The U.S.-Republic of Korea Alliance: A History of CooperationAlexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Remarks to the Korean Military Academy Association of Graduates
Korean Veterans Association Building, Seoul, Korea
March 22, 2006
Thank you, President Lee, for inviting me to speak to members of the Korean Military Academy’s Association of Graduates. I see many distinguished guests including veterans of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts in the audience today. I am grateful for the large turnout and appreciate the strong interest you have shown in the U.S.-R.O.K. Alliance. It is an honor for me to address you, and I appreciate this opportunity to discuss the special relationship we have had for more than half a century.
The U.S.-R.O.K. Alliance: The Past
Over the past 55 years South Korea has become an increasingly active participant in the international community, facilitated by your dynamic economy, strong democracy, and capable military force. This year we celebrate the 56th anniversary of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance. I believe the relationship between our two countries has been one of the most successful alliances in the history of international relations.
In 1953, Korea was a country decimated by three years of fratricidal war. The values of democracy and human rights were only dimly understood in this country, and the very survival of the population was heavily dependent on foreign aid. The United States is proud of the role it has played to support the advancement of democracy, human rights and a market economy in the Republic of Korea. We are also glad to have been able to provide necessary economic assistance, and are truly impressed by the hard work and ingenuity of citizens like you who have transformed this country into the world’s 11th largest economy.
The security ensured by the alliance has served as the bedrock for the transformation of the Republic of Korea. Our alliance has helped the Korean people to successfully cope with and deter the military threat posed by North Korea, and to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our two countries have seen this relationship evolve into a more mature and comprehensive partnership, deeply rooted in the shared values of democracy and market economy on the basis of our firm security alliance.
Present Challenges of Our Alliance
However, even such a strong and well-founded partnership as ours cannot be entirely free from challenges. Today, concerns are being raised from within both of our countries about the future of this long-standing alliance.
One of the greatest challenges facing our alliance is how to enhance public awareness, both in Korea and the United States, of the changes taking place in each other’s society. It is my observation that some people still do not fully appreciate the magnitude of the impact the September 11 attacks on America, and likewise Americans seem to have a hard time grasping the changes unfolding recently within Korea.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 have touched every facet of American life -– affecting our foreign relations, as well as the domestic political and economic landscape. It was an event that shocked the international community but also an event that brought people together in solidarity against terrorism. In response, U.S. security policy has undergone a fundamental shift from deterrence to prevention. The higher priority attached to combating terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and to promoting the spread of freedom and democracy as the best antidote to extremist ideologies, can only be understood in the context of September 11 and subsequent fundamental changes in American society.
The R.O.K. Government steadfastly and valiantly supported the war on terrorism by sending the Zaytun Division, representing the third largest multinational contingent in the coalition, to Iraq. In addition, the ROK has provided medical and engineering units in Afghanistan. These contributions do not go unnoticed by the community of nations and by the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Similarly, Korea has been a true friend and an ardent supporter of democracy around the world and is becoming more active in promoting positive change in the developing world. Korea supports peacekeeping operations in Africa, has participated in bringing democracy to East Timor, and has announced an increase in overseas development assistance. We thank you for your meaningful contributions.
We are also seeing profound changes within Korean society that have implications for the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance. The democratic evolution, coupled with the so-called information revolution, has greatly accelerated the pace of societal change -- a pace so rapid and far-reaching that even many Koreans themselves have a difficult time understanding the significance of these changes. Here in Korea, the political influence of the younger generations has expanded rapidly, largely through growing NGO networks and the Internet. Young Koreans are exerting enormous influence in Korea’s political and social discourse.
The mentality of these young Koreans is quite different from that of previous generations. They are less beholden to traditional Confucian ways, and are willing to express their opinions freely and often without reservations. Growing up in a post-Korean War society, they are relatively free of the Cold War mentality that most of us in the room grew up with. They are a generation that has only known freedom, democracy, independence, and global influence.
The change in Korean society has also brought about a paradigm shift in foreign policy objectives. Many Koreans no longer see North Korea as an enemy, but as a partner in need of assistance and understanding. The political and psychological impact of the "Sunshine" and "Peace and Prosperity" policies of the last eight years isn’t fully appreciated by many people outside Korea.
My government fully understands the desire of Koreans of all generations to overcome the division of the Korean nation and to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation through accelerated exchanges and cooperation with North Korea. We support Seoul’s policy of engagement because we agree with our Korean allies that two-way interaction can bring positive changes in North Korea over the medium and long term -- changes that will ultimately contribute to the chances of a smooth reunification process in which the values of freedom and democracy, now fully rooted in South Korea, extend across the entire Korean Peninsula.
Of course, in pursuing engagement with North Korea, we also need to be realistic about the many obstacles that must be overcome. North Korea needs to fulfill its commitment to eliminate its nuclear weapons and all existing nuclear programs. It also needs to end its pattern of illicit activities, including money-laundering and counterfeiting, and abide by international norms of behavior. And it must address growing international concerns about human rights.
