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View All Transcripts: Ask the Ambassador | Ask the State Department

Welcome to "Ask the Ambassador" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to U.S. Ambassadors around the world.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow, discussed U.S.-South Korea Bilateral Relations.

Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea
Alexander Vershbow
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea

Event Date: 12/5/2007

Kyle in North Carolina writes:

Hello Ambassador Vershbow! With South and North Korea holding their own one-on-one meetings, is South Korea looking to distance itself from the U.S. in regards to negotiating with North Korea? Thank you for answering our questions.

P.S. A thank you to the State Department for the "Ask the Ambassador" segments.

Ambassador Vershbow:

Kyle, the United States and South Korea share a common goal of having a peaceful nuclear-free Korean peninsula. We are working together very closely as part of the Six Party Talks. The U.S. also supports inter-Korean dialogue. We are interested in South-North engagement projects that result in more exchanges, and more openness on the part of North Korea that could help improve the lives of the North Korean people.

I am glad that you enjoy the Ask the Ambassador segments. We enjoy receiving your questions.

Susan in Virginia writes:

Ambassador Vershbow,

A recent article in the Korea Herald mentioned 'ideological confusion' in Korea in regards to its private adherence to Confucianism and South Korea's emergence into the public market. What some label a 'confusion' of cultures/ideologies others have labeled a 'clash.' In your experience, do you believe Confucian values conflict with Korean modernization or do you believe they can proceed in tandem? Would you say the same for neighboring countries such as China?

Ambassador Vershbow:

Korea has a very rich cultural background which has been influenced not only by Confucianism, but by Buddhism, Christianity and other ideologies and religions. These influences -- coupled with a strong work ethic, high educational standards and creativity -- have enabled Korea to become the 12th-largest economy in the world. So, I would say that all these values have been working well in tandem to support modernization.

Renee in Rhode Island writes:

I actually have a rather broad question. I would like to know how you apply cultural relativism to foreign issues. Do you believe that the United States or any nation, for that matter, should look at other nations in view of its own culture or judge another nation by their standards in their own culture?

Ambassador Vershbow:

Renee, that is a very astute question. Of course, it is human nature to view the world in terms of one's own experiences, culture, and training. American diplomats study the language, history and culture of the area in which they will be posted so that they will become more aware of these cultural differences. At the same time, there are some values that are universal such as the promotion of fundamental human rights. One of the keys to being an effective diplomat is being able to find the right balance.

Keith in Pennsylvania writes:

To what extent is daily life of the people of South Korea affected by the threat of North Korea? Could their attitude be compared to a cold war mindset?

Ambassador Vershbow:

People in South Korea go about their daily life much as people in the U.S. do - they go to school or work and raise their families. But they are also aware that, about an hour's drive north of Seoul, the capital, is the most heavily armed border in the world, on the other side of which lies an authoritarian state that has used its scarce resources to build nuclear weapons. Given this reality, it has long been mandatory for Korean men to serve at least two years in the armed forces. And of course, for those families who have relatives and other loved ones in the North, the pain of living in a divided country is even more acute. I wouldn't say, however, that this adds up to a "cold war mindset." Most South Koreans are very confident in the strength of their own country - in political, economic and military terms - and look at their fellow Koreans in the impoverished North more with compassion than fear.

Bob in U.S.A. writes:

Dear Ambassador,

What are your expectations for the upcoming six-party talks?

Ambassador Vershbow:

We expect North Korea to live up to its obligations under the October 3 Joint Statement by the end of the year: these include disabling its existing nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and providing a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs. US experts are in North Korea performing specific disablement steps; Assistant Secretary Hill has just been visiting North Korea to review the progress being made in the disablement process and to encourage the North Koreans to provide a full accounting of all their nuclear activities, past and present. If Pyongyang fulfills its commitments, we are prepared to take concrete reciprocal steps toward normalizing our relationship with North Korea. All this will set the stage for what is the ultimate goal of the Six Party Talks: the complete dismantlement of all nuclear facilities and the abandonment of all North Korea's nuclear weapons and nuclear programs, which we would like to achieve in 2008.

