REVIEW: Article

Expanding Ties and New Frontiers in United States-Republic of Korea Relations

The relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is often framed against the backdrop of our shared goals to deter and defend against the North Korean threat, something I saw first-hand in my previous positions at the White House and the Pentagon. Our shared commitment to a robust North Korea (DPRK) policy that aims, among other things, to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula through authentic and credible negotiations and ensure that the universal human rights of the people of North Korea are protected and promoted is a critical part of our relationship.

That said, as fundamental as our alliance commitments are to our bilateral ties, limiting discussion of US-ROK relations to DPRK security issues shortchanges and understates all the outstanding progress over more than 60 years we have made in other key areas. As I have seen in my two full years as Ambassador, our broad and vital bilateral relationship touches virtually every aspect of US national interests. Our relationship has matured into a dynamic, strong, and effective partnership that works collaboratively and cooperatively on a range of issues—not just on the Korean Peninsula, but also in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.  As outlined below, we have much to be proud of as US-ROK ties continue to grow beyond the security imperative from which it originated.

Let’s begin with a simple yet powerful statement. According to both of our governments—echoed by the statements of our respective Presidents—the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea is “the best it has ever been.”

While there is much data to support this assertion, let me use three elements that I believe are particularly salient.

First, together, Washington and Seoul are currently undertaking or have completed a range of complex, critically important, and unprecedented activities across a broad spectrum of this relationship. Underscoring this breadth and depth, these include:  renewing the 123 civil nuclear agreement, agreeing to the conditions for the transfer/return of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces to the ROK, fighting Ebola together in West Africa, signing a bilateral framework agreement on civil space cooperation, and working together on countering the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and violent extremism, on security and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and on counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean—to name just a few.

Second, we are not only undertaking these activities together; we are also generating successful outcomes on complex and difficult issues. The 123 Agreement reached a successful outcome after more than five years of very difficult technical negotiations; the OPCON issue was completed to the mutual satisfaction of both countries; on Ebola in West Africa, our two governments, collaborating with other nations and international organizations, worked to roll back one of the most dangerous global health problems we have seen in recent times. These are just a few examples taken from a long list of achievements.

Third, doing hard things, or politically difficult things, often takes a toll on public opinion.  Not in this case.  Although we are doing hard things together, during this critical period we have seen the popularity of the US-ROK relationship—among both Americans and Koreans alike—reach very high levels. As Ambassador, I read this as a key message from both of our peoples, saying:  “We like what our two nations are doing together, we appreciate you are getting to good outcomes, and as a result, let’s keep moving along this important trajectory.”

Taking that to heart, I want to briefly survey some of the progress and promise of the bilateral relationship, which we often analyze through four key foundational pillars:  security, economic, the global diplomatic partnership, and our people-to-people ties.

The Security Relationship

The security relationship is the oldest facet of our relationship, and stands at the core of the Alliance.

With 28,500 US military personnel courageously serving shoulder to shoulder with their ROK counterparts, we are working each and every day to provide defense and deterrence against North Korean nuclear and missile threats. To this end, we are working to ensure both sides are making critical investments in the most modern, high-end capabilities, guaranteeing that US personnel who serve in Korea are among our very best and brightest, and updating our planning and doctrine to keep up with the evolving security situation in Northeast Asia.

While providing this robust defense and deterrence, we continue to use a key part of the economic piece of our strategy—unilateral and multilateral sanctions—to raise the costs on the North Korean regime for pursuing nuclear and missile programs that are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

All of this leads to the final, critical piece of the policy:  using robust deterrence and economic measures, especially strong sanctions implementation to convincingly sharpen the choice for Pyongyang to engage in authentic negotiations that will ultimately result in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

The Obama administration has a strong track record in this area, as the cases of Iran, Cuba, and Burma demonstrate. In all three instances, when those countries demonstrated a seriousness of purpose, the Obama administration engaged in principled diplomacy on difficult, complex problems that in some cases had been vexing the relationship for decades.
What we are missing in the case of North Korea is a credible interlocutor on the North Korean side. They have at various times, among other actions, declared the Six-Party Talks dead, said that the New York Channel (where US and DPRK diplomats communicate officially) is no longer extant, and rejected a public offer by our Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Ambassador Sung Kim, to travel to Pyongyang to engage in talks.

