The ICAS Lectures


Future of US-ROK Alliance:
A View Toward the coming Presidential Summit

Kurt Tong

ICAS Spring Symposium

Humanity, Peace and Security
The Korean Peninsula Issues
May 21, 2009 1:00 PM -- 4:30 PM
Senate Dirksen Office Building Room SD 419
United States Senate
Captiol Hill, Washington, DC 20510

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Kurt Tong

Future of US-ROK Alliance:
A View Toward the coming Presidential Summit

Kurt Tong
Director, Office of Korean Affairs
United States Department of State

Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry to keep you waiting. Hopefully, that was a popular move so you all had a chance to take a break. I understand you've been going at it since early afternoon on Korean Peninsula issues, and it's nice to see people - I was sort of thinking everyone would already have left for the weekend, with the nice long weekend coming up, and I believe Congress is in recess next week. But it's good to have a chance to see everybody.

Just to preface before I begin. I'm required by my employers to make clear that my remarks are off the record, so any friends from the journalist community who are here, please feel free to take notes but not to send them on to the broader readership.

What I thought we could do today would be to review the state of the US-ROK Alliance, just kind of touch upon the general situation in that alliance, our goals for the future of the alliance, and then perhaps discuss a little bit the North Korea situation at the end of my remarks. This is a timely topic because President Lee Myung-Bak is coming next month. He'll arrive in Washington on the 15th, have his meeting with the President on the 16th, do some other activities and then depart on the 17th. It's a very important occasion in US-ROK relations. Although President Obama and President Lee had a meeting in London in April, this will be sort of their first real sit-down planning session for the future of the US-ROK Alliance, and so this is a very timely topic to be thinking about what that future should be.

To start with just a general run-down of the overall situation in the relations between the United States and the ROK, I think it's fair to say that really in many ways the relationship is as strong as it has ever been. This was not pre-ordained. As recently as 4 to 5 years ago, there were many people in the academic community and the policy community who were very concerned about the state of the alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. We've gone through some rough patches in direct discussions about the U.S. military presence in the ROK. We have had some difficulties in our coordination on relations with North Korea. We had some trade friction. The ROK was in an unsettled political state of mind following the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. A lot of factors led into sort of a situation where many people were handicapping, in the extreme case, the end of the alliance, but many people were predicting that it would be a very rocky situation and a difficult alliance to maintain over the long run.

Instead, a few years later we're in a position where I can stand here and declare that we're in the best situation that we've ever been, or at least equivalent to that situation. That's the result of a lot of hard work. It's also a result of a real kind of very clear-headed thinking by leadership in both countries and also by the public in both nations, reviewing what is really in their interests; is this an alliance that is something that is valuable to both countries? And basically coming out with the answer being yes, that for many reasons this is an alliance that we want to maintain, want to strengthen and deepen in the years ahead. So we're really looking to this June 16 meeting between President Lee and President Obama to be a milestone in the solidification of a long-term joint effort on many issues in a alliance relationship which is growing and expanding, rather than being defended against difficulties.

So just to run down the state of the relationship: for example, in the political sphere we have had very frequent interactions between our leaders over the last few years. I asked my staff recently to tabulate how many meetings took place - this is exclusive of the legislative branch and exclusive of sort of routine meetings at the Assistant Secretary level or below the Assistant Secretary level - but in government-government interactions beyond the routine, how many really substantive dialogues were there between senior U.S. government officials and senior ROK officials over the course of the year in 2008? And adding those up - and it was election year in the United States where there was less activity than usual in high level interaction, and having tabulated all those, they came up with a number in excess of 50. That's pretty significant - that every week - if you consider that there were never any vacations throughout the course of the year, there was at least one very substantive, unique interaction at the senior level between the two governments, pushing the ball forward on some major issue. That's the kind of healthy dialogue that we like to see.