Kady in Nevada writes:

What is the food like over there?

Ambassador Vershbow:

The food is delicious, and very different from other Asian cuisines. The main staples are rice and a spicy vegetarian side dish -- usually made with cabbage -- called kimchi, which is served with popular main dishes like barbecued beef short ribs (kalbi) or stir-fried marinated beef (bulgogi). And we soon hope to see American beef in their delicious kalbi and bulgogi dishes.

Shari in Florida writes:

Could there be a possibility that both Koreas will reunite and resolve their issues after the Korean War of 1950-1953? Since economic cooperation is being developed between the two parties.

Ambassador Vershbow:

Reunification is up to the two Koreas to decide, but I would like nothing more than to see a true peace on a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. Most South Koreans favor the eventual unification of the two Koreas, but they are also concerned about the potential costs, and by the social disparities between the two populations that would need to be overcome after over fifty years of hardship in the North under a brutal Communist regime. South Korea has begun several high-profile economic cooperation initiatives with North Korea, most notably at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an industrial park just across the border where South Korean companies are operating factories that employ North Korean workers, and they recently agreed on a series of future economic projects at the North-South Summit meeting held in October. Many South Koreans see unification as a goal for 20 years or so in the future. Because of the closed nature of North Korea, we simply don't know what the North Korean people think about unification, but it's safe to say that the North Korean people want better lives than they have now.

Thinking of the Northeast Asian region more broadly, President Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun have spoken of the potential for the Six Party Talks to serve as the starting point for a permanent regional forum that could promote peace, stability and economic cooperation in the region over the longer term. More work remains to be done, but I encourage you to think about the potential for such a forum to gradually break down barriers and build trust among the countries of Northeast Asia.

Lee in South Korea writes:

Why did Assistant Secretary Hill and Kim Yang Gun (DPRK) come to South Korea? Timing is interesting.

Ambassador Vershbow:

Assistant Secretary Hill came to South Korea for consultations prior to traveling to North Korea to observe first hand the process of disablement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and to consult on the next round of the Six Party Talks.

Regarding Mr. Kim Yang-Gun's visit to South Korea, we understand it was part of the follow-up to the agreements reached at the October 2-4 Inter-Korean Summit. But you will need to direct your questions to Korean government officials for more details.

Hill and Kim did not meet (although they attended separate dinners in different parts of the Lotte Hotel on November 29!).

Bill in California writes:

I worked in Korea as a teacher just south of Seoul. There seem to be quite a few people there who simply don't like the U.S. and want our military to leave. I saw signs that read "Yankee go home." We are obviously not welcome there to say the least. The only people who seemed to want our military to stay were people who had lived through the war. My question is why are we still there? I think the South is quite capable of defending themselves.

Ambassador Vershbow:

Actually, Bill, recent polls show that a solid majority (60%) of South Koreans have an overall favorable opinion of the United States, with an increased majority (65%, up from 56% in 2006) also saying that the ROK-U.S. security alliance is in good shape.

Even larger majorities (75%) support the maintenance of U.S. troops on the peninsula, with 68% also saying that South Korea should maintain the security alliance with the U.S. even after reunification. I think those numbers clearly speak for themselves.

That being said, we and the South Koreans agree that they should shoulder more of the responsibility for their own defense, and this is taking place as we update our military Alliance.

John in Washington, DC writes:

How are America and South Korea addressing the problem of North Korean refugees? Are they collaborating with UNHCR?

Ambassador Vershbow:

The United States passed the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004, and under that Act the U.S. has begun to welcome North Korean defectors into the U.S. There have only been 33 accepted so far, but we expect that more will come very soon and are ready to welcome more - although we expect the majority of refugees will still choose to resettle in South Korea given the linguistic and cultural connections. We cooperate closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and are a chief supporter of that organization financially, in assisting North Korean refugees and other refugees worldwide. However, one problem is that the UNHCR does not have adequate access to North Korean refugees in China, which is the main exit route from North Korea, so our government continues to encourage the Chinese government to provide such access in line with its international commitments.

