March 5, 2024 | The JoongAng-CSIS Forum 2024

The JoongAng-CSIS Forum 2024: Keynote Address by Matt Pottinger

March 5, 2024 | The JoongAng-CSIS Forum 2024

The JoongAng-CSIS Forum 2024: Keynote Address by Matt Pottinger

Prime Minister Han [Duck-Soo]; Chairman Hong [Seok-Hyun]; President Hamre—thank you for your stimulating remarks this morning.  And thank you for inviting me to be here today. We have a distinguished group of friends participating today—deep thinkers and motivated actors, all.  This group feeds my optimism that, if we work together with a sense of urgency, we will find ways to manage the growing list of crises now confronting the free world—and to avert even worse catastrophes looming on the horizon.

Deterrence is the name of the game, because what we are confronting are wars of aggression: Aggression by revanchist, totalitarian dictatorships in Moscow and Tehran, aided and abetted by revanchist totalitarian dictatorships in Beijing and Pyongyang. 

If just one lesson could be drawn from the crises we’re facing, it must be that deterrence would have been a lot cheaper than war. Yet democracies seem to be getting worse at deterrence. Let’s be frank: The record of the past two years is marred with failures and signs of trouble: 

Vladimir Putin, unfazed by Washington’s threats of sanctions, plunged Europe into its most destructive conflict since World War II. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran equipped the terrorist group Hamas to initiate a war with Israel. And once the war had started, Iran mobilized several of its other terrorist proxies, to rocket Israel, attack commercial and military ships in the Red Sea, and strike U.S. troops across the region. 

Beijing has intensified its campaign to impose Chinese control over the South China Sea, home to some of the world’s most important international sea-lanes and fishing grounds. It is doing so in contempt of international norms and court rulings, and in defiance of public opinion across Southeast Asia. 

Venezuela’s dictator, who may have concluded that Washington’s bark is worse than its bite, has threatened to annex much of Venezuela’s oil-rich neighbor, Guyana.  Beijing is expressing sympathy for Venezuela’s position and providing propaganda support.  And in a bold reprisal of Soviet mischief during the Cold War, Beijing is also developing Chinese intelligence facilities and a plan for a military base on Cuba. 

North Korea, undaunted by U.N. Security Council resolutions, resumed testing intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time in more than five years and became a major supplier of arms and munitions for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

And then there’s the specter of a potential conflict more consequential than all these flashpoints combined: Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping has vowed to “reunify” Taiwan with mainland China, through force of arms if necessary. Xi is already pursuing a multipronged strategy of economic, propaganda, and military pressure designed to intimidate and ultimately subjugate the people of Taiwan. 

As we have discussed a bit already at this conference, these crises are impacting the economy and security of the Republic of Korea. Suddenly, our alliance between South Korea and the United States is showing its time-tested relevance in the context not only of the North Korean menace, but in the context of distant emergencies and potential conflicts closer to home. 

Allow me to talk briefly about the relevance to South Korea of, first: Russia’s brutal war against its neighbor Ukraine; second, Communist dictator Xi Jinping’s campaign of pressure on Taiwan; and third, the North Korean monarch and his renewed cycle of brinksmanship that I see coming here on the Korean Peninsula. I’ll also talk about steps we can take to deter these adversaries. 

If we pay attention, keep our nerve, and do the work, we can prevent even worse bloodshed and preserve our freedom and prosperity for our children. 

Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has already had economic costs for South Korea. Many South Korean companies, such as Hyundai, had to withdraw from the Russian market or abandon investments there as part of international sanctions against the Putin regime. 

But the war also is having military and security implications for South Korea.  The North Korean regime has sent, by the estimate of South Korea’s Defense Minister, 6,700 shipping containers or war materiel to Russia following the September summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. Those containers may have contained around 3 million artillery rounds to fuel the Russian war machine.  In return, Russia appears to be sending North Korea not only food and other necessities, but also raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing.  These steps will improve North Korea’s defense industries and help modernize its rocket and missile programs. Moscow also may have provided satellite-related technology to support Pyongyang’s launch of its first spy satellite into orbit in November. North Korea has vowed to launch three such satellites this year. Those satellites will be used to conduct espionage and improve military targeting of U.S. and South Korean forces. 

The cooperation between the North Korean and Russian dictators is emblematic of the new axis that is pulling together to try to see through to completion the wars of aggression they are waging or planning wars around the globe.

But democracies are pulling together in response. South Korea is playing an essential role backfilling NATO ammunition stockpiles that have been depleted supporting the Ukrainians in their brave defense of their homeland. Think about that for a moment: As Europe’s biggest war since 1945 rages on, North Korea is serving as an arsenal of autocracy, and South Korea is, in return, serving as an arsenal of democracy. 

Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering to the south of the Korean Peninsula.  Xi Jinping has declared that unifying Taiwan under the Communist Chinese flag is, quote, “the essence” of Xi’s “Chinese Dream for the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” 

As South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has rightly stated, “The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.” 

It is also a major economic issue for South Korea. 

I know it is tempting to imagine that the ripple effects from Beijing subjugating Taiwan could be contained, especially if the island were coercively annexed without a wider and highly destructive war. After all, there were dire predictions in the 1960s and 1970s about what a U.S. loss in Vietnam would spell for the future of Asia—predictions that never came to pass. “Domino theory” didn’t play out and communism didn’t spread beyond Indochina. 

But this is the wrong analogy. A more apt precedent would be Imperial Japan’s aggression and brief domination of the Asia-Pacific in the first half of the 20th Century.  Tokyo foisted its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere upon hundreds of millions of unwilling subjects. Bear that in mind when you consider that Xi Jinping, in a landmark speech in Shanghai in 2014, declared, “It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia”—a formulation eerily similar to the “Asia for Asians” slogan Tokyo adopted in 1940 when it set out to impose its concept of a self-contained, regional economic and security bloc controlled by Japan. 

