[Herald Interview] ‘THAAD controversy won't mar alliance’

By Yeo Jun-suk

Richard Betts skeptical of President Moon Jae-in’s offer of talks in return for freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests

  • Published : Jun 25, 2017 - 13:05
  • Updated : Jun 25, 2017 - 17:55
This is the first installment of a five-part series of interviews with prominent US scholars on an upcoming South Korea-US summit and the alliance. -- Ed.

Despite persistent controversy, South Korea’s halt of the deployment of a US anti-missile system will not undermine the decadesold alliance, and the sides may be able to forge a better deal on North Korea than expected during their upcoming summit, a renowned US security expert told The Korea Herald.

Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, said although he advocates a full deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, delaying the process is “not a terrible thing.”

“I don’t believe (the THAAD issue) is important enough to bring a crisis to the alliance. The deployment can be partial with the rest of it being delayed a bit. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing,” Betts said in an interview last week. He was visiting Seoul to take part in an international conference on defense technology security hosted by the South Korean Army.

“I don’t know (that it) is worth paying a big price either for Washington to deploy THAAD or Seoul to cancel it. ... Some sort of compromise is more important than wrecking the alliance.”

Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies from Columbia University (Columbia University)

His trip here came shortly after Cheong Wa Dae’s surprise announcement of the suspension of the installment of four THAAD launchers, to the dismay of Washington. Fueling the controversy, President Moon Jae-in said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that the deployment had been “mysteriously accelerated,” though the allies initially agreed to station only one launcher this year.

Currently, two launchers are in operation at a site in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, with the other four launchers stored within a US base elsewhere. The transfer of the four launchers here were not revealed until last month.

Betts, however, expressed skepticism over the Moon administration’s attempt to forge a freeze deal with North Korea over its nuclear program, saying the regime has “no incentive” to abandon its nuclear and missile activities. In his June 15 address marking the 17th anniversary of a landmark inter-Korean peace declaration, the president offered talks in return for a moratorium on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, which was seen to critics as a weakened threshold for negotiations compared with Seoul’s existing position calling for a complete denuclearization.

“I don’t know under the current circumstance that there is a possible effective strategy to change the status quo. It’s hard to see what incentive that the North has to make changes that are serious and significant. South Korea and the US may just have to wait for some changes in circumstance and attitude.”

Particularly, the professor was opposed to the idea of Moon’s special adviser Moon Chung-in of achieving the suspension of North Korean nuclear activities by reducing the allies’ joint military exercises and US deployment of its strategic assets.

“Suspension of (nuclear activities) is not a big concession because they can end the suspension any time. They can go back to testing and keep their next test. ... If I had to choose between concession and more pressure, I’ll prefer to choose more pressure,” he said.

“If we are going to do anything, we would do it in economic areas, not military areas. The purpose of negotiations is to reduce the danger of war and, if possible, to promote the progress of some sorts politically that could lead to (a better) relationship.”

Although North Korea appears to be only several years from developing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, Washington should learn to “live with it” as they did with China and Russia, because a pre-emptive strike against the North is not an alternative, Betts said.

The best way to address the North’s relentless nuclear threat, the scholar said, is to enhance Washington’s credibility in taking military steps against the North’s reckless provocations by avoiding empty rhetoric such as that of US President Donald Trump.

“We won’t be comfortable with living with it. But the alternative could be worse. Going to war with North Korea over this opens up a lot of uncertain possibilities and may cause what we’re trying to prevent. That’s a bad solution. But sometimes a bad solution is the only alternative to an even worse solution,” he said.

“We shouldn’t make so much noise about it. Just take a strong position that they’re not going to get any concession unless they make concessions of their own on the nuclear program. I’d rather do that than make North Korea think we’re so hysterical about each step they take that they can get something out of it.”

According to Betts, Trump is “ignorant and inconsistent” with his foreign policy and South Korea appears not to be top on the agenda for him, as he has been caught up with military conflicts in Syria and a political scandal over his firing of ex-FBI chief James Comey.

But there is a chance for President Moon to strike a better deal with Trump than his predecessors during their upcoming summit on Thursday and Friday, the professor said, because the former business tycoon does not concern himself too much about changing his mind.

“The main thing is to get (Trump) to see some apparent advantage in whatever was proposed even if it contradicts his previous policy. You shouldn’t worry about proposing something he has rejected in the past -- if you can do it in a way to make him believe that it’s a different idea.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (