ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2003-0211-SHH

Korea-U.S. Relations:
Shared Challenges and Tasks for the Future

Seok Hyun Hong

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3289
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic Sketch & Links: Seok Hyun Hong

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge a contribution of this paper of Seok Hyun Hong to ICAS which he delivered at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D C, February 11, 2003. sjk]

Korea-U.S. Relations:
Shared Challenges and Tasks for the Future

Seok Hyun Hong
Chairman, Publisher and CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo
& President of the World Association of Newspapers(WAN)

Thank you. It is a great honor for me to be here at the distinguished and prestigious Heritage Foundation in this city about which I have many fond personal memories. Washington is like a home away from home for me. This is where I began my career at the World Bank and where two of my three children were born.

It is also an honor for me that the Heritage Foundation has invited me to speak with you about my views on the changes taking place in my country, about the relationship between our two countries, and especially about the shared challenges we face.

Let me first speak to the issue which faces us most starkly in my homeland, the nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea directed against South Korea, the U.S., and the world. For the second time since 1993, we face an immediate threat of North Korean proliferation of nuclear weapons with upgraded long- range missiles. This tactic has fueled a generational divide in South Korea. It is my view that my country must close that generational divide in order to successfully face the challenges of this new century. The Korean Peninsula is riding through turbulence generated by this and two other major issues.

First, there is a ground-swell of anti-American sentiment among many Koreans, ignited most recently by the incident in north of Seoul involving a U.S. military vehicle that killed two teenage girls. This accident threw fuel on a fire of simmering discontent in our youth, a youth which did not live through the struggle or pain of the Korean War and does not welcome people such as me, the older generation, and our sentiments and memories of "how it was."

Secondly, this generational divide combined with a sweeping emergence of national pride, grown from a relatively simple source, the World Cup Games last summer, and led to the election of a relatively progressive candidate as the new President of South Korea. The election of Roh Moo-hyun has brought an expectation that there will be a paradigm shift in Korea-U.S. relations.

I believe that some of these generational issues also face your country, and the Washington's interests are not far removed from ours. Also, I want to be clear that the views I express here are my personal views, but I hope that they will provide you some ideas for your discussions and concerns relating to the Korean Peninsula.

I will first focus on the historic background and significance of the dramatic change in Korean society as reflected in the presidential election last month, and how that relates to the important challenges facing Korea and our relationship with the United States. Then, in conclusion, I will ask that we put these changes and challenges in their proper perspective.

The election of Roh Moo-hyun as Korea's new president in December startled some world observers, and many of us in Korea. I do not think it would be a mistake to compare it to a peaceful, democratic coup by young voters in their twenties and thirties. The collective force or the 20/30-generation, as we call them, made full use of the new medium of the Internet, and united together in their desire for change. They voted in record numbers and overcame historic regional alliances to upset the status-quo of the older generation. We have now, in my country, a new era of political participation, charged with passionate emotions, and a different understanding of what our past means for our future.

The 20/30-generation knows the Korean War only from history hooks. Having known only the prosperity Korea has achieved in the past 20 years, war and its horrific consequences are, for them, an abstract and distant concept. These men and women became nationalists, something new in our culture, a pride sparked in June of 2002, the unforgettable month when our team went to the quarterfinals of the World Cup soccer championship. This nationalist pride led further to a sustained movement in favor of dynamic change, with whatever uncertainty it may bring, over the certainty of the status quo. While not quite the same as the anti-Vietnam war movement in your country, there are similarities, if in the mere fact they led a movement that created a new president in Roh Moo-hyun, rather than the expected election of the establishment candidate, Lee Hoi-chang.

The World Cup began the movement, and the tragic accident involving the military vehicle and the death of two of our countryís daughters, gave it additional force. As the December 19 national election approached, tens of thousands of our youth gathered on Seoulís main street of Gwanghwamun and in the City Hall plaza for peaceful, candlelight protests. They called for an apology by President Bush and a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement(SOFA), the legal foundation of U.S. military presence in Korea. They demanded a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea, and ignited among our youth an anti-American sentiment, despite our long friendship, history and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States.

There is no question that the United States did not help temper this anti- American sentiment. The U.S. government's position of treating this accident and these deaths according to the regulations and jurisprudence of a military tribunal, without, from the Korean point of view expressing sincere sympathy, understanding, and remorse, gave rise to even deeper feelings of damaged pride. Some accused the Korean government of being a mere servant to the U.S. and not a sovereign nation.