The United States continues to be committed to diplomacy to solve this issue. But, to use a well-worn phrase here: “it takes two to tango” and all of the data show that the regime in Pyongyang, at this point, continues to resist the use of dialogue to solve the issue of nuclear and missile programs that the United Nations, as well as a large number of member-states, have condemned on numerous occasions.

Until the North comes back to the table, we will use diplomacy, economic measures, and defense and deterrence to further isolate and counter the efforts of the North Korean byeongjin (side-by-side development) policy, unify the international community, especially the other five parties of the Six-Party Talks, and ensure that South Korea as well as our other allies are safe and secure.

We will also continue our vigorous support for efforts by the international community to call attention to the human rights atrocities in North Korea. And that includes annual resolutions from the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly that condemn North Korea’s human rights abuses, as well as the UN Security Council debate on the state of human rights in the DPRK.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not underscore that the ultimate goal and dream of all of these actions—from ensuring that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized to protecting the human rights of the North Korean people—is to enable Koreans to, one day, live in peace and prosperity on a unified Korean Peninsula. The United States strongly supports this goal. President Obama is the first American President to publicly back reunification under a democratically elected government with a market economy and a commitment to supporting human rights.  

The Economic Relationship

The second foundational pillar of the Alliance is the economic relationship. The importance of this dimension of the US-ROK relationship has grown dramatically over the past several years, and the future holds a great deal of promise for this piece of the relationship.

The United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) is the bedrock of our economic ties. The economic benefits of this agreement have increased significantly since KORUS entered into force in 2012. To cite just a few statistics that back up this claim:  before 2012, ROK direct investment in the United States was less than $20 billion, and today it stands at $40 billion, supporting at least 45,100 US jobs; US investment in the Republic of Korea is up 25 percent from $28 billion to $35 billion over that same period; the overall trading relationship has grown from nearly $130 billion to $150 billion; and as a result Korea is now the United States’ sixth largest trading partner, and the United States is the largest investor in South Korea. These measures all show that the economic benefits of KORUS for both countries are on the rise.  In three or four of the main KORUS areas in which we have had major disagreements in recent years, the issues either have been resolved or are well on their way to being resolved.

There is still a lot of work to do, nonetheless. For example, we need to open up the legal services sector, especially as it relates to the restrictions on areas in which foreign lawyers can practice. Moreover, increasing focus needs to be on ensuring a dynamic and innovative business environment, which includes the legal and regulatory structure.  President Obama and President Park affirmed their common interest in regulatory reform during the October 2015 summit in Washington. And, accordingly, this top-level leadership has opened the door for important cooperation. But here, too, a great deal of work remains to unlock the full promise of the economic relationship. Both the US government and US business generally would like to see greater ROK regulatory reform, alignment, and coherence. To sum it up, we want predictability. There are simply too many business regulations that are unique to Korea, whereas adherence to international norms and standards would ensure transparent, fair, and competitive business practices. This will be a key focus of the economic and commercial relationship in the coming weeks, months, and years ahead.

Global Diplomatic Partnership

The third foundational pillar is our global diplomatic partnership.

A critical piece of the relationship with myriad examples of success, it can be summed up as the broadening focus of the relationship.  In the past, meetings between the United States and Korea focused almost entirely on the Korean Peninsula, but as the relationship has matured, our discussions have increasingly included issues beyond the Peninsula.

As a result, the US-ROK relationship is pushing out into areas that have global implications, such as nuclear nonproliferation and security, UN Peacekeeping Operations, peace and stability in Afghanistan, and countering ISIL. Another example is the Memorandum of Understanding between our two aid agencies for promoting sustainable development in Southeast Asia—one of the achievements from the October 2015 summit between President Obama and President Park. Our two countries are also committed to providing better access to education and healthcare for 62 million adolescent girls around the world who are not in school. Through President Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” program and President Park’s “Better Life for Girls,” our two countries will work side by side to remove barriers that keep girls from classrooms and from achieving their full potential.  The Republic of Korea has also successfully hosted a number of key international meetings that dovetail with US priorities: the World Water Forum, the Global Green Growth Week highlighting green cities and sustainable economic growth, and the Global Health Security Agenda High Level Meeting are some recent examples.