Martin in Germany writes:

Ambassador Vershbow! What do you think is the field in which the U.S. and South Korea can improve their relations the most? How do you judge the economic development of South Korea?

Ambassador Vershbow:

Martin, while U.S.-Korean relations are already very strong, I think the ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (or KORUS FTA) is one area in which both countries can take an important new step to deepen our partnership. The FTA will generate significant economic benefits for both parties, and create a strong economic pillar to our bilateral relationship. As you may know, Korea's rapid economic development since the Korean War has been called by many the "Miracle on the Han River," and Korea's quick recovery from the financial crisis of ten years ago is just as impressive. Korea is now the world's 12th largest economy. The ratification of the Free Trade Agreement would provide a further boost to Korea's economic development -- boosting trade, creating new jobs and new businesses, and helping the Korean economic become more competitive overall. The FTA would generate similar benefits for the United States. From the U.S. perspective, Korea is a highly desirable FTA partner -- a growing economy, a world leader in such cutting-edge technologies as semiconductors, telecommunications and Internet services, and a country that has committed to fair, transparent, market-oriented trade and investment policies.

S in the U.S. writes:

Dear Mr. Alexander Vershbow: How do you see the Korea-China FTA? And what's the impact of the Korea-China relationship on U.S.?

Well, Korea and China aren't negotiating a Free Trade Agreement at this time; right now the two countries are only conducting a feasibility study of whether they will proceed to negotiations toward a Free Trade Agreement. Regarding Korea's relations with China, China has been Korea's largest trading partner since 2004, which is probably natural given the proximity of these two economies, and the significant investment Korean companies are making in China. We believe that a strong China-Korea economic relationship will help the region and the United States, because continued prosperity can enhance security and stability.

Ambassador Vershbow:

In addition, the Chinese are playing a productive role in the efforts to denuclearize North Korea through the Six Party Talks. We welcome their constructive efforts as a responsible stakeholder in the creation of a more stable Northeast Asia.

Dieter in Germany writes:

Sir! How would you describe the engagement of South Korea in the war on terror?

Ambassador Vershbow:

The Republic of Korea has been an important ally in the global war on terror. They have fielded what was until recently the third largest troop contingent in Iraq and have helped to improve the lives of people living in the Irbil area. They have also been good partners in Afghanistan. For example, the hospital they have been running at Bagram has treated over a quarter of a million locals.

Dieter in Germany:

What would the U.S. like South Korea to do with respect to this issue?

Ambassador Vershbow:

We have asked the Republic of Korea to continue its valuable reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, and their government will make those decisions by the end of this year.

Andrew in Texas writes:

What is the U.S. doing to make the diplomatic incision into North Korea and inoculate the people from this fascist government?

Ambassador Vershbow:

Andrew, our government is working closely with our partners in the Six-Party Talks (the Republic of Korea, Japan, China and Russia) to complete the full denuclearization of North Korea. That is the number one priority because of the threat that a nuclear-armed North Korea poses to the region and, in the event of proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology, to the world. In addition to the nuclear issue, we focus on the abysmal human rights situation in North Korea, and the terrible economic conditions facing the great majority of the people there, and we seek ways to improve those conditions. For example, the United States is considering providing food assistance to the North Korean people, and we support efforts by the United Nations to address the human rights situation in North Korea.

John in Washington, DC writes:

What priority does the U.S. place on improving relations between its allies, the ROK and Japan?

Ambassador Vershbow:

For over 50 years, our alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan have deterred North Korean aggression and provided a counterbalance to the military power of the Soviet Union and, more recently, a rising China. These alliances, together with U.S. development assistance and open access to the U.S. market, served as the foundation for Japan's economic rise and for Korea's economic miracle. Our high levels of investment in the region have been an additional anchor of peace and stability in the region. Today, these alliances -- the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan Alliances -- continue in excellent shape, and we have consistently urged our allies to expand the cooperation between them as an additional factor for stability in the region.

John in Washington, DC:

Is the U.S. doing anything to help alleviate the problems in the ROK-Japan relationship, such as territorial and historical disputes?