Unfortunately, these anti-American protests took root and then spread rapidly to many segments of Korean society. This is most unfortunate at this delicate time when cooperation between our two countries, as we face North Korea's escalating nuclear and strategic arms ambitions, is of paramount importance.

I want to reassure you that anti-Americanism is not the position of the mainstream of Korean society. Although President-elect Roh Moo-hyun won largely due to the overwhelming support of the 20/30 generation who protested against the United States, President-elect Roh has already explained very clearly to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that anti- American protests are limited to a very small group of Koreans.

Anti-American sentiments are not new in Korea. Recall that, in the early 1980s, students protested against the authoritarian South Korean regime of the time, and its ties to the United States. The 1980s protesters believed that the government was using its relationship with the United States to overcome questions about its legitimacy. Similarly, today's protests are based, in part, on the belief that Korea-U.S. relations continue the pattern of a decades-old relationship that is one-sided and unfair.

There is also a belief that the U.S. military presence in Korea acts as an obstacle to improving relations between South and North Korea in the short term, and to unifying the two nations in the long term. This belief, although held only by a small minority of Koreans, is supported, by what some view as a lost opportunity for swift progress after the hopeful climate of reconciliation following a summit meeting between North and South Korean leaders in June 2000. The Sunshine Policy which led to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to our outgoing President, Kim Dae-Jung gave great hopes.

I believe it is accurate to say that anti-American sentiment is related in some ways to President Kim Dae-Jung's "sunshine policy" of engaging the North, as compared to what is surely the more confrontational, "axis of evil" characterization of the Bush Administration. The 2000 inter-Korean summit laid out a promise for peace which, I think, gave rise to false expectations among the Korean people. North Korea's hopeful words, which have not been supported by peaceful motions, have led some Koreans to believe that the North will never attack the South, and they believe that, even now, as we face an increasing threat from Pyeongyang. These Koreans have a greater fear of an attack by the United States on North Korea nuclear facilities and believe that appeasement of North Korea is possible.

But, again, I do not think that these beliefs of a small minority of Koreans are cause for serious concern over the long-term. What I am more concerned about is that America will be misled in thinking that things are worse than they really are.

The majority of Koreans, and especially people in their fifties and sixties, cast a wary eye on the radical opinions of the younger generation and worry about the possibility of a further spread of anti-American sentiment. We have just been through a presidential election, and the young people who successfully led electing the candidate of their choice will continue to have their voices heard. The challenge my country faces is to heed the voices of the young, to recognize and adapt to their new role in our society, and to educate them about our past, the brutality of war, and the suffering of the North Korean people under the military regime, so that our bright hope for peace can be realized.

By doing this, we can ensure that anti-American sentiment in Korea subsides. Our new leaders must build a strong consensus in Korean society that the Korea-U.S. alliance has provided a secure environment that has made our rapid economic development possible. Koreans must be reminded that America is our most trusted friend, and remember that a U.s. military presence on the Korean peninsula serves peace and stability in Korea, the the Asia Pacific region, and the United States.

These various factors combined with a new world order in the post-Cold War period and a new international threat made all too clear by the tragic events of September 11th, call for a new framework in the relationship between Korea and the United States. For American to heed the call for a boycott of Korean products, or for Americanís conservative journalists to over-react to anti-American protests will not help to resolve the issues. Indeed, creating a divide between our two nations is Pyeongyang's fondest hope.

President-elect Roh Moo-hyun has repeatedly said that Korea-U.S. relations must be based on a fair and equal footing. He has also said that the United States must acknowledge the role of the South Korean leader and government in considering the interests of the Korean people and the dignity and integrity of a sovereign nation.

In a speech at the Seoul International Forum, which is the Korean equivalent of Council on Foreign Relations, President-elect Roh declared himself to be a pragmatist. I believe this is a meaningful statement and a sign of hope. A pragmatic President Roh Moo-hyun will respect the need for secure borders and a balance of power in East Asia when he shapes the new paradigm in Korea-U.S. relations. The politician Roh Moo-hyun will not overlook the fact that sound conservatism remains the backbone of Korean society, and that he also was elected by support of the youth, and must reconcile the generational differences if he is to govern successfully.

There should be close and frequent consultations among the leaders of South Korea and the United States, a realistic view and reaction from public opinion leaders, and an expansions of youth, cultural, and artistic exchanges between our two countries.

