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Civil Society, Trade, and U.S./Korea Relationship

Civil Society, Trade, and the U.S.-Republic of Korea Relationship

Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Remarks to Rotary Club International 101st Anniversary
Hyatt Hotel, Grand Ballroom, Seoul
February 23, 2006

Thank you, Gov. Shin Dae Jin, for that very kind introduction. I also wish to thank former Governor Yun Sang Koo and District President Kang Soo Chang. I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge former ministers Oh Chae Kyung and Song In Sang who have honored us with their presence today.

Thank you for allowing me to speak with you on this auspicious occasion. I am delighted to be here and honored to have the opportunity to address you on the 101st anniversary of the founding of Rotary Club International. Rotarians carry on a strong ethic of humanitarian work and this proud tradition is especially active here in Korea. Korea's Rotarians have taken up the challenge to fight some of modern society's most thorny issues: violence, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and hunger, to name just a few.

What is especially impressive is that we are not talking about a small number of people. We are talking about an army of people united for the common good. I understand that there are nearly 50,000 Rotary Club members in Korea; I'm happy to see so many from this chapter here this afternoon. I congratulate you for your enthusiasm and your achievements. You have good reason to be proud for what you have done here in Korea.

But beyond that, with over 1 million members in 31,000 clubs in 167 countries, Rotary Club International has emerged as a powerful force for goodwill and peace in the world. This afternoon, I will talk about how, in the context of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance, civic groups such as the Rotary Club have an especially important role to play in bringing our two nations together and underscoring our citizens' common belief in democracy. Recognizing that the Rotary Club boasts many of Korea's top business and professional leaders as its members, I also want to talk about another tie between our two countries: the economic tie. Trade links between the U.S. and Korea are already strong. With the successful conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement, they could be made stronger still.

Civic Society Brings Nations Together

Let's first talk about civic organizations. It is my belief that civic groups can have a tremendous impact, both directly and indirectly, in bringing countries together. They can directly bring countries together by bringing the organizations' members together. It is no secret that the trust generated by personal contact and the bonds of friendship make it easier for people to work together. For example, a wonderful group called "Seeds of Peace" sponsors summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Of course, the kids are uncomfortable with each other at first. But after a couple of days, they tend to discover that they have much more in common than in dispute. They discover that they all want peace, they want stability, they want economic security. They also discover that they can be friends.

Fortunately, Americans and Koreans do not have the same issues that Israelis and Palestinians confront; nevertheless, the friendship between our two countries can never be overemphasized, especially to our children who may not clearly remember the bonds fused between our countries during the Korean War. Thus, when the Rotary Club and other civic organizations sponsor student exchanges, member exchanges, and other opportunities for Korean and American members to join together in brother (and sister) hood, they perform a valuable service in bringing our countries together and reinforcing the great alliance between our two countries.

For instance, I understand that District 3650 participates in an international youth exchange program. Under this program, three young Koreans will study in the United States and two American students will study here in Korea. District 3650 has also set aside 160 million won for five students who are now overseas working on their graduate degrees. I hear that there is also a member exchange program, through which five members of District 3650 visited American District 5300 in Nevada last April. The group spent about a month in the U.S. visiting museums and hospitals, meeting business and political leaders, even staying in American homes. In exchange, four Rotary Club members from the U.S. visited Korea and experienced a similar program.

I haven't spoken to any of these participants personally, but I am confident that their experiences were overwhelmingly positive. They've had the opportunity to feel the friendship between our countries, to experience the warmth of our relationship, and to learn first-hand that the U.S.-R.O.K. Alliance is strong. These exchanges are important and I hope they continue. It is a very real investment in the future of our two nations.

The Uniting, Common Belief in an Active Civil Society

Civic groups also play an indirect role in forging strong links between our countries. One of the commonalities that our two nations share is a common faith in democracy in which a vibrant civil society is absolutely essential. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America was a "nation of joiners." He said that in the United States, associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality and religion. Associations are formed to construct churches, to discuss books, to found hospitals, or simply to give more "splendor and regularity to entertainment."

