April 12, 2023
SEOUL – On rising security concerns over North Korea’s continued provocations, former US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said South Korea and the United States should strengthen their joint military drills and impose stronger sanctions to deter Pyongyang’s threats.
“We can’t stop the North outright, short of war. I believe Kim Jong-un wants four things: sanctions relief, keep his nukes, split our alliance and dominate the peninsula. What we can and must do, however, is create the environment where North Korea determines it’s in its own enlightened best interest to stop this nuclear madness,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“This means increasing, not decreasing, sanctions. This means increasing, not decreasing, joint military exercises to improve the readiness of the combined force to meet aggression from the North.”
Harris, who served as the 24th US ambassador to Korea from 2018 to 2021 under the former Donald Trump administration, also said that dialogue with the North should be pursued, but not at the cost of military readiness.
“While we can hope for diplomacy with North Korea to be successful, the quest for dialogue with the North must never be made at the expense of the ability to respond to threats from the North,” he said. “Dialogue and military readiness must go hand-in-hand. Idealism must be rooted in realism. Deterrence by appeasement is not deterrence at all.”
Pyongyang has recently claimed to have tested a second type of nuclear-capable underwater attack drone. This comes after the regime launched eight ballistic missiles this year, including one intercontinental ballistic missile, and a record-breaking 71 missiles last year.
On escalating military tension, the former American diplomat said he was pleased that President Yoon Suk Yeol “places a primary on defending South Korea against the threat from the North — which means a return to joint military exercises and an emphasis on combined readiness.”
Yoon is taking a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who emphasized diplomacy with the North. Yoon resumed high-level consultations in the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group meeting in September last year in Washington, the first such meeting since 2018. He also expanded the scope and scale of joint exercises with the US and Japan that Moon and former President Donald Trump had scaled back.
On Yoon’s state visit to Washington later this month, Harris said he is pleased with the South Korean leader’s emphasis on making the South Korea-US alliance a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
He believes multiple agenda items will be on the table, including the issue of the Inflation Reduction Act, a controversial US law that could damage Korean automakers due to discriminatory subsidies. “For sure, the Inflation Reduction Act — especially its provision on electric vehicles — is a matter of concern in South Korea,” he said.
The former ambassador said he believes the bilateral relationship is strong enough to withstand recent allegations that US intelligence services had wiretapped the Korean government regarding its arms support for Ukraine.
“South Korea-US alliance is too deep, too important and too long-lived to be negatively impacted by things of this nature,” he said. He said the leak, however, will certainly complicate US efforts in Ukraine.
Following reports from the New York Times on Saturday that US intelligence services have been eavesdropping on key allies, concerns have arisen as to whether the alliance between Seoul and Washington remains trustworthy. The reports indicate that at least two of the documents contained internal discussions about whether the Korean government would provide artillery shells for use by Ukraine, which would violate Seoul’s policy on providing lethal aid.
The report has left Yoon, who is scheduled to hold a summit with US President Joe Biden later this month, puzzled. However, the presidential office has reiterated that the alliance remains “fundamentally strong.”
Harris said the two allies will “get through this together and emerge stronger than ever,” adding he is glad that the US Department of Justice has undertaken a full investigation.
He also said he does not believe that South Korea is often caught between the US and China.
The argument of South Korea being caught between the US and China is a false narrative, he contended. South Korea already made its choice in 1953 when it formally allied with the US and aligned with the West, he added.
On prospects on renewed trilateral ties among South Korea, the US and Japan for regional security, Harris gave credit to Yoon for initiating the move by reconnecting Seoul and Tokyo.
The former envoy was referring to the president’s visit to Japan last month that leaders of the two countries lauded as a diplomatic mark that opened a new era.
“Notwithstanding the current tensions between Seoul and Tokyo — and these are significant — the reality is that no important security or economic issues in the region can be addressed without both South Korea’s and Japan’s active involvement,” he said.
Despite the summit, however, Yoon still faces opposition at home over what he conceded without resolving sensitive issues, including wartime sex slavery and a territorial dispute over the Dokdo islets that have left the two countries’ ties strained for decades. His approval rating plummeted to 30 percent. But Harris said Yoon has shown “true statesmanship.”
“This is particularly true when you consider the polling data in South Korea which indicate that a majority of South Koreans do not support his outreach to Tokyo,” he said. “Statesmen do the right thing. I hope he succeeds.”
Harry Harris’ Profile
Harry Harris is a retired American diplomat who was appointed as the US ambassador to South Korea in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, shortly after his retirement from the military. He served as the top US envoy in Seoul until January 2021. Prior to his foreign service, Harris served as the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii from 2015 to 2018, and was deeply involved in security-related issues on the Korean Peninsula, including the North Korean nuclear issue. He retired as a 4-star admiral.
This is the second installment of a series of interviews, features and analyses on the South Korea-US alliance — a 70-year-old partnership that has been instrumental in shaping the Korean Peninsula’s contemporary history from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War, and which continues to serve as a stalwart pillar of regional security — as well as its challenges ahead. — Ed.