2005.03.02: Korea-US Relations: Past, Present and Future

H.E. Ambassador Kim Sam-hoon, Permanent Representative, at the International Affairs Committee of the Women’s National Republican Club

I. Introduction

Thank you very much. It’s a great honor and a pleasure for me to be here today. Before I begin I’d like to thank Mrs. Monica Unger, President of the Women’s National Republican Club, and Mrs. Lila Prounis, President Emeritus, for inviting me to address the Club.

Today I am going to talk about Korea-US Relations. First I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts about Korea -US shared history and the future of the relationship, focusing specifically on the security partnership, economic ties, and a deepening cultural relationship. I will then briefly touch upon the North Korean nuclear issue. After that we can have a discussion and I will try to answer your questions as best I can.

II. Korean History

To understand Korea today, I think it helps to go back a little and review some history, beginning in the 19th century.

The 19th century was a period of dramatic change in East Asia. European powers came to play an increasingly important role in the region, and in 1860, the British and French actually occupied Beijing. At the same time, Japan was modernizing rapidly. Korea responded to these developments by closing its doors to the West and shunning all Western demands for diplomatic and trade relations, earning itself the nickname as the Hermit Kingdom.

In 1882 Korea signed its first treaty with the United States, on commerce, but official relations between the two nations remained marginal. However, one significant development during this period was the arrival of American missionaries in Korea, which set the stage for a closer US -Korea relationship.

By 1905, Japan’s rapid industrialization had given rise to imperial ambitions, and in 1910 it forcibly annexed Korea and instituted colonial rule. When the Japanese were finally defeated at the close of World War II in 1945, Koreans were overjoyed, but their happiness was to be short-lived. Contrary to the hopes of the newly-liberated Korean people, liberation did not bring about the independence they had fought so hard for. Instead, the emerging realities of the cold war led to the country’s partition in 1945 into a Soviet sphere of influence in the North and an American sphere in the South.

Then, on June 25th, 1950, North Korea launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of the South, triggering a three-year war that devastated the entire Korean Peninsula. During the war, the international community, the United Nations and the United States made enormous sacrifices to help defend South Korea, and Koreans remain profoundly grateful for this. We will never forget the tens of thousands of soldiers from 21 countries around the world, including 37,000 Americans, who gave their lives during the Korean War. Their sacrifices made it possible for South Korea to rise from the ashes of war and become the thriving free-market liberal democracy it is today.

In the five decades since the war, my country has transformed itself from a land of abject poverty into the 11th largest economy in the world. In 1964, our annual per capita income was $94, making South Korea one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2003 ?less than forty years later our per capita income was $12,000, and our GDP was approximately $605 billion. Our total trade volume in 2004 was around $479 billion exports totalled $254 billion and imports $224 billion ?making Korea the 12th largest trading country in the world. South Korea is now regarded by the international community as a model of successful economic and political development.

III. Post-war Korea-US Relations

1) Security

Looking back over the developments of the last fifty years in Korea, I must underscore that the longstanding security alliance and amicable partnership between South Korea and the United States has been one of the pillars of our successful nation-building process. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the US-Korea alliance, which began at the close of the Korean War. Since its inception the alliance has played a pivotal role not only in the defense of Korea but also by contributing significantly to peace and stability in northeast Asia. Moreover, the stable environment provided by the US -Korea security alliance has allowed us to concentrate on the critical issues of economic and social development.

I believe that Korea -US ties have also been reinforced by the fundamental values our societies share, such as a belief in democracy, a market economy, and respect for human rights. Today, our two governments are in close consultations to determine the shape of the security alliance in the changing environment of the 21st century. I am confident that the alliance will continue to play a vital role in maintaining peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, in northeast Asia and beyond.

Because of the support we received from the international community during our time of national struggle, Korea today feels an obligation to participate in international efforts to maintain peace and security. Over the past several years we have worked with other members of the international community to bring stability and democracy to East Timor and to confront challenges in Afghanistan. Moreover, Korea has deployed 3,600 soldiers to Iraq ?the largest contingent of forces after the US and the UK. We have also been a major financial contributor to reconstruction and recovery efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today the international community faces many shared threats. Failed states, rogue regimes, and transnational criminal and terrorist networks pose a danger to us all. Proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is also a threat to global peace and security. In this precarious climate, Korea recognizes that it has a strong interest in maintaining global peace and security, which requires cooperation with both the United States and the rest of the world

2) Anti-American Sentiment

Against this backdrop, I’d now like to talk about an issue that has raised some concerns between our two countries, namely the spectre of anti-American sentiment in Korea. Because Korea is a vibrant democracy, Korean citizens have the freedom to express a wide range of political views, including those that are contrary to the mainstream or to the government’s positions. Just as in the United States, some people in Korea are opposed to the war in Iraq. Others disagree with the US approach to relations with North Korea. Occasionally, these disagreements have degenerated into crude displays of anti-Americanism, and this, of course, has garnered the attention of the media.

Nevertheless, it is my belief that these anti-American displays are more a manifestation of some Koreans?legitimate policy disagreements with the United States than opposition to America itself. Korea ?US relations and Korea’s own internal political development have both evolved to the point where Koreans, particularly the younger generation, feel confident enough to express their views about policy matters without fear of damaging the overall bilateral relationship.

