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U.S.-Korea Relations in the 21st Century

U.S.-Korea Relations in the 21st Century

Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Remarks to the Korea Freedom League
Seoul, Korea
April 18, 2006

Thank you for your kind introduction, and thank you, President Kwon Jung-Dal, for inviting me to speak this morning. President Kwon is among the first Koreans I met when I arrived in Seoul some five months ago. My wife Lisa and I also visited him and his wife in Andong, a charming town with so much history and tradition.

It is a real pleasure for me to speak to the Korea Freedom League. I understand that KFL, during its 52-year history, has played an important role in promoting the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance and defending freedom and democracy on the Korean Peninsula. The inscription on the Korean War Memorial in Washington rightly reminds us that "freedom is not free." It is an honor for me to be here with those who have contributed so much to the cause of freedom in Korea and around the world.

I understand that the Korea Freedom League is also recognized at the international level through its consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council. I am a firm believer in civic organizations, because it is through organizations like yours we can all contribute toward promoting international peace, security, and a reduction of poverty.

Closer to home, it is heartening to know that the Korea Freedom League is a leading supporter of a stronger U.S.-R.O.K. alliance, which, thanks to the friendship, support, and leadership of people like you, stands as one of our most important and effective alliances. I want to use my time with you today to talk about the current state of not just our alliance, but our overall relationship, and share with you some thoughts on the future of U.S.-R.O.K. relations.

Many of you are veterans of the R.O.K. armed forces. I believe President Kwon is a retired Brigadier General. Perhaps some of you have participated in the Korean War.

The U.S-R.O.K. alliance was of course born from the Korean War. The goal of the alliance was a simple one. Experts like to call in deterrence, but essentially it means "don't let it happen again." I believe the alliance between our two countries has been remarkably successfully in keeping peace in Korea and in the region.

What is equally remarkable are the changes that have taken place on the southern side of the DMZ since the alliance was established some 50 years ago. We have witnessed spectacular economic growth and development, making South Korea a world economic power. Similarly, South Koreans have seen democracy take root and strengthen. Now we almost take free elections for granted; and some people have complained that there's too much press freedom in South Korea! (I don't agree with that, but I can personally certify that South Korean press is very free!)

Of course the credit for transforming South Korea from a war-torn nation to a prosperous and modern democratic society goes to the Korea people. It is due to your hard work. Still, I would also like to think -- and I don't think I will get much of an argument from most South Koreans -- that the alliance between our two countries played an instrumental role bringing about peace and prosperity in South Korea.

As an American, I am very proud and gratified by what our two countries have accomplished. As American Ambassador, my goal is to take the relationship between our two countries even further. I want to modernize our alliance relationships to reflect the realities of the new century and I want to make it even stronger.

In fact, we have been doing this for some time. First, in terms of the U.S.-R.O.K. military alliance, the United States and the R.O.K. over the past couple of years have been working together effectively to modernize our 50-year-old military partnership.

In 2002, the United States and Korea began the Future of the Alliance, or FOTA, talks -- which have since been replaced by the Security Policy Initiative, or SPI -- to examine the state of the alliance and to determine how best to ensure its effectiveness in the future. As a result of these intensive discussions, we have agreed to redeploy 12,500 U.S. troops out of Korea by the end of 2008; to relocate U.S. troops out of downtown Seoul and return Yongsan Garrison to the Korean people; to consolidate the remaining 25,000 troops into two hubs south of Seoul by the end of 2009; and to transfer several military missions to the R.O.K. military. Even as we reduce our physical footprint, we will be investing $11 billion over the next few years to upgrade our capabilities in the region so that we remain prepared to deal with any contingency, whether here on the Peninsula or in the region. These changes dovetail closely with the ongoing transformation of the R.O.K.'s and our own defense postures.

In view of the great changes that have taken place in Korea, the region, and around the world, I think it is not only necessary but appropriate to modernize the alliance so that it reflects current realities as well as a more balanced sharing of responsibilities. The new security challenges include shared concerns such as countering terrorism, countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, responding to natural disasters, and others. Indeed, by broadening the mission of the alliance to encompass these tasks, we will ensure that the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance remains strong, effective, and relevant to the security environment of the 21st century.

