US admiral says NK crisis is at worst point he's seen

‘U.S. to shift focus to air and sea for Korea defense’

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Published : 2015-01-14 19:40
Updated : 2015-01-14 20:12

This is the fourth installment in a special New Year’s series of interviews with preeminent scholars on international politics and security. ― Ed.


The U.S. security commitment to South Korea will come more in the form of air and naval power than ground troops in the future, a U.S. security expert said, noting the need for America to maintain highly mobile forces to handle evolving security challenges around the world.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, also indicated South Korea needed to understand America’s new warfighting “AirSea Battle” concept to ensure joint combat capabilities.

“American military planners must reserve the option of shifting these highly mobile forces between theaters should circumstances demand it (rather than maintaining only static ground forces here),” said Friedberg, who was security adviser to then-Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003-2005.

“In order to preserve relations with its allies, Washington must also make clear that it would consult with them before making any such move.”
Aaron L. Friedberg (Jon Roemer/WWS 2005)


His remarks came as the U.S. has been pushing for a reorganization of its troops with a focus on air and naval power, after some 13 years of ground warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. currently maintains some 28,500 troops in Korea, mostly ground forces.

Touching on the concerns that the U.S. could be reluctant to immediately intervene in a contingency on the Korean Peninsula ― as it was in the Libyan and Syrian cases ― the scholar said that the U.S., a longtime treaty ally of South Korea, has a “legal, strategic and moral obligation” to come to South Korea’s defense should it be attacked.

As to the strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo, the professor said the persistent animosity between them was not inevitable. He described the worsening ties as “deeply unfortunate, unnecessary and not in the best interest of either country.” He called for joint efforts toward a mutually acceptable understanding of the past.

The following is the interview with Dr. Friedberg.

The Korea Herald: Do you think South Korea should learn about the U.S.’ “AirSea Battle” concept, given that in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, it will fight with the U.S. employing the concept? What do you think about the potential for friction with China, which thinks the concept could potentially target it?

Aaron Friedberg: AirSea Battle is an operational concept whose aim is to ensure that the United States can continue to project military power to support its allies and defend its interests in various parts of the world, despite the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities being developed by some states. It is important for South Korea’s military planners to understand how their American allies intend to fight a future war. But they also need to assess the evolving threat to their own interests posed by A2/AD capabilities and to consider what role they might wish to play in countering it, should the need ever arise.

KH: What do you think about the importance of trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan? Which direction should the security partnership go?

Friedberg: Closer trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan is in the best interests of all parties. Increased cooperation can help to reduce misunderstandings and possible mistrust among the three nations and enable them to better prepare for possible crises or contingencies that could threaten all of them. Such cooperation is not aimed at China and should not prevent better relations with that country. Beijing’s possible objections should not be allowed to stand in the way of closer trilateral strategic cooperation.

KH: How do you think the U.S. and China would respond to serious instability in North Korea, such as a sudden collapse? Would China immediately intervene to secure or promote its own interests?

Friedberg: In the event of the sudden collapse of the Pyongyang regime China would certainly move quickly to secure its interests, perhaps taking steps to seal its border with North Korea in order to prevent mass refugee flows and possibly intervening directly in North Korea itself. It would certainly be preferable if the U.S. and China could coordinate their actions, together with the Republic of Korea, in order to prevent chaos in the North or even an unintended great power conflict. Despite some efforts to promote discussion of this topic, however, Beijing has thus far been extremely reluctant to engage in an exchange of views on how best to handle a serious crisis in the DPRK, perhaps for fear of offending or provoking its longtime ally.

KH: Amid the intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry, South Korea is put in an increasingly difficult diplomatic position as it seeks to maintain the security alliance and the deepening economic relationship with China. What is the best way forward for Korea?

Friedberg: There is no reason why South Korea cannot maintain close strategic ties with the United States even as it continues to develop mutually beneficial economic relations with China. Bilateral trade and investment is in China’s interests as much, or in some cases more, than those of its economic partners. While Beijing may try to persuade South Korea or other countries that they need to choose, it is extremely unlikely to disrupt economic relations from which it benefits in an attempt to exert leverage over its trading partners. As it pursues deeper economic relations with China, South Korea should continue to take steps to preserve its alliance relationship with the United States while at the same time strengthening economic ties by removing many of the remaining barriers to U.S.-ROK trade and investment. This is a wise and prudent combination of policies that will help South Korea to preserve its security and diplomatic independence, even as it enhances the well-being of its people.

