Speeches: Assessing Threats Facing the U.S.-Korean Alliance
Thank you, Bob, for the introduction. I’m happy to be here at the Wilson Center and to contribute to a terrific program today.
On April 25th and 26th, President Obama visited the Republic of Korea for an unprecedented fourth time, to reaffirm our alliance, and more broadly, our truly comprehensive global partnership.
A month earlier in the former East German city of Dresden, President Park Geun-hye laid out her comprehensive vision for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula – just days after North Korea provocatively launched two medium-range ballistic missiles.
Next month, President Park will host Chinese President Xi Jinping in Seoul at a time when both Republic of Korea-China economic ties, and the region’s challenges, are increasing.
These events show the strength of our alliance, the threat it faces, the Republic of Korea’s growing confidence, and the changes taking place in the region – all highlighting South Korea’s prospects for an even brighter future, and the potential stumbling blocks on the way there.
You all know these issues, and the Korean Peninsula, extremely well. It’s an honor for me to be here with Minister Gong. I had the privilege of working with him in the ‘90s, when he was Foreign Minister, and I was head of Embassy Seoul’s Political External Unit under Ambassador Jim Laney. This was the era of the Agreed Framework. And frankly, Minister Gong was already a legend, having been involved in diplomacy since the 1950s.
It’s also great to see my good friend Minister Kim Sung-hwan. I got to know the Minister when I was the National Security Council staffer responsible for Korea. We can think back to the time when we were planning President Obama’s trip to South Korea, and President Lee’s state visit to Washington. As you know, President Obama has visited Seoul more than any other foreign capital. Minister Kim’s role behind the scenes was absolutely essential to establishing a strong relationship between the two leaders.
Over two decades of working with the Republic of Korea, I’ve seen the Alliance modernize and relations between our countries grow and evolve.
And they’ve advanced markedly under President Obama, who developed close ties with former President Lee Myung-bak, and now with President Park Geun-hye. I want to underscore up front that the growth in our relationship, and the scope of what our two nations do together, has been driven in large part by South Korea’s incredible progress, in just a few generations, from a nation ravaged and impoverished by war, to a modern, democratic, prosperous global power.
Naturally, the threat posed by North Korea has been an enduring focal point of our alliance for sixty-plus years now. That threat – specifically the DPRK’s nuclear, ballistic missile, proliferation programs is a grave threat, it is persistent threat, and it is a growing threat. But working together, the United States and the Republic of Korea are addressing it through a comprehensive, principled strategy that uses all the tools at our disposal – economic, diplomatic, and military.
Militarily, we deter the North by maintaining a robust, increasingly interoperable alliance. It features some of the best-trained, best-equipped warfighters in the world. Diplomatically, we work hand-in-hand with each other, and with our other Six-Party partners and the broader international community, to hold North Korea to account. And economically, we have enacted, both domestically and multilaterally, extremely tough sanctions on the DPRK.
The strategy is to sharpen the DPRK’s choice: to raise the cost of continued defiance and effectively leave the DPRK no viable alternative but to honor its commitments and come into compliance with its international obligations—first and foremost—with its obligation to irreversibly and verifiably denuclearize. North Korea can never achieve security and prosperity while it pursues nuclear weapons. But we continue to make clear to North Korea that meeting its obligations and taking irreversible steps to denuclearize will put it on a path to attain the security, the economic development, and the international acceptance that it wants.
But while security is the focus of today’s event and North Korea is never far from our collective minds, let me emphasize that the U.S.-Republic of Korea relationship today goes far beyond a localized defensive alliance driven by the DPRK threat.
Today, if you’ll permit me, I’ll be ambitious and cover the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance in five parts: one, an overview of the challenges we face and America’s broader regional strategy, which provides context for the alliance; two, the Republic of Korea-U.S. global partnership; three, our bilateral relations, including security; four, regional challenges; and five, regional opportunities.
Challenges Facing the Alliance and America’s Strategy for the Asia-Pacific Region
As I said: there is a single overarching threat to the alliance, which comes from North Korea. But the alliance also faces at least three principal challenges, as I see it.
First: expanding our vision for what our alliance can accomplish. Our ambition should reflect South Korea’s increased economic power, military capacity, and global role. This is a happy challenge to face.
Second: executing the “nuts and bolts” modernization of our defense relationship. This includes continuing to upgrade equipment and training to improve interoperability, and also working out the transfer of wartime operational control. It includes sorting out how to keep our alliance politically sustainable, and how, for example, to resolve land use issues when cities grow to reach the edges of our bases. It also includes addressing the costs that come from keeping U.S. troops in a highly developed, increasingly expensive country.
