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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

The Future of U.S.-Republic of Korea Relations

Alexander R. Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Remarks to the Korea Management Association
Seoul, Korea
July 5, 2006

Good morning. Thank you, Chairman Song [KMA Chairman Song In-Sang) for inviting me to speak here this morning, and thank you Dr. Park [Prof. Park Nei-Hoi of Sogang University] for that kind introduction. I’m happy to be with this distinguished audience to exchange ideas and discuss the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance. As I will emphasize later, our relationship is much more than a mutual defense pact. It has many dimensions, which are continually updated and developed to reflect changing regional and global realities, as well as the dynamics of our two societies. So those of us in government are always well-advised to seek out broader perspectives on our bilateral relationship. I look forward to hearing your views.

Some of you may have heard about the trip that I took to the United States in May with your Ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae-sik. Ambassador Lee and I spent about a week on a lecture tour across America, covering seven cities from Los Angeles and Seattle in the West, to Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis and Detroit in the Midwest, and ending up in my hometown of Boston in the East.

At each stop we discussed the importance of the bilateral relationship and sketched out where we believe this partnership is headed. This “roadshow,” as we called it, gave me a new appreciation for the breadth and depth of U.S.-R.O.K. relations. And while we didn’t get much kimchi or samgyetang during our travels, it was heartening to discover how much Americans care about all things Korean.

The roadshow was also an opportunity for my wife and me to get to know Ambassador Lee and his wife, Suk-nam. Let me express my admiration for Ambassador Lee. He understands America very well and you can be proud that he represents your country. He and I are even considering doing a similar roadshow in Korea later this year.

The lesson I drew from talking to Americans and Koreans across the United States was that people-to-people links represent the strength and special character of our bilateral relationship. Everywhere I went, I met Americans who had lived and worked in Korea, were doing business in Korea, and had friends in Korea. I met Koreans working and studying in America. I met many Korean-American teachers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and, of course students.

As U.S. Ambassador to Korea, I believe that one of my most important tasks is to encourage and facilitate these links. At the most practical level, this means visas. We are processing vast numbers of visas: over 400,000 in our last fiscal year, and as many as 450,000 this year.

Still, we hope to make it cheaper and easier for Koreans to visit the United States, by achieving Korea’s inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program, a goal that was set by our two Presidents when they met in Gyeongju last November. Since then, experts from our two countries have been working hard to help Korea meet the conditions for the program, and we have had particularly good cooperation from the Korean government. A lot of work remains to be done, but I’m optimistic. I know that if I can cement the visa waiver deal, it will have a lot more impact on public opinion than 1000 great speeches on U.S.-Korean relations!

There is another significant issue which can help anchor our bilateral relationship for the next 50 years. I am referring to Korea-U.S., or KORUS Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Both of our governments want a comprehensive, high-quality agreement that eliminates most restrictions on trade and maximizes the benefits for our two economies. Economic studies in both countries estimate that the United States and Korea will see significant economic gains from an FTA, including an increase in GDP, growth in foreign investment, more jobs in the manufacturing and services sectors, and lower prices for consumers.

The first round of KORUS FTA negotiations was held last month in Washington. It covered a lot of ground, and more progress was made than we generally see in the first round of FTA talks. Our negotiators, in reviewing each other’s opening proposals, found that our positions are very close in roughly 40 to 50 percent of the chapters already. I think such progress is a testimony to the fact that both sides prepared well for this round, studying the other’s previous FTAs. In a manner of speaking, the first round was not an introductory course, as is sometimes the case, but a graduate level seminar that set a positive tone for the important negotiations that lie ahead.

And these talks are important. The United States is Korea’s number-one foreign investor. Bilateral trade totals more than $72 billion, and our two countries are working closely together in the international economic community. I believe this FTA is an opportunity for our two economies to become closer still, enhancing our competitiveness and broadening our markets for goods and services.

For now, however, I would suggest that we let the negotiators do their job and not speculate on the specifics of the final agreement. The negotiators need a certain amount of freedom and bargaining space, because they need to give and take. We look forward to the second round of KORUS FTA negotiations in Seoul next week. I am quite confident that our two sides can get both the substance and the timing right to make the FTA a strong economic pillar of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship.

The first pillar of our relationship is, of course, our defense alliance and the Mutual Defense Treaty on which it rests. For over 50 years, the alliance has benefited from the strong commitment of our citizens as well as our governments. As we look ahead to the next 50 years, I know that we both view the bilateral alliance as critical to the long-term stability of Northeast Asia. We are, however, working closely with the Korean government to modernize the alliance to make it more sustainable and better suited to meeting our shared goals.