In the economic sphere - I'll be quoting statistics that you're all familiar with - we have a very large economic relationship: $80 billion in bilateral trade. It continues to grow despite the slow-down generally of U.S. economic growth. The ROK is the 7th largest trading partner of the United States. The United States continues to be the 2nd largest trading partner of the Republic of Korea. We are the largest investor in the Republic of Korea. There's a great deal of portfolio investment from U.S. companies and U.S. private equity holders into the South Korean economy. Also a lot of investment in the other direction, both portfolio and long-term investment, and it's really a very vibrant and healthy economic relationship.

In the economic policy area, our cooperation in responding to this year's economic crisis has been exemplary. The United States participated in assisting with the stabilization of the exchange rate in South Korea through a line of credit from the U.S. Federal Reserve, not much of which was drawn upon, but it was an important signal to the markets at the time that helped stabilize the exchange rate which was moving around a little more quickly than was necessary. But beyond the bilateral, the cooperation in response to the economic crisis was also profound. Korea has joined the financial stability forum. It is a member of the G20 and will chair it next year. Our people in the Treasury Department and in the White House that work on financial stabilization and financial cooperation issues with foreign partners have said that Korea has really been one of our most valuable interlocutors in responding to the financial crisis, not because of the size of its economy - it's a very large economy, somewhere between 10th and 12th world's largest economy depending on which exchange rate you use to calculate things - but because of the policy response being very intelligent, very well thought out, and from the United States perspective, very much on target. President Lee emphasizing containing protectionism, financial stabilization and macro economic expansion, being very much consistent with our own view of what the international response should be to the financial and economic crisis of this year. In that area, also very positive news.

In the military-to-military cooperation area we've also had a couple of very good years in solidifying the cooperation and the alliance. Some of the legal bases of that have been improved over the last few years. The most important of these is agreement on transfer operational control of the military in war-time, already been transferred in peace time, but the transfer of war-time operational control to the ROK on April 17, 2012. That sort of is the - in a sense - the punctuation point on a long process of exchanging, not giving up responsibility per se by the U.S. military viz-a-viz the ROK military, but rather giving the ROK military the leadership role that it is capable of and deserves both in peace time and in war time. And that process of getting ready for operational control transfer in 2012 is going extremely well. There's a lot of background work getting ready for that, but it's proceeding on schedule and is a very well thought out process.

This year we signed a 5-year renewal of the Special Measures Agreement which is burden-sharing agreement whereby the ROK government provides a financial contribution to support the U.S. bases in the ROK. Having a 5-year agreement which is a very reasonable agreement was an excellent outcome. The best feature of it was that it was for 5 years so that for 5 years throughout the tenure of President Lee, we won't to have the annual debate over - should it be this amount or that amount? Should it be used in this way or that way? The two sides negotiated extremely well. Both sides compromised on different elements of the agreement and the agreement was reached and we have a solid basis for that aspect of the military alliance.

The planning for the Land Partnership Plan and the Yongsan Relocation Plan and the execution of those are now at full speed. The dates are later than anyone would have liked for both Yongsan Transfer and the Land Partnership Plan transfers, but the work is proceeding. Now there's active - it's no longer in a planning phase. It's in an execution phase and things seem to be going roughly according to schedule, according to the revised time lines. So that's also a good element.

And then finally a note on the military side. Due to the effort of a number of people up here on Capitol Hill we were able to upgrade the ROK's foreign military sales purchasing status to make it equivalent to that of NATO countries and Japan. So that the access for information and the approval process for foreign military sales is now the same as it is for all of our best allies around the world.

Finally in the people-to-people area, again a lot of improvements in recent years. The most important is the visa waiver program began this past winter. The lines outside our Embassy in Seoul which were frankly unnecessary because - I have many friends who are doing day-to-day visa interviews in the Embassy and they were bored out of their minds because they were interviewing people who were qualified - required to come there - stand in line - and get their approval to go and visit the United States. And it was a waste of human resources on both sides of the interview window. With the visa waiver program, the U.S. can concentrate its resources on visa fraud and on problem cases, and the Korean public can travel without this impediment to routine transport across the Pacific. That was a very important breakthrough and I think it's highly appreciated on the ROK side.