Third: ensuring that our alliance adapts to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities of changing dynamics in the region. These include China’s rise, ASEAN’s growing centrality, and Japan’s revitalized economy and renewed political stability.
The regional context includes America’s sustained rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. This is a sophisticated audience, so I won’t review the full rationale and history of the rebalance. But briefly, it started when President Obama took office in 2009 and, with a view to America’s economic recovery and future, decided to make the region a strategic priority and approach it as an integrated whole.
As a result, the U.S. set about reinvigorating our treaty alliances in the region; we upgraded our engagement in regional fora such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit; we focused more time and attention on emerging powers in the region; and we strengthened cooperation and economic ties with longtime friends and newer partners – taking a holistic approach through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative, which brings together several nations with common interests, and launching Energy Partnerships and other initiatives.
Our Global Partnership
Over the last couple of decades, the Republic of Korea has emerged as a positive force for security, stability, and prosperity across the globe. South Korea’s position has been strengthened immeasurably by its phenomenal performance – the Miracle on the Han with its equally important economic and political components – and its willingness, even eagerness, to share its success with the world. As a result, as I mentioned, we’ve developed an increasingly comprehensive global partnership. It is underpinned by strong economic and people-to-people ties, shared values of democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law, and, of course, our alliance – the linchpin of peace and security in the region.
Our burgeoning global partnership with the Republic of Korea really shows what two countries can do when they make an affirmative decision to rally behind shared interests and shared values. Development is one example: sixty years ago, the United States provided development assistance and sent Peace Corps volunteers to South Korea. Now KOICA – the Republic of Korea’s Peace Corps equivalent, is the second largest international volunteer corps in the world.
Korea’s rapid development – its economic miracle and democratization – inspire striving nations all over the world. Now, the Republic of Korea plays an important role in advancing global economic and financial stability through its membership in the G20. Today, both the U.S. and the Republic of Korea offer assistance and paths to peace and development to countries that seek our help.
The Republic of Korea is also a global leader on nuclear security. Few countries better understand the threat of nuclear weapons, and South Korea works well beyond its own neighborhood to advance our shared vision for a nuclear-weapons-free world. It hosted leaders from around the world for the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. The Republic of Korea has been a close partner in addressing concerns with Iran’s nuclear program, helping to implement the Joint Plan of Action through the P5 + 1 negotiating process. And we collaborate on a wide range of nonproliferation and counter-proliferation issues.
South Korea has also worked closely with us to support the mission to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. In Afghanistan, our troops have served side by side while our development personnel have worked together to help that country build a foundation for its future. And our work together extends well beyond security.
The scope of our collaboration to advance science and human development is impressive – we engage in far-sighted scientific research in fields from nanotechnology to earth sciences, as well as clean energy technologies like smart grids and fuel cells that may soon be making a difference in the lives of all of us. We work together on practical applications of science in fields such as advanced manufacturing and aeronautics. We have important roles to play in address climate change. And we’re helping people in immediate need by promoting maternal and child health in Ghana and Ethiopia, and working together on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, particularly in Southeast Asia.
As you can see, our global partnership is extensive, touching almost every continent. And while I know this conference is focused on threats and challenges facing the alliance, I think the starting point should be the alliance’s fundamental strengths.
First of all, our bilateral relationship has never been stronger, and it touches every field of human endeavor.
Our economic relationship has never been closer. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement took effect just over two years ago, and last year, we had $125 billion in bilateral trade. Our people-to-people ties also continue to grow. In the last decade-and-a-half, the number of Korean-Americans has gone up 41 percent, to a total of more than 1.7 million – including World Bank President Jim Kim, and our friend and immensely talented Ambassador in Seoul, Sung Kim, and many more distinguished Americans.
And of course, as I indicated, our security ties are also strong and enduring. America’s commitment to South Korea’s security remains unwavering, and we continue to strengthen our combined defensive posture on the Peninsula. We are constantly working to improve readiness and interoperability in order to meet existing and emerging security threats. This includes shared investment in ballistic missile defense and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Our new Special Measures Agreement provides important resources to help sustain the presence of U.S. Forces in Korea. This agreement is yet one more proof point that both nations are politically and economically committed to making our alliance even more sustainable and adaptable.
But more important than any single proof point is the strength of our people-to-people ties. For example, President Obama’s passionate interest in and respect for Korea’s commitment to education is matched only by Korean interest in American educational institutions – there are more Korean students studying in the U.S. than those from Canada and Mexico combined.
