Understanding the Challenge of Deterring North Korea


2012-08-02  An Interview with Lt. General (Retired) Charles R. Heflebower

Lt. Gen. Charles R. Heflebower was Deputy Commander in Chief, United Nations Command; Deputy Commander, U.S. Forces Korea; Commander, Air Component Command, Republic of Korea and U.S. Combined Forces Command; and Commander, 7th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces, Osan Air Base, South Korea. He is also the U.S. representative to the Joint Committee established by the United States and Republic of Korea Status of Forces Agreement.

SLD: You have the European experience and the Pacific experience. Just how different are those AORs?

HEFLEBOWER: First of all there is the tyranny of distance. Getting to Europe is relatively easy compared to Asia.  The tyranny of distance is a constant in Pacific operations.  And over time we have had good support for European operations, but support for Pacific operations has been more limited.

In Europe you have had a mature, multi-national alliance in NATO In the Pacific you have bi-lateral arrangements/treaties.  In Korea you have a strong bi-lateral alliance and, still, an armistice, not peace between the North and South.

History still has an impact in the Pacific region.

The legacy of Japan’s nearly 50 year occupation of Korea is still a factor.  For example, when I was working with my counterpart in Japan, the Fifth Air Force Commander, trying to work mil to mil  senior officer dialogues between Japan and South Korea and start to build bridges, one article would come out on text books where the Japanese would be accused of trying  to rewrite history and the media would raise all of the old, yet real, issues and that process would stop.

And South Korea has really been truly democratic for only about 30 years.  Adjusting to a free and independent media, strong provincial governments has been difficult.

The North Koreans are a complicated adversary when it comes to deterrence.

The key is to surge to ensure that the North Koreans in a conflict do not get their Air Force airborne… They have entire air bases that are underground and so you got to bottle them up. You got to keep them on the ground and destroy them there. Credit Image: Bigstock

SLD: And the spector of unification hangs over the Koreas and waxes and wanes as a political siren song.

HEFLEBOWER: The reunification of Germany and the Asian economic crisis together was a huge wakeup call in South Korea. The South Koreans are very observant, very well educated compared to their partners up north and they saw what Germany had to go through and they know that it is probably one one-hundredth of what the South and the North would have to go through in shaping a re-unification process.

You go down to the people level and talk to them it’s still a very emotional thing with them, the vision of a reunified Korea.  Yet the leadership in both government and  in business and industry understand that the price for reunification would be huge and the quality of life and the standard of living in the South would go on pause for a number of years while that occurred.

SLD: How would you describe the Chinese relationship with North Korea?

HEFLEBOWER: They don’t respect each other. They frequently both make decisions that affect each other without consulting one another. The North Koreans are very much dismissive of the Chinese. They certainly don’t give them any credit for the fact that they came in to the Korean War and saved North Korea.

There’s are also large numbers of North Korean refugees and ex-patriots living north of the Yalu River and the various provinces and the Chinese are concernedabout having to deal with that.

I believe the Chinese also don’t find a unified Korea with American forces present a very attractive end state.

Also, the nature of the North Korean system creates significant imponderables.

I use the term “pirate kingdom” to describe the regime.

North Korean leadership is a family affair and the family in power wants to stay in power.  They stay in power through doling out benefits and rewards and incredibly severe punishment, and they’ve been able to do that in a culture that respects power.

SLD: How easy is to negotiate real agreements with the North Koreans?

HEFLEBOWER: You can negotiate with them, but I don’t see that it has gained anything in a strategic context.  They simply don’t keep the agreements.

With every new South Korean or American administration there is a belief that “we can deal with the North”.  A new team comes in and has high hopes. And yet in the period of 50 or 60 years, I think there have been three, maybe four lead negotiators for North Korea and so they kind of come in a lot more experienced than we are.  They have stayed on a strategic track that has not changed.

SLD: Will the North Koreans give up their nuclear weapons?

