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[Herald Interview] ‘Europe’s peace process can be tailored for East Asia’

NATO deputy chief urges N. Korea to stop wasting money on nukes

Europe’s peace process can be tailored to promote trust and stability in East Asia, which has been plagued by historical and territorial feuds, a top NATO official said, dismissing the skepticism about its application to the region.

During an interview with The Korea Herald this week, Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also urged North Korea to stop wasting money on its nuclear programs.

“Any solution that worked in Europe can’t be literally reverse-engineered and applied exactly in the same way. But at the same time, the building blocks of the Helsinki process, I think, are of value universally,” he said, referring to the European peace process that helped build mutual trust and eventually end the Cold War.

“(Institutional mechanisms from the Helsinki process) have helped in preventing political disputes from escalating into military conflicts and provided transparency about military deployment to reduce misunderstandings that could lead to an accidental war.

“So again, it will have to be tailored to the special requirements of Northeast Asia, and I think if the nations are willing to pursue it, it can have positive results.”

Vershbow, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Seoul between 2005 and 2008, was here in Seoul to attend the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Forum and the Seoul Defense Dialogue that were arranged by Seoul’s ministries of foreign affairs and defense, respectively.

The forums were held to help facilitate President Park Geun-hye’s drive to address what she terms the “Asian paradox,” which refers to the region’s strong economic exchanges but limited cooperation in security and political arenas.

The former veteran diplomat recognized obstacles such as long-simmering territorial rows for regional trust-building, but stressed that they were not insurmountable.

“I think the first step is to agree on the nonuse of force and peaceful resolution of disputes and then to set up political processes that can hopefully manage and maybe even overcome them,” he said. “There may be unique historical problems that affect trust and political possibilities in terms of public opinion in Northeast Asia. But again, you have to start from somewhere.”
Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Yonhap)
Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Yonhap)

Touching on the argument that NATO, a group of countries in the far-flung region, may not be of substantial help for Asia’s security, Vershbow said that albeit indirectly as an observer, NATO can help promote peace in East Asia.

“NATO isn’t aspiring to become a global policeman. We would like to talk about NATO having a partnership with Asia, rather than promoting a role for NATO in Asia,” he said.

“But we do think that we can contribute through our partnership and cooperation programs to help strengthen the capacity of Korea and other partners to make their forces more interoperable to learn from NATO experiences in dealing with terrorism, proliferation and helping the management of disaster responses and cyberdefense.”

Criticizing Russia’s “illegal” annexation of Crimea, Vershbow expressed concerns over the case’s negative impact on the international efforts to denuclearize North Korea and the world’s nonproliferation regime.

He underscored that Russia has violated the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, under which Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear arms in exchange for its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Since the annexation of Crimea, a strong sentiment has emerged in Ukraine that the country should not have given up its nuclear arsenal.

“It does deal a very serious blow to the international nonproliferation regime,” Vershbow said, upbraiding Russia for the annexation of Crimea.

“Hopefully, North Korea still see that its larger interest would be served by halting the (nuclear) programs, denuclearizing and negotiating its reintegration into the region. Ultimately, people of North Korea would be much better off through economic development rather than wasting (so) much money on their nuclear programs.”

In the wake of Russia’s incorporation of Crimea, NATO’s role as a “collective defense” mechanism has returned to the spotlight, Vershbow pointed out, while before then, NATO’s role as a “collective security” apparatus has been much highlighted.

Collective defense refers to a collective commitment to help an ally under attack from a designated enemy, while collective security refers to a commitment to collectively respond to threats to and breaches to peace without a predetermined enemy.

“In light of the crisis over Ukraine, Russia’s increasing aggressive behavior, the collective defense side of NATO has come back into the limelight,” he said.

“The decisions of the summit in Wales (in September) were very focused on strengthening our collective defense including high-readiness forces that could arrive in any allied country within a matter of days if there were a threat.”

After the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of its major enemy ― the Soviet Union ― two years later, NATO has undertaken an additional role as a collective security apparatus to help stabilize Europe faltering under a series of new sociopolitical, religious and security issues.

By Song Sang-ho (
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