The most significant change is that our alliance is becoming a much more balanced partnership, reflecting the tremendous political and economic changes that have taken place in the Republic of Korea, the growing strength of Korea’s own armed forces, and the R.O.K.’s expanding role on the world stage. As part of this effort, we are working to consolidate and relocate bases away from population centers and return several large bases such as Yongsan Garrison to the Korean people. In Busan we will soon be handing over Camp Hialeah. It’s worth noting that the base moves will result in the return of about 44 million pyong (36,000 acres) of valuable land to the Korean people, without asking for any compensation for the many buildings and other infrastructure that will be left intact.

We are also working with our Korean partners to transfer to the Korean military lead responsibility for some of the missions that U.S. Forces have traditionally handled, and to develop a roadmap for the transfer of wartime operational control to the R.O.K. military. But even with all the changes, let me stress that the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea will remain rock solid.

Off the Peninsula, Korea has played a key role in helping to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan by sending its forces to contribute to international efforts for peace and stability. The R.O.K. has also sent humanitarian aid to those suffering the effects of natural disasters, such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia and hurricanes in the United States. The R.O.K. last month also made some impressive remarks in Geneva at the inaugural session of the UN Human Rights Council, including references to shared concerns about the human rights situation in the D.P.R.K.

This common global perspective and activism strengthen our alliance, and are turning it into a true partnership of equals. I want to emphasize the word “partnership,” because our relations with Korea are grounded in the shared values of freedom and democracy, and based on close consultations at all levels. This month, we are expecting a visit by Secretary Rice. Next month, a series of U.S. congressional representatives will visit Korea. We are also working to arrange a presidential summit in the fall in the United States. These are all opportunities for our leaders to discuss what is going well in our relationship, and where we need to work to better synchronize our approaches.

In the last several weeks a lot of media attention, particularly regarding the potential test-launch of a long-range missile, has highlighted the difficulty of the North Korean challenge. The United States has worked very closely with the Republic of Korea and our friends and allies in the region to make it clear to North Korea that a missile launch would be a provocative act -- that it would further isolate the D.P.R.K. And as the R.O.K. government has indicated, it would hinder inter-Korean cooperation.

The news reports this morning of multiple North Korean missile launches indicate that, once again, North Korea has failed to heed the warnings of the international community. Indeed, it is unfortunate that we have been spending our time trying to persuade the North not to engage in more provocations, rather than working together to find solutions that would improve cooperation and prosperity in the region. As we have said, there will be consequences for the North Koreans’ actions this morning. Yet, despite the latest provocations, it does not have to be this way. There has been a clear path for North Korea to join the international community, rather than isolate itself further. That path is the Six-Party Talks.

The Six-Party Talks make sense because North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are not a bilateral problem facing the United States alone. They represent a regional security issue. This is why it is necessary to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through multilateral diplomacy. We are much more likely to achieve a successful outcome if the interests and concerns of all those in the region are represented.

The next step we have been trying to achieve in the Six-Party Talks has been to implement the commitments contained in the September 19 Joint Statement. The Joint Statement represents a clear roadmap in which North Korea eliminates all of its nuclear programs and weapons and the other parties provide energy and economic cooperation, security provisions and, ultimately, normalization of their relations with North Korea. It also provides for negotiations on a permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula that would end the state of war and open the way to a real reduction of tensions.

All the parties would benefit from the full implementation of the Joint Statement, so it is regrettable that North Korea has been boycotting the talks for almost seven months and following the path of provocation and confrontation. In fact, North Korea, I have no doubt, would be the biggest beneficiary, because the end goal of the Six Party Talks process is for North Korea to end its isolation from the international community and engage in cooperation that will ultimately improve the lives of the North Korean people.

My experience with closed societies in Europe shows that without free-market economic reform, the rule of law, and respect for the rights of individual citizens, a country like North Korea will only fall further and further behind and prospects for real reconciliation will grow dimmer. Meanwhile the people of North Korea will continue to suffer. No one wants this.

North Korea faces enormous social, economic and political problems. None of these are going to be solved by wasting resources on the pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. So North Korea’s leaders have a choice. They can seize the opportunity offered in the September Joint Statement or they can continue down the path of confrontation, provocation and deeper isolation.

In the coming days, the U.S. Government will be consulting with the Korean Government and other partners in the region on how to respond to the latest missile tests, and I’m not going to speculate on what that response will be. Whatever the response, we hope North Korea will ultimately make the right choice -- to share in the prosperity sweeping through the rest of Northeast Asia, and to reject policies that deny their citizens a chance for a better life. The way to do this is by standing down from its current provocative actions, returning to the Six Party Talks, and getting to work on implementing the September 19 Joint Statement.

To allow more time for your questions, let me conclude here. I look forward to hearing your perspectives on the U.S.-Korean relationship. As I have said many times before, governments do not have a monopoly on wisdom, so please share some of yours with me. Thank you very much.

Released on July 5, 2006

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