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The Enduring Republic of Korea-United States Alliance

The relationship between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States (US) has been one of the most exemplary bilateral alliances since World War II.

Looking back at history, I would like to remind you that Korean and American soldiers fought with troops from 20 other nations under the United Nations flag to repulse communist aggression. During those three years of the Korean War, the US sustained 34,000 casualties in battle alone. Over 54,000 American lives were lost, 80,000 wounded and 8,200 missing in action. Korea also paid a heavy toll. One hundred and thirty-eight thousand of our soldiers were killed, 450,000 were wounded and 19,000 remained unaccounted for. Civilian deaths on both sides of the battle numbered in the millions.

Again in Vietnam, Korean and American soldiers fought side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. 

This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. The Korean people will not and must not forget the sacrifices and contributions of the brave soldiers from the United States. Every time I visit the Korean War Memorial at the Washington Mall, I cannot read the inscription on the ground without feeling deep emotion and profound gratitude.  It says: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” The motto of the Korean War Memorial, “Freedom is not Free,” is even more powerful and poignant.

In the wake of September 11, noncombatant troops from the ROK have engaged in the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, and my government is also closely coordinating with the US government in response to unfolding developments in Iraq.

This October the ROK and the United States will also observe the 50th Anniversary of our Mutual Defense Treaty. For the last half a century, the United States has been Korea’s only formal treaty ally. During this period, we have overcome the ruins and ravages of the War, poverty, and trying years of authoritarian regimes. We have weathered through incessant and often violent and bloody domestic turmoil not to mention the intermittent terrors, infiltrations and subversive acts North Korea has perpetrated against the South. At long last, democracy and a free market are now firmly rooted in the Republic of Korea. America, our closest ally, and Korea can indeed celebrate this moment knowing that all of the contributions, services and sacrifices America has rendered to my country throughout these years have not been in vain after all.

New Developments in Korea

In light of all the news concerning North Korea, I would like to share with you some positive developments taking place on the Korean peninsula. In February, President Roh Moo-hyun was inaugurated as the 16th president of the Republic of Korea. Considering the dark and difficult military authoritarian dictatorship Korea had been under for more than three decades, this transfer of power was no small political feat.

The transportation corridors are now open to allow South Korean tourists into the North through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and for the first time separated families from the South have passed through the DMZ to meet their relatives in the North.

The east and west coast rail links through the DMZ will also be reconnected soon.  After nearly 60 years of territorial division and human separation on the peninsula, this relinking, in my opinion, will be comparable in symbolism and substance to the beginning of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall.

North Korea

Since North Korea’s nuclear issue is currently dominating international headlines, I’d like to make a few remarks on this topic.

As this issue unfolds, President Roh vowed to continue the engagement policy of the previous administration under a new name, the policy of peace and prosperity. He laid out four key principles:

  • First, the South will continue to engage with the North through dialogue;
  • Second, the inter-Korean dialogue will take place within a spirit of mutual trust and reciprocity;
  • Third, the two Koreas should be the principal players in inter-Korean relations with the concomitant support of the international community;
  • Fourth, inter-Korean policies will be pursued with public consensus. In this context, President Roh has vowed to enhance government transparency, expand citizen participation and secure bipartisan support of his policies.

Having said this, I would now like to outline my government’s position on the North Korean nuclear issue. Four points are in order here.

One, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, both uranium and plutonium-based, is unacceptable under any circumstances, and should be irreversibly dismantled in a prompt and verifiable manner.

Two, North Korea is urged to fully comply with the safeguard obligations of the Nonproliferation Treaty. At this time, this issue has been referred to the United Nations Security Council.

Three, my government reaffirms its commitment to the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and urges North Korea to do the same.

Four, North Korea should refrain from any further action that might escalate tensions. As President Roh stated, “If the peace of the Korean peninsula were to be destroyed…we would not be able to cope with the resulting…calamity.”

My government, the US and Japan agree in principle that North Korea’s nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully and diplomatically through a multilateral framework in which the US and others can engage in dialogue with North Korea bilaterally. On March 13, Presidents Roh and Bush reaffirmed in a telephone conversation that both countries will continue to seek a peaceful resolution of this issue through diplomacy and close consultation.

However, three obstacles may stall progress: North Korea may refuse to accept this broad formula. Worse still, in the meantime, we may be unable to defuse or de-escalate tensions. The special status of the United States, acquired and maintained through more than half a century of sacrifices and contributions to my country and to the region, may be impaired. Therefore, we must quickly find some triggering mechanisms or modalities to break the stalemate and induce North Korea into accepting this broad formula.

President Roh remarked recently that a comprehensive solution to the North Korean question is urgently needed, but that mutual mistrust stands in the way. One way to overcome this obstacle is to provide North Korea with a security guarantee and economic assistance while North Korea in turn abandons its nuclear weapons program and missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.

The Republic of Korea, the US and Japan along with China, Russia, the European Union (EU) and other concerned countries must coordinate and cooperate with each other to achieve these ends.

As the saying goes, it is better to be late than never to choose the right course.  Time is critical here. It favors neither side. Let me stress that talk is better than no talk, and negotiation is no concession. What counts is the substance and results of the negotiation.

If over half a century of our cumulative track record of engaging North Korea is any guide, the inter-Korean peace process, the North Korea-Japan and North Korea-US dialogues, for that matter, have never been linear, but cyclical. These processes have encountered ups and downs, temporary progress and setbacks.* Over time, the cycle of dialogue and reconciliation gives way to deadlocks and confrontations and vice-versa.

However, one consistent pattern has emerged with the passing of time. The dialogue and conciliatory mode has prevailed in scope and depth. Therefore, the Republic of Korea, the United States, along with Japan and other friendly nations, will ultimately succeed in peacefully removing the Cold War glacier from the Korean peninsula to pave the way for reunification.  

ROK-US Relations

At this juncture, I would like to take a moment to address the issue of anti-Americanism in the Republic of Korea.

I am not, of course, denying that some segments of the population are anti- American, but they represent a tiny minority. The majority of Korean people are grateful to Americans for all of their sacrifices and contributions to our country. To put it differently, country-to-country, government-to-government and people-to-people relations between our two nations remain fundamentally solid and sound.

At any given time, a particular administration with a certain ideological leaning may pursue a policy different from that of a previous administration within a nation or its counterpart nation. And this is quite natural and even normal and healthy in the ongoing business of politics within a nation and interstate relations. The current situation between our two countries stems from this particular dynamic and is aggravated by the tragic deaths of two Korean middle school girls.

Our two countries have put together a special task force to explore ways to improve the procedural and operational aspects of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Those who demand another SOFA revision, amended less than two years ago, or the withdrawal of US forces, or confuse the real nature of current problems with anti-Americanism are misinformed. Even the demonstrators demanding a new SOFA amendment support the continued presence of US forces in Korea. Otherwise, why would they ask for a revision of the SOFA amendment? Besides, the candlelight demonstrators have now dwindled to a few at best. So, we must not over-react or become too excited about such incidents. The alliance between our two countries is enduring, and most importantly, Korea and America share core values of democracy, free market economy and human dignity.

Korea and America must renew our relationship from a fresh perspective and with mutual empathy. Three paradigm shifts must be taken into consideration: the fundamental changes in the demographic landscape of the ROK, its deepening and expanding relationship with the North and its rapidly changing interactions with its neighbors Japan, China, Russia and the EU. For example, our American friends must realize that over 80 percent of the South Korean population now belongs to what we call the post-Korean War generation. They are young, assertive, independent, well-educated, information technology (IT)-friendly, predominantly of urban upbringing and free from the baggage of Cold War ideology and poverty. They are best represented by the “Red Devils” who cheered Korea to the Final Four in the 2002 World Cup soccer games.

Koreans, on the other hand, must comprehend the extent to which the horror of September 11 has affected the innermost depths of the American psyche. The political, psychological, economic and security reverberations of this fateful day are still unfolding in America and beyond.  A stronger partnership can only be forged when our two countries pay close attention to each other’s changing needs and realities.

Let me conclude by saying that peace at home and abroad, whether in the context of interpersonal, intergroup or interstate relations, start from the ability and commitment to understand and appreciate the feelings, concerns and interests of others. Sympathy and empathy are necessary. At a minimum, empathy is a must for cultivating and/or maintaining peace at home and abroad.

* Editor’s Note: According to The New York Times of March 23, 2003, North Korea said on March 22 that it “was postponing talks with South Korea, criticizing the South Korean government for beefing up its defenses after the start of the United States-led campaign against Iraq….North Korea [had been] scheduled to hold talks with Seoul starting on [March 25] to discuss economic exchanges.”

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Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United States