KH: In recent years, the relationship between South Korea and China has improved a lot. What do you think about this relationship? Would this cause some concerns to American policymakers?

Friedberg: Good diplomatic and economic relations between Seoul and Beijing do not, in themselves, run counter to the interests of the United States. What would be troubling from an American perspective would be if decision makers in South Korea were to conclude that a strong relationship with China requires a weakening of the historic partnership with the United States. South Korea and Japan are both allies of the United States and they are both democracies that share important values in common. From a U.S. perspective, ROK-PRC cooperation targeted against Japan is worrisome and could weaken the security architecture that has helped to preserve peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Instead of taking sides with China against Japan it would be preferable if South Korea and Japan were able to resolve their differences over history and other issues with one another directly, and perhaps with the participation of the United States.

KH: South Koreans feel uncomfortable about Japan’s military buildup and use of collective self-defense. What do you think about the role of Japan‘s collective self-defense in terms of stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula?

Friedberg: As an independent nation-state that has lived in peace with its neighbors for almost 70 years, Japan is entitled to participate in collective self-defense efforts. Exercising the right of collective self-defense would enable Japan to cooperate more closely with the United States, and potentially with South Korea, in planning for crises and strategic contingencies that could threaten the interests of all three nations. A Japan that chooses to participate in collective self-defense efforts will be aligned even more closely with the United States, and this fact should be reassuring to South Korea as well as to other countries in the region.

KH: Why do you think the negotiations to denuclearize North Korea have failed? Do you think would Pyongyang be ever willing to renounce its nuclear ambitions?

Friedberg: If all the members of the international community, and especially China, had been willing to apply greater economic and diplomatic pressure a decade ago it is possible that Pyongyang could have been deterred from taking the final steps toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, instead of pressing it to the maximum extent, Beijing chose to shield North Korea, providing it with economic assistance that enabled it to continue to function and to pursue nuclear weapons. Now that it has them, it is extremely unlikely that the North Korean regime will surrender these weapons. Like his father, Kim Jong-un appears to regard nuclear weapons as the ultimate insurance policy against attack or attempts at regime change. Offering inducements or concessions to Pyongyang in the hopes that these will persuade it to change course is extremely unlikely to work and could serve to bolster the current regime. Tighter financial sanctions are the best measure available to help slow the progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

KH: What would occur in the security landscape of East Asia should North Korea succeed in fully developing nuclear weapons? Would China and the U.S. let the North possess nuclear arms?

Friedberg: North Korea already possesses an unknown number of nuclear devices. The critical next step in its evolution into a true nuclear weapons state will come when it succeeds in miniaturizing these devices and placing them on delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles. If and when this happens, North Korea will be able to pose a far greater threat to South Korea and Japan, to U.S. forces and bases in Northeast Asia, and potentially to the United States itself. This could weaken the credibility of America’s extended deterrent guarantees and increase pressure on its allies to acquire nuclear forces of their own. China ought to have a strong interest in preventing this from happening. To date, however, Beijing’s concerns over further proliferation of nuclear weapons have not been sufficient to induce it to take strong action against Pyongyang.

KH: South Korea has concerns about the U.S. Forces Korea becoming an increasingly expeditionary force, rather than remaining a traditional static force to deter North Korean aggression. What do you think about the future role of the U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea’s concerns?

Friedberg: In the future, as in the recent past, the U.S. contribution to the defense of South Korea will come more in the form of air and naval power than large forward-deployed ground forces. This makes good strategic sense. South Korea has a large population and a highly capable army, as well as very good air and naval forces of its own. The United States has unmatched capabilities in the air and on the sea, but it also has security commitments throughout Asia, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. American military planners must reserve the option of shifting these highly mobile forces between theaters should circumstances demand it. In order to preserve relations with its allies, Washington must also make clear that it would consult with them before making any such move.

KH: The U.S has shown some reluctance to immediately intervene in recent overseas conflicts, including those in Libya and Syria. This has triggered concerns here, with some arguing that the U.S. could also be reluctant to step into a conflict in Korea. What do you think about this?

