The ICAS Lectures


Korea-US Relations:
Past, Present and Future

Tae Sik Lee

ICAS Annual Liberty Award
Humanity, Peace and Security

The Northeast Asian Issues

December 7, 2007 Friday 6:30 PM - 9:00 PM

Sheraton University City Hotel
Benjamin Franklin Ballroom
36th and Chestnut Streets,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Tae Sik Lee

Korea-US Relations:
Past, Present and Future

Tae Sik Lee

Dr. Klein, thank you very much for that kind introduction.

Madam Chairperson, ICAS fellows, and distinguished guests,

It is truly an honor to receive the annual ICAS Liberty Award -- and to be the first Korean Ambassador to join this eminent list.

Since 1973, ICAS has successfully carried out its mission to enhance cooperation and friendship between the United States and Korea through a wide range of community and academic activities. What is more, you have relied on the volunteer spirit to do this.

Besides the honor of being invited by ICAS, it is great just to be in Philadelphia, birthplace of freedom and democracy in the United States - and a city that also means a great deal to Korea and Korean-Americans.

In addition to the fact that many Koreans can recognize the famous "Rocky" steps -- or appreciate a fine Philly cheese-steak -- Philadelphia is important as the home of one of the earliest and most famous Korean-Americans, Dr. Seo, Jae Pil - Philip Jaisohn.

As many of you may know, Dr. Seo was a patriot -- an active independence fighter; as well as a pioneer -- the first Korean to receive a medical degree in the United States and the first Korean to become a US citizen. Always engaged in contributing to the community, Dr. Seo sets an example well worth emulating.

In fact, I want to let you know that in recognition of Dr. Seo's achievements, the Korean Embassy will dedicate a statue in his honor in front of our Consulate in Washington, D.C.

So again, I want to say that receiving this prestigious Liberty award in this City of Brotherly Love , of ICAS, and of Dr. Seo makes me feel especially honored tonight.

I would like to take this opportunity to speak about our dynamic Korea-US alliance - in particular some of our accomplishments this past year, as well as future challenges and prospects.

(Alliance Background/Veterans)

As you may be aware, the Korea-US relationship actually originated 125 years ago, with the Treaty of Peace, Amity Commerce and Navigation of 1882.

But it was only on the crucible of War, some 50 years ago, that our modern alliance was formed and began to take shape.

Therefore, in my tenure as Ambassador, I have made it a priority to seek out Korean War veterans wherever I can -- as they represent the earliest and most difficult chapter of our alliance. Without their service, there would be no story to tell.

In concert with my travels to promote the FTA and our Korea-US relationship, I have also made it a personal mission -- on behalf of my fellow Koreans -- to thank the local veterans for their service and their sacrifice.

To date, I have had the honor of meeting with almost 1500 distinguished veterans in the course of 37 meetings in 26 cities -- most recently this morning when I visited the impressive Philadelphia Korean War Memorial and then hosted local veterans for breakfast.

My main message to these courageous men is that they are our heroes -- and we remember them. And I hope they now believe that Korea was a country worth saving ... a people worth protecting ... and a war worth fighting.

(Transforming the Alliance)

As veterans represent the very foundation of our alliance, one way we can honor their service is to build on their efforts, to ensure that our relationship is equipped to meet the challenges of the future.

To this end, we are working to modernize our partnership across the whole spectrum of fields: political, military, economic and cultural.

(Political Upgrades)

First, on the political front, both Korea and the US share common values such as freedom, democracy and justice. Or, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, we believe in the right of people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Because we consider these principles to be essential to human existence, they are our guiding lights -- the pillars of our political system and the foundation of our very way of life.

Although it took Korea a few decades to firmly root these democratic principles into our society, we have achieved something that even most advanced democratic countries have taken centuries to do. I am confident in saying that Korea is the leading democracy in our region.

Given our shared ideology, Korea and the United States have begun regular strategic dialogues on bilateral, regional and global affairs. In this context, our two nations are working together on such vital global concerns as terrorism, WMD proliferation, human rights, poverty, and the environment.

(Military Transformation)

The second area we are working to modernize is our military alliance. I should note that Korea's alliance with the US remains the sole alliance to which our country has committed. And although it was born of necessity, the ROK-US alliance has been tested and strengthened over the years, as we continue to make it more effective and efficient.

For example, until now, the United States has maintained 37,000 troops in Korea. But in the coming years, this level will be reduced by one-third, to 25,000. Also, traditionally, US forces have been concentrated along the DMZ. But again, in a few years, American troops will be moved to the central or southern part of the country and wartime operational control will be handed over to the Korean military in 2012.

One might be tempted to view these changes as counter to strengthening the alliance. But in fact, having Korean troops assume the leading role at the DMZ shows just how much the Korean military capability has grown, while adding to the existing strength and flexibility of the US military.

For the United States, this kind of transformation also conforms to the demands of its new strategic paradigm in the wake of 9-11. This puts the US in a much better position to oversee the overall security of the region and to become more efficient globally.

As we continue to adapt to the changing international order, we believe both sides will benefit, as will the alliance as a whole.

(Economic Change & the FTA)

The third aspect of our alliance undergoing transformational change is economic. When the Korea-US relationship began, Korea was experiencing abject poverty in the aftermath of a devastating war.

But through the alliance, our country was able to achieve miraculous economic growth without having to divert an overly burdensome amount of attention to security.

Korean economic progress was accompanied by democratic development and respect for human rights, which in turn has allowed Korea to become a mature economic partner for the United States. Nowhere is this shown more dramatically than by the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, which was signed on June 30th this year.

The KORUS FTA, as it is called, is literally a big deal -- the biggest bilateral pact since our Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953.

Bilateral trade between Korea and the US reached nearly 80 billion dollars in 2006, making Korea the United States' 7th largest trading partner -- ahead of France, Brazil and India.

