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Prospects for U.S.-Korean Relations

Prospects for U.S.-Korean Relations

Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Remarks to the American Studies Association of Korea (ASAK)
Centennial Hall, Sookmyung Women's University, Seoul, Korea
April 27, 2006

Thank you, President Seo, for that very warm introduction and for arranging this occasion for me to speak to the distinguished members of the American Studies Association of Korea (ASAK). It's a real pleasure for me to join you, as well as other officers, former and present members, and honored guests of ASAK to exchange views on issues that I believe form the bedrock of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance.

I had never served in Asia before coming to Korea. I arrived in Korea in October last year, after having spent the bulk of my diplomatic career in Russia and Europe. So this is my first spring here. I've really enjoyed the spring flowers and, of course, the cherry blossoms -- which are even more impressive than the ones we have in Washington, although we thankfully don't have to worry about the occasional yellow dust that you have to endure.

Reading the front pages of Korean newspapers, I can see that flowers and cherry blossoms are not the only things that come alive in Korea in the springtime -- your prosecutors, politicians and protesting farmers also seem to come to life! Korea is never boring, and I wake up eager for each day's news. As a newcomer, I am fascinated by all this activity, which only confirms that Korea is one of the strongest and most vibrant democracies in the world.

In comparison, I am afraid that my own activities at the U.S. Embassy are far less exciting. However, whether at work or in gatherings with Korean friends, I'm often amazed at the depth and variety of issues on which our two countries cooperate, as well as how much we have to offer one another as partners and allies. This afternoon, I would like to share with you my thoughts on what I believe is the cornerstone of the solid relationship between our two countries, and several new developments in economic and security arenas that I believe will strengthen and broaden the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship. I also look forward to hearing your views and questions on these and any other issues you'd like to discuss.

What is the current state of the bilateral relationship? Well, if one were to judge the state of the relationship by rumors and headlines that highlight the differences and disagreements, one might get the impression that the relationship was in big trouble. While it's true that in recent years we've had to deal with some difficult issues and sometimes we've had different ideas on what is the best approach -- this is normal in relations between democracies. But what is most significant is that we have been extraordinarily successful in overcoming our differences, and we have managed to accomplish a great deal together.

Even though the U.S.-Korea alliance was forged in the heat of the Korean War, our alliance has found many other opportunities to stand side-by-side in our quest for freedom and democracy. From the Korean War to Vietnam and now to Afghanistan and Iraq, few allied nations have supported each other like our two countries. The true value of our alliance will become more evident as we work together for freedom and peace worldwide in the 21st century.

We also have a robust economic relationship. We are beginning negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement to even further expand trade and investment between our two countries. I'll talk a little more the FTA later.

I would like to point out, however, that the U.S.-Korea relationship is much more than a military or security alliance. Ours is a comprehensive relationship that spans a much greater spectrum than most people recognize. We discuss and cooperate in the areas of trade, academic and cultural exchanges, science and technology, joint efforts to combat terrorism, and people-to-people connections.

I am truly impressed that the relationship between our two countries has become so multi-faceted. And I believe it is the people-to-people exchanges between our two countries that form the basis of our solid ties in many other areas. The numbers speak for themselves. Roughly two million people of Korean ancestry live in the United States -- including tens of thousands of children who have been adopted into American families -- adding economic, cultural, and academic value to American society. Roughly 100,000 Americans work and reside in the Republic of Korea. Korean brands such as Hyundai and Samsung are now commonplace, if not ubiquitous, in the American marketplace. These companies not only export products to the United States but also set up factories in the United States, creating jobs for Americans, just as U.S. investment in Korea does for Koreans.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans visit the United States every year, for business and pleasure. The U.S. Embassy processed over 400,000 visas in our fiscal year that ended in September 2005, and we hope to process as many as 450,000 in this 2006 fiscal year. According to the latest figures, more than 86,000 Korean students of all ages are studying in the United States, making them the largest group of foreign students in America. I wouldn't be surprised is many of you here earned advanced degrees from U.S. institutions.

As you know well, Hines Ward, this year's Super Bowl MVP, visited Korea several weeks ago. We all have learned how he overcame adversity to achieve the ultimate victory, both on and off the football field. His triumph set off a debate in Korea about the plight of biracial children and has sparked a very important change in people's attitudes and perceptions.

Hines Ward attributes much of his success to his mother's sacrifice and hard work. Although he was able to share his story about his mother with millions of people around the world through his success in American football, we know that his mother's devotion to her son is not uncommon. Many Korean immigrants make such sacrifices for their children in the United States. As a result, numerous Korean-Americans successfully assimilate into mainstream American society and also enrich the United States, while enhancing mutual understanding between our two countries.

Speaking of mutual understanding, I want to emphasize that one of the most vital aspects of our relationship is our mutual respect for scholarship, for the written word -- whether it be fiction, poetry, drama, essays, or criticism; whether it be in the field of literature, history, art, or science. The written word is a conduit for sharing the very soul of a people, and by studying American history and culture you're making a significant contribution to our alliance. I believe your dedication to the study of the United States provides the very bedrock for our two nation's vibrant relationship. I applaud and thank you for your commitment to American Studies.