Moreover, in my opinion, for a majority of Koreans, America remains a vital partner and a trusted ally with whom any disagreements can be resolved through dialogue and cooperation, and I am confident that the alliance will remain strong for years to come.

3) Economic Ties

The relationship between Korea and the United States goes beyond security issues to encompass both strong economic ties and an increasingly important cultural relationship.

As Korea’s economic growth has accelerated, economic exchanges have become more prominent in our relationship with the United States. With trade volume amounting to $72 billion last year, Korea is the 7th – largest buyer of American goods and the 5th – biggest market for U.S. agricultural products. On the other side, the US, as Korea’s top overall trade partner, represents the second-largest export market for Korean products, just behind China. The US is also the largest investor in Korea. However, investment has recently become more of a two-way street. Korean companies are increasingly investing in the American economy, as demonstrated by Hyundai’s automobile assembly plant in Alabama, Samsung’s microchip plant in Texas, and numerous other ventures.

As a result of this growth in economic trade and investment, I believe that the time has come to take our relationship to the next level by pursuing enhanced trade agreements. I am encouraged to note that there is a growing interest between our two governments in reaching a free trade agreement, and the business sectors and academia in both countries also favor this. Considering the importance of our bilateral trade and investment ties and the huge potential for further bilateral exchanges, I believe that a Korea ?US free trade agreement could serve as the foundation for a substantial upgrading of our trade and investment relations.

4) Cultural Ties

To these economic links must be added the increasing cultural ties between our two peoples.

The first Koreans immigrated to the United States about a hundred years ago, arriving first in Hawaii and later in California. Today there are over two million Koreans and Korean-Americans living in the United States, with the biggest concentrations in the Los Angeles and New York metropolitan areas. In Korea itself, more and more students are studying English, and tens of thousands of Korean students currently attend universities in the US. In fact, only China and India send more students to the United States than Korea.

At the same time, Korean culture is beginning to have a greater impact in America, as we can see by the increasing popularity and strong acclaim for Korean cinema within the US. I believe that the successful integration of so many Koreans into American society will only deepen the affinity between our two countries.

Travel between our two countries is also increasing every year. Despite this fact, however, there are currently 27 countries whose citizens do not need visas to travel to the US, and South Korea is not one of them. Considering our strong economic and cultural ties, I believe there should be an easing of visa requirements for Koreans, and I look forward to one day seeing Korea on the list of visa waiver countries.

IV. The North Korean Nuclear Issue

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to touch upon the North Korean nuclear issue, which poses a daunting challenge not only to the Korean Peninsula, but also to the stability of the Northeast Asian region and to the integrity of the global nonproliferation regime.

Over the past several years, South Korea and the United States, together with China, Russia and Japan, have been engaged in Six-Party Talks with North Korea to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. The entire international community, including the European Union and ASEAN countries, have supported this process and closely followed its progress.

However, as you may have seen in the news, North Korea has recently announced that it will no longer take part in the Six-Party Talks. In response, South Korea, the United States, the United Nations and others have called on North Korea to return to the Talks. Despite this decision by the North, I remain confident that we can ultimately succeed in achieving peace, because all of the relevant parties share the goal of realizing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through peaceful means. I sincerely hope that we will soon be able to resume the Six-Party Talks, because I believe multilateral diplomacy can play an important role in this issue. Nonetheless, I am confident that regardless of what form or modality they take in the future, negotiations with North Korea should be resumed, and I look forward to continuing down the path of disarmament and peace.

Ultimately, resolution of the issue comes down to North Korea itself. North Korea must take a strategic decision to return to the Six-Party talks and actively participate in peaceful cooperation and dialogue. Taking this step would allow North Korea to receive greater international economic assistance, security assurances, and to eventually rejoin the international community. The alternative is for North Korea to continue to pursue nuclear weapons, thereby further isolating itself and increasing its own fear and insecurity.

In reality, a final resolution may be a ways down the road, and the path to get there may be bumpy and filled with challenges and pitfalls, as North Korea’s recent withdrawal from the Talks illustrates. Nevertheless, I am not alone in my firm belief that we will eventually resolve this problem peacefully through dialogue.

While we work to address the nuclear issue, another challenge will be overcoming the mutual distrust that has existed between the two Koreas since the onset of the Korean War. Only in this way will we be able to move toward a peaceful coexistence on the Peninsula, and toward our ultimate goal of reunification.

On the positive side, as a result of South Korea’s continued policy of engagement with the North, we have seen much improvement in inter-Korean relations over the past few years. My Government will continue to pursue policies toward the resolution of this last remaining conflict of the Cold War. I believe that if we continue to promote reconciliation through policies of South-North exchange and cooperation, and we continue to receive the support of the international community, the dream of a peaceful reunification will one day become a reality.

V. Closing Remarks

In concluding my talk today, I hope I have given everyone a clearer understanding of the important multifaceted relationship between our two nations. Despite its origins in an era of conflict, the Korea-US partnership has developed and deepened over the decades, and we are profoundly grateful for the role the United States has played in Korea’s development. Today our two nations continue to work together on serious challenges, both regional and global, and I am confident that our friendship will continue far into the future, providing great benefits to both our peoples.