In short, because the relationship has matured and because there is more capacity and “bandwidth” in the relationship, our work has “gone global.” Washington and Seoul now work together bilaterally, and in multilateral fora, to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems.     

People-to-People Contacts

People-to-people ties between our countries are the fourth and final pillar in our relationship.

This aspect of the relationship is strong and growing—and critically important.  Especially in democracies, administrations change, issues evolve, and attitudes can shift quickly. Thus, ensuring that strong, resilient, and lasting ties exist between our two peoples—across a range of demographic cohorts and sectors—is a crucially important component for enduring ties.

The good news is that our people-to-people ties are solid. For example: there are 67 “sister” relationships at the state and city levels. There are some 130 university partner¬ships between US and South Korean institutions. More than 60,000 Koreans go to the United States to study annually, making Korea the number three source of foreign students in the United States, trailing only the much larger countries of China and India. And the number of US students coming to Korea is growing.

Korean artists, musicians, and athletes are present in some of the most important and popular institutions in the United States—and Americans are here in Korea in significant numbers reciprocating in these important contributions. A recent example of this was the 2016 WBSC Women’s Baseball World Cup, hosted in Korea for the first time, which I had the pleasure of attending to support our US team. I would also be remiss if I did not point out the significant and growing popularity of Korean culture—from K-Pop to food—in the United States, yet another sign of our expanding ties, which will help to ensure our ties are strong and endure for generations to come.  

New Frontiers

While the relationship is strong, we are not satisfied with our progress. We are hard at work expanding our ties into new and dynamic areas. Alliance cooperation in the future is slated to expand even further under what we call the “New Frontiers” that were added to the bilateral agenda at the October 2015 summit between our Presidents. Taking advantage of the strength of the relationship, President Obama and President Park set forth a very forward-looking strategic vision that focuses on five key areas of cooperation going forward:  cyber, space, energy, climate change and the environment, and global health.  

Why this set of issues? As events like the Paris Agreement and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) health crisis have demonstrated, these issues will become increasingly salient in the 21st century. Moreover, our countries have deep expertise in these areas—we both bring a great deal to the table—and we have done good work in these areas before, establishing a strong foundation on which we can quickly build. Broadening and enhancing our people-to-people ties, this issue set has the potential to involve new constituencies such as doctors, engineers, and research scientists in the relationship in increasing numbers.

We have already seen some important progress on these New Frontiers. On cyber cooperation, we reached agreement on a White House-Blue House cyber coordination mechanism that was followed up by the first ever visit by the White House and State Department cyber coordinators to Korea for important discussions and work that included enhancing information sharing on cyber threats, investigating cyber incidents, deepening our military-to-military cooperation, and expanding the work we do on cyber research and development.

During President Obama’s visit to Seoul in April 2014, our two Presidents expressed a desire to deepen bilateral space cooperation. In Washington last October, President Park visited NASA’s Goddard Space Center to see some cutting-edge research and technology. These discussions bore fruit in the framework agreement on civil space cooperation that Foreign Minister Yun and I signed in April at the opening of the 2nd US-ROK Civil Space Dialogue in Seoul. Government-to-government cooperation in this area will also unlock public-private collaboration opportunities.

In the area of sustainable energy, both of our countries have committed to double spending on clean energy research and development over the next five years under Mission Innovation.  The United States and Korea are working closely together to develop the next generation of energy technology, including fuel cells, smart grids, and energy storage.  Both governments support the entry into force of the Paris climate change agreement by the end of this year.  And both countries are committed to the success of the Green Climate Fund. To this effort, the United States has pledged $3 billion and the Republic of Korea $100 million.

Global health is an area where we are doing a lot already but the potential is unlimited. Under the Global Health Security Agenda, the ROK government has committed to contribute $100 million to help 13 developing countries fight infectious diseases, dovetailing with the United States’ pledge to help 30 developing countries.

Taking all of these things together, it is not hard to envision the great outcomes that can result from our continued cooperation on these New Frontiers.  

Conclusion:  Storied Past, Great Things Today, Bright Future

While a range of challenges and important issues lie ahead for the US-ROK relationship, the foundation on which to solve these issues is strong and growing. We have a storied history together. We are doing great things together each and every day. And, as our partnership continues to develop and expand into new areas, I see a bright future ahead for the United States and the Republic of Korea and for our stronger-than-ever Alliance.

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United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea