its growth depends on imports, including energy, raw materials, and food. This is why China is working with South Africa on the China-Africa Development Fund. China also needs open sea lanes. Beijing is worried about its dependence on the Strait of Malacca and is moving to ease the dependence by means like a pipeline through Burma.

Build Ties with Young Chinese

18. (C) MM Lee said the best course for the United States on China is to build ties with China's young people. China's best and brightest want to study in the United States, with the UK as the next option, then Japan. While they are there, it is important that they be treated as equals, with the cultural support they may need as foreigners. Why not have International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs for China? Why not have Chinese cadets at West Point alongside Vietnamese cadets and Indian cadets? America's advantage is that it can make use of the talent of the entire world, as in Silicon Valley. China still tends to try to keep the foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai. MM Lee noted that his own experience as a student in the UK had left him with an enduring fondness for the UK. When he spent two months at Harvard in 1968, an American professor had invited him home for Thanksgiving. This was not the sort of thing that happened in the UK, and Lee had realized he was dealing with a different civilization. In the future, China's leaders will have PhDs and MBAs from American universities, he predicted.

19. (U) The Deputy Secretary has cleared this message.


* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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