Our two countries are now discussing a roadmap to include Korea in the Visa Waiver Program, with the goal of facilitating even more direct contact between our citizens. I'm personally committed to seeing Korea join the Visa Waiver Program. There are specific criteria that will have to be met first, however. One is, of course, to bring the refusal rate below 3%. We're very close to that level, but we're not quite there. The Department of Homeland Security must also conduct a thorough review to make sure Korea's inclusion in the VWP will not be detrimental to the law enforcement and security interests of the United States. We're working hard on this, and we've had extremely good cooperation from the Korean government. The experts on both sides are now actively engaged on this issue. But I would caution people not to let expectations get ahead of reality as there's still a lot of work to be done. It will not happen overnight, but I'm optimistic it can be done.

Now, I'll turn to a few new developments in the economic and security areas of our bilateral relationship.

For the past 53 years, the fundamental basis of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance has been our security relationship based on our Mutual Defense Treaty. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement we will begin negotiating in June would be the economic version of the Mutual Defense Treaty. I believe that, if successfully concluded, the Free Trade Agreement will be for trade and investment what the Mutual Defense Treaty has been to security.

The time is right for both of our countries to embark on upgrading our economic and business relationship. The relationship is already quite substantial. Two-way trade between the United States and the R.O.K. now tops $72 billion a year. The United States is Korea's second-largest trading partner and Korea is the United States' seventh-largest. With our common commitment to the principles of market economics and openness, we can take trade and investment between our two countries to an even higher level.

I won't bore you with data and numbers showing how both countries would benefit from an FTA. We all know that at the macro level, the benefits of an FTA -- for Korea and for the United States -- will greatly outweigh the costs. Opening markets for protected goods and services mean there will be costs for some, and, therefore the challenge for all of us is to manage the process by taking care of those who may be displaced by the FTA. But we should not make the mistake of allowing opposition to paralyze us into inaction.

South Korea has become a world-class economic power through trade and investment. Prosperity for South Korea is dependent on market access and competitiveness. I believe that an FTA with the United States will not only boost GDP, increase investment and create thousands of new jobs, but also make South Korea even more competitive in a rapidly changing global economy. I think that is one of the main reasons why Korea's own political leaders are so committed to the FTA.

I am confident that we'll reach an agreement because the FTA will provide concrete benefits for people in both of our countries. There are intangible benefits as well. An FTA will serve to bind our nations closer in partnership and mutual respect. It will be a testament to the power of cooperation and a sign that Korea and the United States, as good friends, realize that it is better to stand together than to stand alone. It will, in short, make the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance even stronger.

Even in our 53-year old security alliance, we are witnessing new developments that are aimed at modernizing the defense relationship to reflect the tremendous growth and development of South Korea. Over the last three to four years, 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 Korean military. Even as we reduce our physical footprint, we will be investing $11 billion over the next few years to upgrade our capabilities in Korea so that we remain prepared to deal with any contingency, on the peninsula or beyond.

In view of the great changes that have taken place in Korea, the region, and around the world, 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 fighting 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.

Of all the areas in which the United States and the R.O.K. cooperate closely, the North Korea issue, especially the nuclear issue, presents the greatest challenge. It is in this area where there has been the greatest speculation about perceived differences between the U.S. and Korean approaches. The reality is far less exciting, because there is no gap between Washington and Seoul on the fundamental goals.

Our two governments continue to work very closely on the Six Party Talks, which achieved a significant breakthrough on September 19, 2005, when the North Koreans "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards." Unfortunately, subsequent statements and actions by North Korea have called into question the seriousness of Pyongyang's commitment to abandoning its nuclear programs. Since the talks recessed in November 2005, North Korea has refused to return to the negotiating table, claiming as a reason U.S. measures to defend against North Korean illicit activities.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and South Korean governments remain committed to the Six Party Talks, and we both want to see the commitments contained in the September 19 Joint Statement implemented soon. Those commitments include not only denuclearization, but negotiation of a permanent peace regime, normalization of diplomatic relations, economic assistance and integration -- in short, a path toward ending North Korea's self-imposed isolation. Given the possibilities under the September 19 Joint Statement, there is no good reason for North Korea to continue to boycott the negotiations.

I am optimistic about the future of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship because this is a relationship that is alive, dynamic, and strong. Born to counter the threat of communist aggression, our alliance now stands for much more. It keeps peace and stability in the region. It promotes trade, investment and prosperity. Most of all, our alliance represents the fundamental values we share: democracy, freedom, market economics, and free exchange of ideas. It is able to do these things because of the people-to-people ties that form the bedrock of our alliance.

Indeed, the United States does not have such multi-faceted relationships with all nations. I can think of several countries with which relations with United States exist among a few dozen high-level officials and never really reach beyond that. The Republic of Korea is an example where our ties extend well beyond our two governments. Thanks to folks like you here tonight, who understand the United States, we have the opportunity to forge a relationship of permanent partnership between our two nations. We may have different interests at times and we may have different ideas on how to deal with particular issues. But it is precisely because of the deep bonds between our countries that such differences do not get in the way of the friendship, understanding, and mutual respect that our relationship embodies.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your invitation to speak to you this afternoon. I look forward to hearing your comments and questions.

Released on April 27, 2006


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