Just as there is a generational divide emerging in Korea, there may be a divide between how the Korean and the American people view the current precarious situation with North Korea.

The starting point for Korea is that there should never be another war on the Korean Peninsula. We start with this unequivocal belief and then work to arrive at the unwavering determination that a crisis must be resolved through dialogue and negotiations. To Korea, the possibility of a retaliatory attack by North Korea in the event that its nuclear facilities are attacked by the United States is very real, as is the genuine threat or ruin that will be an inevitable outcome of war on the Korean Peninsula.

It may be difficult to reconcile this Korean concern with the U.S. intention to use all means to halt nuclear proliferation. If the Bush Administration made a military strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, the Korean people would loudly object, not out of brotherly feelings toward the North, but because we fear war.

It could appear, after a series of North Korean actions, including last July's announcement to adopt some market-oriented functions and establish a special economic zone project in Sinuiju, that the nuclear program is an opening card in a negotiation for greater international assistance. In that case, with the right justification and measurable steps toward disarmament, North Korea and United States will be able to enter dialogue and resolve the nuclear issue.

But, if, on the other hand, the intelligence reports of an internal struggle between moderates in the North Korean Peoples Party and military hard- liners over the survival of the regime are accurate, then our sharply heightened alarm is more than justified. If, in fact, the hard-liners have won, we must revise our analysis of their intentions in the nuclear program and the long-range missiles threat.

My hope is that these questions will be answered soon, either through dialogue between the United States and North Korea or through the inter- Korea ministerial conference in Seoul. But until we know North Korea's intentions, neither the United States nor Korea should over-react to every feint or jab that North Korea makes. We must keep in mind the big picture, the trilateral relationship of Seoul, Pyeongyang and Washington. We need to react in a measured and intelligent way to North Korean actions. And everything must be done to stop the North from crossing the bridge of no return.

As we all know, that would risk upsetting the entire Northeast Asian geopolitical structure. Four major countries -- China, Japan, Russia and the United States --come together with interest on the Korean peninsula. The quality and durability of these relationships is the core of Korean diplomacy. There is very little disagreement among the Korean people that a top priority for our national interest is working with the United States, and other nations, to maintain a regional balance of power.

Northeast Asia defies accurate political and economic predictions. Who would have thought 10 years ago, for example, that the Japanese economy would fall into a deep and prolonged slump?

Who believed that after the end of the Cold War in 1989 that China would be able to hang onto single-party dictatorial rule, while conducting a successful experiment in socialist capitalism to achieve sustained high economic growth? And who would have foreseen that in Korea, a close and trusted ally of the United States, there would be chants of "Yankee, go home!"?

But I believe that if we act today out of short term fears, we jeopardize our long term future. Yes, we have a serious crisis and a neighbor that is an outlaw, and threatens our status quo. In my view, this turn of events is regrettable and deplorable, but should not be surprising. All international diplomacy can be predictable in that it will be unpredictable, with consistent ups and downs.

This is a precious opportunity to reaffirm the friendship and the spirit of cooperation in US-Korean relations. We take encouragement from the Bush Administrationís principle that the nuclear issue should be addressed through dialogue. In January, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke of the need for a new framework to replace the 1994 Agreed Framework. That is just one of many indications of the United States' determination to find a peaceful resolution, and it deserves the applause of the international community and the thanks of the Korean people.

The influence of the Heritage Foundation is almost common knowledge in the United States. I would also like to say that your role will be essential in resolving the threat to the security of Northeast Asia created by the North Korea nuclear program. I believe that with close cooperation between Korea and the United States, together with multilateral consultations with other nations, we will together overcome any challenge that stands before us.

As the chief executive of a leading media group in Korea, and as a person who takes pride in loving and understanding the United States, I assure you that I will do all that I can to work to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue and calm what remains of anti-American sentiment in Korean society.

This year marks the centenary of Korean immigration to the United States. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. alliance. The Korean people and the American people have accomplished so much in the past 50 and 100 years. Korean students fill the university campuses of America, and people educated in the United States are leaders in Korean society. The infrastructure of Korea-U.S. relations is strong, and will not crumble because of the protests of our youth or threats from the North. 2003 will be the start of another century and another 50 years of a new relationship between our countries.

I look forward to your wisdom and advice.

Thank you.

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