Friedberg: It is understandable that recent U.S. reluctance to intervene in conflicts in the Middle East should cause some concern about American resolve in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. But these situations are very different. American interests in Libya and Syria were unclear and subject to debate, and the U.S. had no prior commitment to become involved in conflicts there. By contrast, the United States and South Korea are treaty allies and the U.S. therefore has a legal, strategic and moral obligation to come to the ROK’s defense should it be attacked. Moreover, as long as some American forces are deployed on the peninsula, it seems quite likely that an attack on South Korea would target U.S. forces. Attacks on its overseas bases and personnel would be acts of war against the United States to which an American president would have no choice but to respond.

KH: The relationship between South Korea and Japan has been worsening. Do you think the two sides would be able to restore their ties?

Friedberg: The recent deterioration in Japan-ROK relations is deeply unfortunate, unnecessary and not in the best interest of either country. Tension and animosity are not inevitable, however. To the contrary, Japan and South Korea have enjoyed periods of greater warmth and closer cooperation in the past. Domestic political forces in both countries present the greatest obstacle to improving bilateral relations. For the relationship to improve, the two countries will need to continue to work towards some mutually acceptable understanding of the past, one in which Japan acknowledges the pain it caused to the Korean people and Koreans accept the sincerity of Japan’s expressions of regret. At a minimum, political leaders on both sides will have to refrain from using the history issue to stir emotions and mobilize domestic support.

KH: Do you think the establishment of a multilateral security mechanism in East Asia ― like what Europe has achieved ― would be possible?

Friedberg: A multilateral security mechanism might be useful if it helped to promote dialogue, transparency and confidence-building measures. But in East Asia, as is still the case in Europe, traditional alliances will remain essential to maintaining a stable balance of power and preserving the peace.

KH: There has been increasing international pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights conditions. Do you think this pressure can bring about any change in North Korea?

Friedberg: The North Korean regime systematically abuses its population and for decades has denied them the most basic human rights. Because of the likely costs, however, these facts are insufficient in themselves to warrant direct international intervention. (The one exception might be a situation in which the regime had already begun to collapse and intervention was necessary in order to prevent disorder and even greater loss of life.) Pyongyang sadly shows no signs of sensitivity to international condemnation and moral pressure and these are unlikely in themselves to cause it to change its behavior. However, the international community has an obligation to continue to shine a light on the regime and its reprehensible practices, to assist those who seek to escape its clutches, and to prepare for the day when North Korea’s leaders can eventually be called to account.

KH: After his electoral victory in December, Prime Minister Abe is expected to push for a nationalist security agenda. What is your forecast on Japan‘s future direction as a militarily stronger state?

Friedberg: The concerns of other Asian states are understandable, in light of the tragic history of the first half of the 20th century. But Japan today is a very different country than it was in 1900 or in the 1930s and 1940s: It is a democracy with a long history of peaceful behavior and a demonstrated commitment to international law. It is also a country with a shrinking population and a slow-growing economy. Japan is strengthening its defense capabilities, not because it has any intention of invading and conquering others as it did in the 1930s and 1940s, but because it faces what it sees as increasing threats from other countries, most notably China. Japan is seeking to expand its security cooperation with other countries, including the United States, but also India and Australia, among others, in order to preserve a balance of power with an increasingly capable China. A Japan that is well-integrated into a network of alliances and cooperative relationships, especially with other democratic states, is extremely unlikely to pose a threat to the peace and stability of East Asia.

KH: Some people say economic interdependence, cultural exchanges and other liberalist and constructivist ideas would help promote peace and stability in East Asia. Do you agree?

Friedberg: While enhanced economic integration and greater cultural exchange can help to preserve peace they provide no assurances. In the near term, it will continue to be essential to ensure that the balance of “hard” power is sufficient to deter those who might harbor revisionist designs and aggressive ambitions. In the longer run, a convergence of all the major Asian powers towards shared liberal democratic values and political institutions is probably the best guarantor of an enduring peace. 

Aaron L. Friedberg

● Friedberg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987, and codirector of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Center for International Security Studies.

● He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research.

● His publications include “The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905” and “A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia,” which has been translated into Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

● He served between 2003 and 2005 as deputy assistant for national security affairs in the Office of the Vice President. After leaving government, he was appointed to the Defense Policy Board and the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion.

● He has been a research fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Norwegian Nobel Institute, the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs.

● He received his bachelor’s degree in 1978 and his Ph.D. in 1986, both from Harvard University.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)