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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2006 East Asian and Pacific Affairs Remarks, Testimony, and Speeches

U.S.-Korean Relations: 2006 and Beyond

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Remarks to the Korean-American Association
Grand Hyatt Hotel, Seoul, Korea
January 4, 2006

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (U.S. Embassy, Seoul)Thank you Chairman Koo (KAA Chairman Koo Pyong-hwoi) for your introduction. I am very pleased to have been invited here today by the members of the Korean-American Association, and to all of you let me first say Sae-hae bok ma-nee pa-deu-se-yo -- Happy New Year!

My wife and I have been thrilled to be able to usher in the new year here in Korea. We have had the added pleasure of introducing Korean culture and the excitement of Seoul to our two sons, who have been with us for the holidays. We've been surprised by the cold weather and the heavy snows that have fallen in recent weeks, especially in the Southwest of the country. Let me make clear that, contrary to what some North Korean newspapers may say, I did not bring the cold weather from my previous assignment in Moscow!

At the start of a new year, I think it is very appropriate to spend some time with the Korean-American Association. We very much appreciate all the support you have given over the years to promote friendly and cooperative relations between our two countries. I know that many generations of American diplomats and soldiers have benefited from the Korean-American Association. Please know that we are very grateful for your efforts, which have brought together U.S. and Korean individuals and groups in many different fields.

My wife Lisa, as you may know, is an artist, so we have a special interest in your efforts to promote artistic and literary gatherings. I would like to tell you again that your 2005 Korean-American Friendship Night in November at which you presented the Korean-American Friendship Award to one of my most distinguished predecessors as Ambassador to Korea, Jim Lilley, was a wonderful evening. I was also touched by the generosity of the Association in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Just like the U.S.-Korean relationship, your organization has grown and prospered. You are doing great things. Thank you.

Looking ahead to see what is in store for the U.S.-Korean relationship and discussing where we want to go, let me state as clearly as I can, the United States views the bilateral alliance as critical to our two peoples and to the stability of Northeast Asia. That is not changing. We are, however, working closely with the Korean Government to modernize the alliance to better meet our shared goals in the face of the new realities of the 21st century.

Although the media tend to focus on North Korean nuclear and security issues, the United States and the Republic of Korea continue to benefit by ever-deepening economic, social and personal ties between our two peoples. In fact, while our military alliance and security issues dominated our past and continue to shape our present, the future belongs to economic and social cooperation and exchange. I am happy to report that it is in these fields that we continue to see the most rapid growth in the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship.

Two months ago, the Republic of Korea hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which appropriately focused the world's attention on how far this country has advanced. South Korea's economic progress in the past 50 years is one of the great accomplishments of our times, as this country went from a poverty-stricken, war-ravaged nation with a per capita income of less than $70 to one of the world's leading industrial powers, with a per capita income of more than $14,000. Korea is now the world's eleventh-largest economy.

The United States is Korea's second-largest trading partner and is its number-one foreign investor. Korea is the United States'seventh-largest trading partner. Bilateral trade totals more than $72 billion, and more importantly our two countries are working together as full members of the international economic community. We cooperate extensively in multilateral forums such as the World Trade Organization, APEC, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. We are also accelerating our bilateral cooperation. I very much hope that, in the very near future, we will be in a position to launch negotiations on a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, which will further increase trade and investment between our two countries.

One of my roles here is to work with U.S. companies to make sure they are able to invest and trade freely in Korea, and to reach Korean customers. I am happy to report that Korean companies have excellent access to U.S. markets, and things are rapidly improving for U.S. firms operating in Korea as well. Trade is not a zero-sum game, and our countries would both become stronger from a Free Trade Agreement. We have only to look at the contrasting picture on the two sides of the DMZ to see how important global trade and investment are to the prosperity of nations.

A nation's prosperity also depends on the health of its people. One of the issues that urgently requires international attention is the threat that avian influenza could lead to a human pandemic. When the weather turns as cold as it has, we are all to some extent thinking about catching colds and flu, but the dangers posed by an influenza pandemic are quantitatively different as the 1918 case graphically shows. Preventing a pandemic and minimizing the damage if one emerges will uniquely require international cooperation, as leaders at APEC acknowledged. Washington and Seoul are working together on this important issue. Both of our countries are founding members of the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza launched by President Bush at the United Nations this fall.

Our two countries are also working to defeat the emergence of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Every year TB kills around 30,000 people in Korea. In September the United States and Korea launched the International Tuberculosis Research Center at National Masan Hospital to undertake clinical studies and promote joint research into new methods to fight TB. We must not let up in these common efforts.

Another way to take the temperature of our alliance is by looking at the numbers on people-to-people exchanges. 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 500,000 in this 2006 fiscal year. The U.S. Embassy issues more than 65,000 student visas, making Korea the third largest source of foreign students. Since the terror attacks on September 11, we have been required to institute additional security procedures, but wherever we can we have worked to streamline the process. In the Gyeongju summit, President Bush said that the United States will work with the R.O.K. to "develop a Visa Waiver Program roadmap to assist Korea in meeting the requirements for membership in the program." I personally am committed to this issue, because as you know our alliance is not just between governments but between our two peoples, and I want to ensure that as many Koreans as possible have the opportunity to visit the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, we are working closely with the Korean government to modernize our defense alliance to better meet our shared goals and better serve our peoples. This modernization will include some of the most significant changes to our military relationship since the close of the Korean War. We plan to consolidate and relocate several bases away from population centers, return some bases such as Yongsan Garrison to the Korean people, and transfer more missions and authority to the R.O.K.'s armed forces. Over the next few years, we plan to spend $11 billion to upgrade U.S. forces in the region to improve our ability to deal with any contingency on the Peninsula or beyond.

