[GWS] I also think that a conflict over Taiwan would affect the American people more directly than what is happening in Ukraine. What’s your view on how seriously Korea should be taking this possibility?
[FF] It is likely enough that it is absolutely important for everyone to take it seriously and plan against it. What you want to do is deter China from taking any military action against Taiwan. They’re not going to be deterred unless they see that there’s a response on the other side that is going to raise the cost for them. That’s not going to happen unless people take the scenarios seriously and start thinking about concrete ways that they could help Taiwan or stymie any kind of Chinese attack. I think it is very important for Korea to think this through and think about ways they could support Taiwan and be part of a larger alliance that can push back against China.
[GWS] I keep telling my friends and colleagues in Korea that they should take this problem much more seriously. Taiwan could become the biggest challenge for the Yoon administration’s foreign policy, not North Korea. China policy has become an extremely divisive partisan issue in South Korea, and it could tear the country apart. What advice would you have for President Yoon?
[FF] There’s two things. First is the rhetorical position. Korea should make its position clear in advance that it would oppose Chinese military action and would support the United States, for example. Korea is going to get dragged into this because so much U.S. military equipment is in Korea, and that is going to be moved in closer to the theater. I think making that position clear in advance is important.
The other thing that’s been very clear from the Ukraine war is that democracies are not prepared for an extended conflict. Everybody is running out of ammunition in Europe and the United States is running low on certain types of ammunition. The Ukrainians have used so much of it just in the 10 months they have been fighting. I think that any high-intensity conflict in East Asia is also going to be very costly in terms of supplies. South Korea is in a better position than other countries because it has been preparing for a North Korean attack for decades. Everybody needs to be prepared for an extended conflict. It may not be over in 48 hours.
[GWS] Koreans are quite nervously watching the ongoing escalation of tensions between the United States and China. In the past, the paradigm was “United States for security, China for the economy” (an-mi-gyeong-joong). Now, security and the economy are linked together. The Yoon government is promoting the strengthening of the alliance with the United States, but South Korea faces the fundamental problem of how to position itself as U.S.-China tensions escalate. Do you have any wisdom for Korea?
[FF] I don’t know if it’s wisdom, but I think Korea needs to take a clearer position. Under the previous government, there was a belief that Korea could somehow be halfway between China and the United States. That’s just not a tenable position. The tension between the United States and China has really been driven by China ever since 2013, when Xi Jinping took power. China has become a much more severe dictatorship internally, and it has become much more aggressive externally. You see the influence of the Belt and Road Initiative and the militarization of the South China Sea. In the last 10 or 15 years, China has been picking fights with India, Japan, Korea, and all of Southeast Asia over territorial issues. They built the size of their military much more rapidly than any other great power in that period of time. As a result, the United States and other countries have simply reacted to this. I think that a democracy like Korea cannot pretend that it is somehow in between the United States and China. It has to make the decision that it is going to be on the side of democracy.
[GWS] I agree that an-mi-gyeong-joong is now obsolete, but I think that South Korea must be more sophisticated in its response. As they say, the devil is in the details. On the economy, Seoul can actively work with Washington on areas closely related to security, but it can still partner with Beijing on sectors that are not. There can be a fine-tuned policy.
I now want to ask about North Korea and U.S. policy. I have been saying that the Biden administration policy is one of “strategic neglect,” not the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration. Kim Jong-un keeps testing missiles and provoking, and South Koreans are puzzled by the lack of response from Washington. Why is that? Is it because all the attention is on Ukraine and China?
[FF] Not every problem has a solution, and I don’t think this problem has a solution. You could use diplomacy. You could use military force. You could use deterrence. There are a limited number of possible approaches, and I think none of them are going to work. There has been a long history of negotiation. That has not worked. I think confrontation is not going to work. I think preemption is certainly not going to work. I just don’t think there’s a good solution, so we’ve ended up with trying to ignore the problem by default. Part of the reason North Korea is launching all of these missiles is that they want people to pay attention to them. Ignoring the problem is not much of a solution either, but it’s not as if there is a better solution.
[GWS] I agree with you that for many people in government, North Korea has been a hot potato. You don’t want to touch it because there is no clear solution, and it won’t help your career. But if we just ignore the problem, then five years later it’s going to be worse. What kind of North Korea are we going to face in five or ten years?
[FF] Everybody has been hoping that something would happen internally. It’s fine to think that, but it’s also not taking place. That said, Kim Jong-un is obese and unhealthy. Who knows what might happen?