At the same time, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea has developed into a partnership that is much more than a military alliance alone. It also encompasses a vibrant economic relationship, a relationship that is ripe for us to raise to the next level.

Two-way trade between the United States and the R.O.K. now tops $72 billion a year. We are your second largest trading partner and you are our seventh-largest. With our common commitment to the principles of market economics and fair trade, we can leverage our economic interdependence to generate greater synergies between our economies. To that end, in February, our trade ministers announced that we would begin talks to reach a Free Trade Agreement.

I am very excited about the FTA. I believe that the FTA will be a catalyst, promoting trade and investment between our two countries. In many respects, for our businesses, the FTA will play the same role as the Mutual Defense Treaty does on the security side.

Washington and Seoul are aiming to reach an agreement on the terms of a bilateral FTA before our Congressionally-authorized negotiating mandate expires in the spring of 2007. We have many issues to cover, because this will be a comprehensive agreement, and some of the issues will touch on sectors of the economy that are sensitive in each of our countries. But I am confident we will succeed because the benefits to be gained for both countries are so compelling. The U.S.-Korea FTA would represent an historic achievement in our overall relationship.

Just as our economic relationship continues to thrive, so do ties between our two peoples. During fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Embassy processed over 400,000 visas; we hope to process more than 450,000 this year. According to the Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, there are more than 86,000 Koreans studying in the United States, making Korea our largest source of foreign students. And just as we hope to lay the basis for our economic relationship in the 21st century by concluding a Free Trade Agreement, so we hope to lay the basis for our expanded people-to-people ties by developing a roadmap to assist the R.O.K. in meeting the requirements for membership in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.

I am personally committed to the goal of Korea's inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program. I know that this figures prominently on the minds of many Koreans, and no one likes to see the long lines of visa applicants winding around our Embassy. Inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program will not just come without hard work; it requires effort from both the U.S. and Korea. Although the refusal rate among Korean applicants is low -- a little over 3% -- it is necessary to reach and sustain a refusal rate below 3% for two straight fiscal years. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security must determine that a country's inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program will not compromise the law enforcement and security interests of the United States. I hope Korea joins the program on my watch, as I'm confident that it will not only help Korean travelers, it will also help our countries combat illegal immigration, human trafficking, drug trafficking, weapons proliferation, and other nefarious activities.

The last item I want to discuss is North Korea. Of all the areas in which the United States and the R.O.K. cooperate closely, the North Korean nuclear issue presents the greatest challenge.

The head of our delegation to the Six Party Talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was in Tokyo last week with the other five representatives to attend an academic conference. The message to the North Korean delegation from all the other participants was unequivocal: North Korea must return to the Six Party Talks because implementing the principles agreed to in Beijing last September will benefit everyone, but especially North Korea.

Christopher Hill, who has spoken to this same group, made it clear that his bags were packed and he was ready to get on a plane bound for Beijing at any time. Still, North Korea is using the actions taken against Banco Delta Asia as the reason for boycotting the Six Party Talks. It is unfortunate that North Korea continues to cite this as their rationale for not returning to the talks. We did not place 'sanctions' on North Korea, as is commonly misrepresented in the press; we took law enforcement action against a bank in Macau to protect our financial system from abuse.

Like South Korea, the United States is ready to return to the talks. It's in everyone's best interest, including North Korea's, to see the commitments contained in the September 19 Joint Statement implemented. Those commitments include not only denuclearization, but negotiation of a permanent peace regime, normalization of diplomatic relations, and economic integration. The implementation of these commitments will help to bring North Korea out of its isolation and into alignment with the international community of nations, and ultimately help the North Korean people.

Let me wrap up my remarks by expressing optimism about the future of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship writ large. As you can see from the recent achievements I touched upon earlier -- modernization of the alliance, launch of FTA talks, working to promote Korea's inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program, joint efforts on North Korea -- the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship is full and active.

Do we agree in everything we do? Of course not. We have lively discussions and we sometimes disagree on how to view the current situation and what tactics might be the best. However, we manage to diplomatically resolve our disagreements through consultations and discussion. That is because we share the same goals. These are our shared values and commitments for democracy and freedom.

I am very grateful for organizations like yours for strong support of these goals. With support and commitment from individuals like you and organizations like the Korea Freedom League, I am optimistic about the future of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship and eager to do my part.

Released on April 18, 2006


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