The subjugation of Taiwan by Beijing would have profound ramifications for geopolitics, trade, nuclear proliferation, and technology. Taipei’s fall would represent much more than a mere Vietnam-style unification; it would herald the dawn of a new empire—one that roil global technology and trade and that would suit Beijing’s brand of muscular authoritarianism and strongly disfavor the interests of the Republic of Korea and its fellow democracies. The coercive annexation of Taiwan would not alleviate Sino-American tensions, by the way.  It would supercharge them.

Closer to home, the North Korean monarch Kim Jong Un recently labelled South Korea his, quote, “primary foe” and “invariable principal enemy.” He expressed his willingness to, quote, “destroy” and “put an end to [the] existence [of] the Republic of Korea.” 

Some analysts view Kim’s announcements, first aired in December, as a significant break with previous policies. Others see it as evidence that Kim is readying for war. 

I disagree with those analyses. 

It is far more likely that Kim is dusting off an old play book of manufacturing a crisis in pursuit of the following goals:

• To deter the United States and South Korea at a time when Kim is shipping large quantities of ammunition and weapons to Russia—which is the last thing he’d be doing if he were planning for war. 

• To tee up renewed negotiations with the United States following our presidential election in November.

• And perhaps also to influence the upcoming April elections in South Korea. 

The key here—as with most of these crises around the world—is to keep our nerve.  North Korea is in no position to challenge South Korea militarily in any sustained way so long as the alliance between Washington and Seoul remains ironclad—as it must. 

So what should Washington and Seoul be doing, together with other democracies and partner nations, to insure that stated threats don’t become wars? Whether those threats come from Kim Jong Un in North Korea, or from Xi Jinping in “West Korea,” as many Chinese citizens now ruefully call their country, we must be vigilant.

First, never forget that the future of democracy, sovereignty, and prosperity in one democracy, whether it’s Taiwan, or Ukraine, or Israel, matters for the future of democracy, sovereignty, and prosperity for other democracies, including South Korea. 

Second, remember that deterrence won’t be achieved haphazardly as a by-product of other defense objectives. It will be achieved when it is the primary goal. I’ve recently completed a book about the urgent steps that democracies must take together to deter Beijing from pursuing a catastrophic war against Taiwan.  I must admit that I am alarmed by what I see as deficient planning, training, equipping, and coordinating by and between the key democracies of this region, including the United States, to dissuade Xi Jinping from rolling the iron dice of war.  At the same time, I’m optimistic that he can be deterred if we act quickly and in concert with one another. 

Third, the United States and its allies must urgently expand their capacity for making munitions. It isn’t good enough for us to be able to win battles.  We must have enough munitions on hand—and deep enough industrial capacity to scale up production—to win a full-scale, protracted war. 

Our governments should spend in unorthodox ways to catalyze the private sector to rapidly scale up munitions and armaments production. We should find inspiration from Washington’s 2020 Operation Warp Speed, which motivated private companies to produce hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines in record time.

Fourth, always bear in mind that a nation’s will to fight is the great “x factor” in war, and it can be strengthened by courageous leaders.

Ukrainians have demonstrated what a people can accomplish when they and their leaders embrace the will to fight. They repelled Russian armored columns in early 2022 that friends and enemies alike assumed would overrun Kyiv in a matter of days, and they have persevered in holding off their much larger foe for more than two years since then. But the will to fight is less tangible than bombers and antiship missiles. In advance of war, national will is hard to measure.

South Korea can serve as a friend and model for other nations facing daunting odds—whether they are in the Baltics or closer to home, in Taiwan.  South Korea is a model ally of the United States, spending more than perhaps any other on its defense, as a percentage of GDP.  It maintains—and must never weaken but should only strengthen—its conscription service in the military.  I encourage South Korea to strengthen its exchanges with Taiwan, even if those exchanges are low-key. 

Taiwan and South Korea are, after all, siblings:  They are dynamic economies and cultural beacons that fought successfully to achieve democracy in the late 20th Century.  Much is at stake for both, and they should strengthen their sense of solidarity with one another. 

Fifth and last, we democracies should speak up more about the atrocities that happen inside the totalitarian systems that are now banding together to jointly threaten our people, too. Beijing’s decision, in violation of U.N. treaties and in violation of God’s law, to repatriate en masse North Korean escapees back into the clutches of the heartless government they escaped, should be something our governments and everyday citizens condemn Beijing for. It’s no surprise that China’s forced labor programs, targeting the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups, are reportedly intermingling with North Korean forced labor. 

The Kim regime’s three Covid-era laws, which tightened internal controls and censorship and increased the severity of punishments for being caught consuming foreign media, is something we should condemn them for.  Just recently, a handful of North Korean teenagers were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for watching a K-drama.  Public executions are up and you can be imprisoned there for using South Korean slang.  

Defectors have told me and colleagues of mine that they found the courage to flee North Korea after seeing stories or videos about North Korean refugees thriving in Seoul.  With more and more North Koreans exposed to South Korean radio and television, it is becoming increasingly untenable to maintain the facade that the North is a normal country. We should endeavor to help emancipate every North Korean. 

I hope South Korean of all persuasions will step up their work to prioritize human rights in North Korea. 

Thank you. 

Matt Pottinger is the Chairman of the China Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served the White House for four years in senior roles on the National Security Council staff, including as deputy national security advisor from 2019 to 2021.


China Indo-Pacific North Korea Russia Ukraine