Let me also share one personal vignette. The visit by President Obama to Seoul in April was meticulously planned. But, frankly, in the course of the visit, to mea at least, the most moving moment – the moment I will remember forever – was a spontaneous, heartfelt act at the Blue House, when President Obama, speaking for all Americans, expressed condolences for those lost in the Sewol tragedy, and called for a moment of silence in their honor.
What our two leaders, what our two nations, what our two peoples, shared at that moment, says as much about the strength of our alliance as anything I could say.
Let me turn to the regional challenges. At the same time that South Korea has strengthened its alliance with the U.S., it has also pursued peace and prosperity in a very complicated neighborhood.
In the face of North Korea’s hostile rhetoric and its threats to carry out new provocations, President Park has remained steadfast in maintaining a strong, principled posture and in insisting that the nuclear issue cannot be set aside. But at the same time, she has been consistently extending a hand to the North and laying out a step-by-step process for building trust across the DMZ. She has demonstrated convincingly how the North could benefit economically from steps toward reconciliation and denuclearization. And the United States firmly supports this vision for peaceful reunification.
The United States also shares her compassion and concern for the North Korean people.
We are deeply troubled by the deplorable human rights violations taking place in North Korea today, graphically detailed by the recent U.N. Commission of Inquiry. We will continue to work closely with the Republic of Korea and others across the international community to seek protection and a better life for the victims of repression, and accountability for the victimizers.
In just a couple of weeks, Seoul will host a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping. This is an extraordinary milestone, and it should be helpful in promoting needed cooperation on North Korea. It is particularly gratifying for me, personally, since I played a small role in helping to facilitate early contacts between Seoul and Beijing in the beginning of the 1990’s when I served at the United Nations – alongside a talented South Korean diplomat named Yun Byung-se, when he was stationed at the Republic of Korea observer mission at the U.N.
The United States fully supports South Korea’s efforts to build strong ties with its neighbors. The flourishing relationship between China and South Korea clearly demonstrates that our alliances in the region are a force for stability and integration, and that active U.S. engagement is good for the Asia-Pacific region.
At the same time, and in contrast to improvements with China, relations between Korea and Japan remain strained. Both countries have compelling shared interests – both are free-market economies, stable democracies, influential regional actors. Both are crucial U.S. allies. The Director General-level dialogue between Japan and Korea on historical issues is an important instrument for working through sensitivities. And the meeting hosted by President Obama last March in The Hague, which brought President Park and Prime Minister Abe together to confer trilaterally on North Korea, was an important milestone.
There is hard work ahead for both sides. This cannot be done by one party alone. And the hard work is made more difficult by politicization and by the erosion of trust. But it’s hard work that is made more imperative by the pressing need for cooperation. South Korea and Japan are two of our most important allies, and cooperation between them and trilaterally among us is essential – not just to address the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea; not just to manage contingencies on the Peninsula; but to advance all of our interests and values globally.
…and Regional Opportunities
There are also opportunities along with those challenges. Our strong modern alliance and global partnership positions the Republic of Korea and the United States to seize opportunities throughout the region.
We are working together to build up the region’s political and economic institutions, which, as I mentioned, is a key aspect of the rebalance. For example, South Korea has stepped up its interactions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This includes active participation in the “ASEAN plus three” group. It includes President Park’s participation in the East Asia Summit, an ASEAN-convened meeting of 18 of the region’s leaders. And it includes Korea’s strong role in helping to build up ASEAN’s maritime security and disaster relief capacities.
In APEC, the U.S. and Republic of Korea work closely with 19 other member economies from across the Asia-Pacific to expand trade and investment, promote sustainable growth, and strengthen regional ties. For example, we are working closely with South Korea to strengthen cross-border education and skills development; increase economic opportunities for women; and develop capacity building programs to enhance the ability of economies to participate in high quality trade agreements.
We also welcome South Korea’s interest in a hugely important project, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Although our focus right now is on concluding the negotiations with the current 12 members, we are committed to continuing to consult closely with the Republic of Korea on meeting the high standards of the TPP, and to address specific areas of concern. The TPP is an ambitious, comprehensive, and high standard agreement that will promote growth and create jobs both at home and in the region, and includes economies that represent nearly 40 percent of global GDP.
Northeast Asia is a complex region with shifting dynamics, and new challenges will continue to rise. But there is one constant: the friendship between the American people and the Korean people, backed by our unwavering alliance commitment. Korea and the United States signed our first treaty of peace, amity, commerce and navigation 132 years ago. We have been allies for more than sixty years.
More recently, we have built a truly remarkable comprehensive global partnership. I believe that there is much, much more that we can do together and I’m counting on the sessions this afternoon to shed light on ways to increase our cooperation and the effectiveness of our alliance.
With that, let’s open it up for discussion.