HEFLEBOWER: The North Koreans, in my view, are never going to give up nuclear weapons. They are simply too useful to have and to complicate the lives of Americans and South Koreans and others in the region.

SLD: What will be the impact of the 2015 turnover of command to South Korea from the UN command structure?

HEFLEBOWER: The biggest concern I have with the transfer of authority is the perception by the North that that means that we, the US,  won’t come.

That’s also a concern in the South, so it’ll be interesting to see as we get closer to 2015 if the North Koreans do something to irritate others, whether it’s a test or sink a ship or whatever they’re going to do, whether that then slips to 2018 and ’19 because there are a lot of very senior folks in Korea that think the transfer of authority is not a good idea.

There’s no question that the South Koreans have the wherewithal to lead the alliance.

The question is how to put together a perceived (by the North Koreans) credible deterrent package for South Korean defense.

SLD: What are some the key elements in shaping such an approach?

HEFLEBOWER: It is a joint fight and there is a need for joint forces able to support a credible U.S. engagement capability.  But in my view there is a difference between South and North Korea.  The North views US air and maritime power as the key to getting their attention; the South Koreans see the ground forces as a reassurance of the willingness of the U.S. to spill blood in their defense.

The joint air and maritime forces are a key element in terms of interdiction and bottling up North Korea and dealing with their very substantial Special Forces, USAF, USMC and USN air are key.

The ability to surge in force is crucial. When I was there, I calculated that if we could remain viable through the first 20 days of combat, forces could be surged to the area and turn the tide.

In this sense, Alaska is a crucial asset to any American Pacific strategy.

People don’t realize how strategic Alaska is until you really look at a map and recognize its central role in terms of getting forces into the region.  I liked having both forces in Japan/Alaska because we could get them there fairly quickly and affect any battle calculations by the North.

In general, to have an effective Pacific strategy we have to have distributed forces in the region. There are a lot of little lily pads we ought to be developing.

SLD: How important do you think Air Force modernization and adding the kind of capabilities we’ve been talking about are to North Korean perceptions of U.S. strength which is underlying deterrence here?

HEFLEBOWER: Very important. Everything that the Air Force is trying to do, air space and cyber space, plays in Korea because Korea’s a major area of operation where an ability to surge rapidly power is crucial to success. You would have to get control of the air over the North Korean army in times of conflict.

In essence what you’re doing with air power is you’re denying them the ability to penetrate the South with air and you’re taking control of the air over the North Korean army so you can kill them. I’ve been cautioned because people say, “Well what was your objective?”  The answer is to rapidly destroy the North Korean Army.

The key is to surge to ensure that they do not get their Air Force airborne.  They build tunnels like crazy. They have entire air bases that are underground and so you got to bottle them up. You got to keep them on the ground and destroy them there.

SLD: What will be the role of the F-22 and F-35 tandem in this effort?

HEFLEBOWER: Crucial.  They are different airplanes but combine to make a lethal capability never seen in aviation history.

SLD: How important will it be to get the Army and Air Force on the same page in terms of leveraging the flying sensor systems which the F-22 and F-35 tandem provide with ground based Army missiles?

HEFLEBOWER: This needs to be done and will be a crucial capability to defend South Korea.

Joint, integrated operations are key.

I want to be able to pick off a guy behind me with a Patriot and we did not have the capability to do that when I was in South Korean. The Patriot did, but in terms of a netted understanding of the air battle, we didn’t have it, and you saw the manifestation of that with the few friendly fire kills in Iraq.

Q.  So you see ground batteries and F-22 and F-35 tandem to have the same picture.  This would be similar to the synergistic effect, which Ed Timperlake described with regard to “Aegis is my wing man?”

A.:  Yes .  And the deployment  of the USMC F-35B first to South Korea will be great for the joint fight. It not only provides capabilities for the USMC MAGTF but to the joint fight as well.