If Mr. de Tocqueville were to spend a few weeks in today's Republic of Korea, he would surely have been similarly impressed. There are well over 5,000 civic groups officially registered in the R.O.K., and no doubt thousands more unofficial ones. An active civil society, such as the one present in South Korea today, is vital in healthy democracies because watchful citizens are more likely to hold elected leaders accountable for their actions, and leaders are more likely to believe that their acts will be held to account.

Civil society also tends to enhance political awareness and encourage political discussion. When people come together whether it is in a formal Rotary Club meeting, on the plaza in front of City Hall, or even in an online chatroom they can talk about dreams and ideas. They can debate and argue. They can even criticize their governments. That is why some governments are so afraid of civil society. Americans and South Koreans both share the understanding that government should have nothing to fear from vigorous political debate fostered by a strong civil society. This common belief, which the Rotary Club and other groups like it help support, is a core pillar of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship. It is one of the commonalities that makes our Alliance strong.

Economic Ties (and an FTA) Unite Us Even More

The United States and Korea also share a healthy respect for unfettered international commerce and free and fair trade. Our economic partnership has been a major factor in keeping the U.S.-Korean relationship strong. I have been in Korea for only four months, but I have been impressed with the vibrancy and dynamism of the economic scene here. The humanitarian action of groups like Rotary as part of civil society is definitely matched by the innovation of large and small Korean companies, whether in the field of popular culture or technology. Since I arrived, I have witnessed Korea's leadership on display at the APEC meetings in Busan, enjoyed some of the world's fastest broadband internet connections, and watched inspiring artistic and musical performances.

Korea's economic freedoms allow Korea's people to enjoy the many advantages of an advanced market in goods and services. Korea's export economy continues to do well and your domestic economy is firmly on the rebound. Korea continues to be a strong presence on the international economic scene and our two countries have recently announced the launch of Free Trade Agreement negotiations. While FTA negotiations will be a tremendous challenge, an FTA will provide greater opportunities for business-to-business contacts and will boost investment in both countries. FTA will not only increase commercial and business ties, a successful negotiation will also make a difference in the lives of average Americans and Koreans.

For the United States, an FTA will help us become more involved in one of the fastest growing and most dynamic economies in East Asia. Korea is a major partner in high-value-added advanced technology and sophisticated services and it will only become more important in the years ahead.

For Korea, an FTA would enable Korea to become more closely integrated with the world's largest and most advanced economy. The latest Korean government research predicts that a U.S.-Korea FTA will significantly increase exports to the United States and boost Korea's real GDP by as much as 2%.

The FTA challenge is one that the United States and Korea must take on. Our consumers will get lower prices, better choices at the market, and a better life. That is what free trade is supposed to do. Free trade is not an American idea; it's an idea and goal shared by both the United States and Korea.

I understand that the idea of Rotary Clubs and the service they provide was an American idea. But it is an idea that has been picked up here in Korea and elsewhere because it, too, is a good idea. Perhaps a similar spirit will serve us well in our FTA negotiations, which I hope can be an example for other countries to follow.

The FTA is the most exciting project for 2006. It will add a new pillar of enhanced economic security to our already broad and comprehensive relationship. I'd like to touch on another strong pillar our defense alliance. Over the past few years, our defense relationship has been transformed, and it now promotes stability not only on the peninsula, but throughout the Northeast Asia region.

Korea has taken on a greater international responsibility with its support for peace and democracy in Iraq, as well as in helping out in other ways around the world, such as providing relief to the victims of the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Back in Korea, how to solve the North Korean nuclear problem and ultimately move toward re-unification is a shared challenge where we are working together and hope to achieve success.

Civic groups like Rotary International also have an important part to play in these areas, since they help contribute to the public debate that is so essential to the strength of the U.S.-Korean partnership.


Again, thank you for this opportunity to join in your celebration today. The Rotary Club is doing important work. Not only are you making a positive impact here in Korea, but your programs are serving to bring our nations together and underscore the importance of a free and vibrant civil society. As business and professional leaders, in particular those of you doing business with the U.S., you are contributing to the economic ties that are raising the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship to the next level. On this important occasion, I applaud your achievements and wish you further success in the years ahead. Congratulations.

Released on February 23, 2006


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