Against this backdrop, it is clear that the North Korean issue, of all the areas in which the United States and the R.O.K. cooperate closely, presents the greatest challenge. But I am confident that we will continue to maintain a common approach. Our two countries may sometimes differ on details or on tactics (which is only natural between two democracies), but there is no gap in our basic objectives. Thus, we have worked closely with our R.O.K. partners in the Six Party Talks and we look forward to even closer coordination as we seek to convince North Korea to get out of the nuclear business, end its self-imposed isolation, and join the international community.
Future of the Alliance
In looking to the future of the alliance, a difficult challenge that requires a renewed perspective is how to effectively disseminate information about our countries’ policy goals to the public. Despite close coordination between our two governments, adverse public opinions stemming mainly from misunderstandings, press exaggerations, or inaccurate reporting tend to work against our best efforts.
We both need to remain active in explaining not only how our alliance has served us well for the past 56 years, but how it is changing in ways that will serve both countries’ interests for the next 50 years and beyond. I have no doubt that our alliance may prove to be more important to both countries in the future than it has been in the past, and we need to explain the reasons why this is so to our publics:
First of all, our Alliance is broadening its horizons to encompass the promotion of stability throughout Northeast Asia and cooperation against the new security threats of the 21st century, in addition to its original mission of maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula. Korea’s increased role in bilateral, regional and global affairs, including its cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terror and in post-war Iraq, is a case in point.
Second, our alliance is becoming a more balanced partnership. As you know, in the last 2-3 years, the R.O.K. armed forces have assumed lead responsibility for several military missions and are poised to assume even more responsibility in the future. During 2005, the Korean government unveiled a draft defense transformation initiative called "Defense Reform 2020." This initiative envisions the development of a technology-oriented, high-quality defense force that is capable of self-reliance while still strongly aligned with the United States by the year 2020.
The new Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, General B.B. Bell stated just two weeks ago at the House Appropriations Committee Hearings in Washington, D.C. that "it is the superior quality of the complementary war-fighting capabilities and combat power that each nation now contributes which provides the decisive and overriding advantage to the alliance."
South Korea’s efforts to develop improved war-fighting capabilities for self-reliant defense are consistent with the United States’ aims of encouraging our allies to assume greater roles in regional security. Peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, enhanced Republic of Korea military forces, and greater regional and global cooperation -- key elements of Seoul’s national security strategy -- are consistent with Washington’s policies, and the United States fully supports the realization of such initiatives. Let me add that, even with all these changes and the rebalancing of our alliance, you can rest assured that the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea remains rock solid.
Our publics also need to know that our alliance is becoming much more than a military pact. We are working to raise the U.S.-Korea relationship to the next level on the economic front as well, by negotiating a Free Trade Agreement between our two countries. We are very enthusiastic about the opportunities an FTA will provide, in terms of enhanced trade and investment, and therefore more jobs and greater prosperity for both countries. Economic studies done in both countries estimate that both sides will see significant economic gains from an FTA -- according to one Korean government study, the benefit could be as much as 2% of GDP for Korea.
The upcoming FTA negotiations will be challenging, and we are working against a tight deadline. Fortunately, however, our leaders share the important goal of achieving a comprehensive, high-quality agreement that eliminates restrictions on substantially all trade, because that is what will benefit our people the most. The business communities of both countries also strongly support an FTA, because they understand most profoundly the opportunities it presents.
Lastly, our governments should work together to educate our citizens about each other’s societies. Surprisingly, many Koreans believe that they really know the United States simply on the basis of their studies, casual meetings with Americans in Korea and abroad, or their personal experiences in the U.S. Meanwhile, many Americans think they have a good grasp of Korea, simply because they were posted here ten years ago or have friends here. No doubt, experiences and knowledge are valuable; but one’s understanding should be constantly updated in view of the rapidly changing realities.
Leaders in our two great countries have a shared responsibility to ensure that Koreans and Americans have a good understanding of each other. We need Korean opinion-leaders like you to make renewed efforts to encourage the Korean people to take a realistic look at the United States. At the same time, American opinion leaders should do their part to reach out to the Korean public and really listen to their concerns. I certainly intend to do my part in this respect.
As our two great countries achieve a common understanding on the future of our alliance, we will be able to forge an effective strategy on how to deal not only with the North Korean nuclear issue, but with regional and global challenges as well. I firmly believe that through our mutual efforts and enhanced understanding, our alliance will continue to grow, and that we will overcome the new challenges together, just as we have always done.
I am truly enjoying my stay here in Korea, the land of the Morning Calm, and learn more each day about your amazing country. I will always value our friendship while working side by side with you in strengthening our great alliance. The Association of Graduates of the Korean Military Academy continues to play an influential role not only in Korea but also in the international community as well. I look forward to continuing to work with you in the service of our two countries.
Released on March 22, 2006