At their meeting in Gyeongju, our two Presidents took stock of the efforts to modernize the alliance and expressed great satisfaction at the progress achieved to date. All of this was possible through close consultations between the United States and South Korea, and a shared determination to find solutions that respect both countries' vital interests.

In this connection, let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to General Leon LaPorte, the commander of USFK, who has displayed true leadership by managing the challenges and changes faced by our two countries' soldiers during this historic realignment. The changes were facilitated by the close rapport he has developed with South Korean commanders and government officials. General LaPorte will be relinquishing command next month to General Burwell Bell, who I am sure will continue our combined efforts to strengthen the United States' alliance with the Republic of Korea.

At its start, the U.S.-R.O.K. security alliance was focused on defending against the threat posed by North Korea. But in the last few years, it has broadened its goals to encompass the promotion of the values of democracy, freedom, and international cooperation around the world. Presidents Bush and Roh during the Gyeongju summit agreed to launch a high-level strategic dialogue called Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership (SCAP), reflecting Korea's increasing international standing and its growing role on the world stage. I look forward to accompanying Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon when he visits Washington later this month to inaugurate these consultations.

Our alliance has already taken on a global dimension. The Republic of Korea has played a key role in helping to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan by sending its forces to join in the international effort to bring freedom, peace, and democracy to those nations. Alongside countries from across the globe, the R.O.K. has also sent humanitarian assistance to regions hit hard by natural disasters, such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the earthquake in South Asia, and the hurricanes in the United States. The United States deeply appreciates Korea's pledge of $30 million for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. That aid will help Americans rebuild their lives. In 2004, South Korea gave over $400 million in overseas development assistance. Clearly, South Korean generosity is significant and does not go unnoticed.

Here in Northeast Asia, our bilateral efforts to increase international cooperation and ensure stability are evident in our work together in the Six-Party Talks. We remain hopeful that the talks will resume soon. The United States is ready to return to the table without attaching any new conditions, and we expect North Korea to do the same.

The United States and the Republic of Korea stand united in their approach to the central issues in the Six-Party Talks. During the Gyeongju summit, Presidents Bush and Roh reiterated that a nuclear-armed North Korea will not be tolerated, reaffirmed the principle that the nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully and diplomatically, and emphasized that North Korea must eliminate its nuclear programs, as it pledged to do in the September 19 Joint Statement.

I sincerely hope that 2006 will be the year in which North Korea's leaders end their country's self-imposed isolation by getting out of the nuclear business. If they do, my government is ready to fulfill its commitments under the September 19 Joint Statement, including negotiating a permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula and beginning the process of normalizing relations with Pyongyang.

U.S.-R.O.K. cooperation is key to the success of the Six-Party Talks. Looking ahead, our alliance can also be the cornerstone for a future cooperative security structure in Northeast Asia. During my previous postings, I witnessed some dramatic transformations in Europe and Russia, where Cold War divisions have given way to new forms of cooperation and integration -- including the creation of a partnership between NATO and Russia, and the admission of former communist nations to the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. Unlike Europe, however, there are few multilateral institutions in Northeast Asia that can help foster such cooperation among former adversaries, especially in the security field. With progress on the nuclear issue, the Six-Party Talks could form the starting point for a multilateral security consultative mechanism to help build trust and address the common security problems confronting the states of the Northeast Asian region.

On North Korea, led me add that the United States supports South Korean efforts to improve the lives of North Korean citizens through inter-Korean engagement, as a step toward reconciliation and, eventually, the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. In my view, the German example teaches us that reunification demands more than coordination between government officials; it also requires contact and exchanges between civilians and private organizations. That is why I am glad to see that North and South Korea agreed last month to hold more family reunions this year. I hope there will also be progress in other areas of separated family issues, such as determining the whereabouts of those who went missing during and after the Korean War.

My experience with closed societies in Europe shows that without serious economic reforms, the rule of law, and respect for the rights of individual citizens, a country like North Korea will fall further and further behind and prospects for real reconciliation will be dimmer. Meanwhile the people of North Korea will continue to suffer. No one wants this. Therefore, I hope that 2006 will be a year when the United States and South Korea can more effectively combine our efforts to promote improvements in the lives of the people of the North.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, the U.S.-Korean relationship is a comprehensive partnership. The alliance started more than 50 years ago to fight a common enemy, but it has evolved to encompass broader goals. As we begin the new year, we have many opportunities to make a strong relationship even stronger:

  • continuing to modernize our defense relationship by fully implementing the agreements reached on the realignment of USFK while balancing the security interests of both sides;
  • using our new strategic dialogue to expand our partnership to address wider challenges in Northeast Asia and beyond;
  • coordinating our efforts through the Six-Party Talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and open the way to real peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula;
  • seizing the opportunity offered by prospective negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement to further expand trade and investment and ensure a level playing field for U.S. and Korean companies; and
  • creating even more opportunities to increase contacts and mutual understanding between our two peoples.

The United States and the Republic of Korea are bound by a growing set of values that have transformed an important alliance into a true partnership between friends. There is much more that unites us than divides us. It is these values that the Korean-American Association aims to promote, and I know I can count on your continued support as we pursue our shared goals during this New Year.

Again, thank you for your invitation to speak with you this morning. I look forward to hearing your comments and questions. Thank you.

Released on January 4, 2006

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