Ambassador Vershbow:

As you point out, there have sometimes been problems in relations between Japan and Korea in recent years - many of which are the legacy of the colonial period and World War II - and we have urged these two allies to resolve them through dialogue and cooperation. I think that bilateral relationships in this region are improving, including relations between Japan and the ROK.

John in Washington, DC:

Do you think the U.S. can play a constructive role in mediating those disputes?

Ambassador Vershbow:

Ultimately, the two countries themselves need to take the lead in defusing tensions and finding solutions to bilateral problems, but we sometimes can play a helpful supporting role.

Anthony in Alaska writes:

What will the next 20 years bring to the U.S. / ROK relationship? How prominent will North Korea be in that equation?

Ambassador Vershbow:

The relationship between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea remains deep, strong and enduring. We have worked together for the past 50 years to keep the peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. In addition, Korea has been a strong ally of the United States in the global war against terror and is a major trading partner of the U.S. And recent events such as the signing of the Korea- U.S. Free Trade Agreement and our very close cooperation in the Six Party Talks suggest that our relations are becoming ever closer.

Tim in New York writes:

Mr. Ambassador,

Thank you for serving our great nation. My question concerns the missile shield technology currently being developed by the U.S. Is there a possibility this technology will find its way to South Korea? And if so, will this be part of the dialogue with Pyongyang concerning security/nuclear issues?

Ambassador Vershbow:

The U.S. and South Korean governments and militaries work closely together to maintain the strongest possible deterrence and defense against all threats to security on the Korean Peninsula. That is our solemn obligation under the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty. Thus far, we have not entered into any significant cooperation on missile defense with South Korea, although the Koreans themselves are acquiring Patriot-3 missiles that could provide some limited missile defense capability,

Eric in California writes:

As an Ambassador to NATO, to Russia, and now to South Korea are you ever able to speak your mind when you have discussions with Putin, the president of Korea, and even the president of the U.S. on what you honestly think about the relationship or must you always present U.S. policy? How much flexibility and influence have you had on U.S. policy as an Ambassador? I ask this question because I aspire to be a diplomat when I finish my studies but have been dissuaded by people who believe that the State Department is nothing more than an implementer rather than a policy maker. Thank you for your time.

Ambassador Vershbow:

Eric, as Ambassador, my job is to present the official position of the United States Government, but I also have the opportunity to speak personally and frankly with officials from other governments. Different situations require different sorts of communications. As Ambassador, I lead what we call the "country team" of officials from the State Department and other agencies at the embassy, and thus I have strong input into the recommendations that the country team makes in our communications with Washington. These sometimes include recommendations for changes in established policy. I also have the opportunity to express my perspective directly to senior officials in Washington, as the President's representative. In short, I think Ambassadors have considerable influence and flexibility.

I hope you will follow your aspirations to become a diplomat when you finish your studies. If so, you will find that being a diplomat gives you an opportunity to be at the front lines of major political and economic developments as they happen around the world. Through these interactions, diplomats can play a critical role in helping to shape U.S. policy. The State Department encourages original thinking and has mechanisms for employees to voice their dissent from official policy if they feel that it is important to do so. You can learn more about a career in the Foreign Service at the State Department's website at www.state.gov.

Peter in Virginia writes:

Mr. Ambassador, do you think much of the DMZ will eventually become a nature reserve? Not much wildlife habitat remains on the Korean Peninsula and this would seem to be a great opportunity for Koreans to preserve their natural heritage, which includes the endangered red-crowned crane. Or will the pressure of economic development rule the day?

Ambassador Vershbow:

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a unique resource, spanning the width of the Korean Peninsula, through mountains and across rivers, wetlands and plains. It has remained essentially untouched for more than half a century, and offers a protected habitat for many threatened species. There is growing interest in South Korea in keeping the DMZ as a nature preserve once it is no longer needed as a strategic buffer between the two Koreas. In a recent policy forum hosted by the largest environmental NGO in South Korea, representatives of the two largest parties both mentioned preservation of the DMZ as an important environmental policy goal. At this point it is not clear how the North Korean government views this issue, but one factor that may eventually influence North Korean thinking in favor of preserving the area is the potential for income from eco-tourism.

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