Given the size and scope of our economic relationship, it is not hard to imagine the economic significance of a Korea-US FTA. Our FTA covers nearly three times the combined goods of the other three pending FTAs - those with Peru, Panama, and Colombia. Indeed, Korea is the United States' biggest FTA partner in more than a decade.

The KORUS FTA will bring enormous benefits to both countries.

For the US, the USITC predicts that through this FTA, the economy will see a 10 to 12 billion dollar boost. To put this in perspective, that is the equivalent of 100-115 dollars in added income for each household in America. For example, that means you can go out for dinner with your family one or two extra times - or make a nice donation to the charity of your choice. It may not sound like a big deal, but given the size of the US economy, it adds up.

For Korea this agreement is important because about 70 percent of Korea's GDP comes from trade. With the FTA, Korea will become more competitive in the most important market in the world. Furthermore, this FTA is a hallmark of Korea's sustained effort to reform and open its economy.

For both countries, this FTA will consolidate a new dimension of our alliance: our economic partnership. This economic component is even more far-reaching than the military aspect of our alliance, as the main beneficiary is the free market private sector. By broadening our common commitments, this FTA will reinforce our security cooperation while further strengthening our overall Korea-US alliance.

Although we believe that this FTA is truly a win-win deal, we are facing an uphill battle in both countries' legislatures. In Washington, the trade debate has become politicized and somewhat polarized.

I have met with almost 250 members of Congress to discuss various matters ranging from the North Korean nuclear issue and our alliance to Korea's participation in the Visa Waiver Program. But the FTA has been at the top of my agenda, and I am proud to say that we have been able to win the hearts of many Members who were not exactly thrilled about the Korea-US FTA - until they learned more about it.

My outreach to Congress has not been confined just to Capitol Hill. Whenever possible, I have joined Members back home in their districts to promote grassroots support for the Agreement. And I didn't just meet with the local business and community leaders; I went to a school in one district, church in another... Recently I even had a pretty good meeting on a boat (of course they were a captive audience).

So we are doing whatever it takes to have the chance to explain that the KORUS FTA will not only mean better choices for their consumers but -- more important - expanded opportunities for their local businesses and therefore a boon to their local economy.

You will probably not be surprised, then, that I would also like to ask for your support for this FTA in letting your voices be heard particularly with your Senators and Representatives. My Embassy will be happy to provide you with any information or details of the Agreement, if you have any questions at all!

(Cultural Exchanges)

In addition to the political, military and economic transformation taking place in our alliance, the fourth area benefiting from expansion is our cultural ties. There are now almost 800,000 Koreans visiting the US and nearly 200,000 Americans visiting Korea each year - for a total exchange of about one million people annually.

This year, the efforts of the Korean Embassy bore fruit with passage of legislation by the US Congress that will allow Korea access to the US Visa Waiver Program. If Korea can begin to benefit from the VWP program as early as this time next year, this will make traveling to the United States much easier, and allow for enhanced exchanges among our people.

Meanwhile, Korean food, music, art, cinema, literature, fashion -- and even television dramas -- are widely spreading in the US. In turn, the influence of American culture has always been quite substantial since the Korean War. But it is becoming much more mutual.

(Korea-US Alliance beyond the Nuclear Issue)

As we look ahead, the most pressing challenge now confronting our alliance remains the same as it has for several Ambassadors before me: resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

We appreciate the efforts of the Six Party nations to work out peaceful resolution of this pressing issue. Based on the previous agreement reached on October 3rd, we expect to get from North Korea a full declaration of all their nuclear programs as well as significant progress on disabling their key nuclear facilities by the end of the year.

Korea and the United States have worked very closely and intensively to resolve this matter. Nuclear North Korea is a threat not only to the Korean peninsula but also to the region and the world as whole. Our efforts to resolve this issue is one way a successful alliance can contribute to the world.

Once the nuclear issue is finally and fully resolved, we believe the Korea-US alliance will continue to play a vital role.

Given Korea's geography positioned among the great powers of Asia, we have suffered far too long as a pawn in their rivalry - first as a vassal state until the 19th century; then as a colony of a neighboring country; and after World War II, as a casualty of the ideological conflict of the Cold War.

With the breakout of the Korean War and the United States coming to our defense, however, this dynamic finally changed. Our alliance was born and Korea's independence was secured.

So after living for the first half of the century under foreign domination, we learned a critical lesson - that Korea needs the US alliance to ensure our security and stability.

No matter what political party comes to power in Korea, no matter when unification may occur, this will not change.

For its part, the United States needs Korea as a strong democratic ally, a strategic anchor and stabilizing partner in the dynamic and important Northeast Asian region. In addition, Korea's success represents a crown jewel of successful US foreign policy, and can serve as a model to others in the world.

(Summing Up)

In sum, throughout our history, the Korea-US alliance has successfully addressed all the challenges we have faced, chief among them, deterring war. Our relationship has not only stood the test of time. It has matured and flourished, to earn the distinction of one of the most successful alliances in history.

Through dramatic changes in the global order and domestic political changes alike, our alliance has proven fundamentally sound, and remarkably adaptable.

Before I close, let me take this opportunity to recognize the role of the Korean community in the United States in solidifying the Korea-US relationship. I hope you will keep actively engaging in the community, contribute to your neighborhood causes, and be sure also to get involved in the mainstream of American society.

Participation in the concerns of society is a key aspect of American democracy -- and the path that Philip Jaisohn blazed for us as well. I hope we can all take inspiration from both American and Korean patriots, and strive to follow in their footsteps.

Again, thank you very much for the Liberty Award; I will cherish it. Thank you.

stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a famous movie scene Nickname of Philadelphia

This page last updated 12/28/2007 jdb

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