In smaller ways we've also tried to bolster the already deep academic exchange and student exchanges that happen between the U.S. and the ROK. South Korea is already our largest - if you include high school students - already our largest supplier of foreign students to the United States. If you exclude high school students, it's No. 3 behind a couple of rather populous countries - India and China. But Korea is very much a major source of students in the United States. We decided that wasn't enough, so we went ahead and set something up called the Work English Study Travel Program. The governments kicked it off. It's actually a largely private sector run program, but it's a program whereby people will get some financial assistance from the ROK government to come to the United States, study English for a certain period, and then have an internship at a U.S. corporation for a year. And the program seems to be going very well. I met with some of the students yesterday at the State Department. They seem quite happy with how it's going and they're eagerly awaiting their internship assignments which will start in a couple months, once they finish the language training phase.

So with all that as background and kind of a recital of our achievements, what are we looking to do going forward?

Well, the goal for this upcoming visit of President Lee, at least from the United States side, is to solidify the idea and the shared vision for a global alliance, a global comprehensive alliance between the two nations. This is an alliance that started as a relationship, a military relationship for a very specific purpose which was to defend the Republic of Korea from the aggression of North Korea starting in 1950. But based upon that and with that as a steady constant part of the alliance relationship, the alliance has grown beyond that, first in a bilateral sense in the economic relationship that I was describing; in a political sense in the political relationship I was describing; in a people-to-people sense and also in a military sense as the ROK capabilities have now become frankly very much sufficient to defend itself.

With that as the basis, we now are in a position to take that alliance relationship and expand it beyond its original purpose of defense from North Korea, and think about what this alliance can achieve both regionally and globally. I think that the response from the South Korean side to this concept has been enthusiastic and really a sense of ready to go forward and try and accomplish things worldwide.

The reason why this is the case is - I think there are two reasons. One is - there's a shared set of fundamental values between the United States and the ROK. We both value human rights, democratic political systems, free market economies, and we have the shared objectives of peace and stability. So with that as a bedrock for communication and coordination, there's a lot of opportunity for the two sides to go forward. There's also a shared sense of the challenges which we face in the global arena, in the sense that the two sides working together can accomplish more than each separately.

There's a long list I've got here of areas that we hope to expand cooperation on in the future including terrorism - or not terrorism - counter-terrorism; counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating piracy, combating organized crime and narcotics. That's sort of the hard cooperation elements. But also things in the sort of softer area: climate change cooperation, global financial stability work, energy security, preventing spread of epidemic disease, overseas development assistance, and economic development generally in less privileged countries.

This is a shared agenda which we will be enunciating at the summit meeting of President Lee and President Obama, and really trying to push forward in the years ahead. There's already been a lot of achievements in this area. The ROK of course as you know sent a major contingent to Iraq for a number of years. The ROK has made large contributions to the effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There's a ROK naval vessel currently deployed off the coast of Somalia catching pirates, even pirates that attack North Korean ships. So it's an alliance which is really already achieving quite a bit.

Finally on North Korea policy. I think that in that area we're also in a very good position in terms of the coordination between the United States and the ROK. As I alluded to at the beginning of my remarks, there was a period where the United States and ROK were at least perceived as not always communicating as well as they should about North Korea policy, and not necessarily pulling in the same direction. We're now in a position where I can confidently say that I think we have a shared point of view on what the right future is for North Korea, how North Korea should be responding to the international offer for a better future for North Korea, and how we should respond when North Korea commits provocations, which it has done most recently, and hopefully will not do any more, but there is a possibility for that in the future as well.

So I think we're quite very much in lock-step. An important part of this coordination process has been the six-party talks which provided - although North Korea has not participated meaningfully in the six-party talks since last year, and you can argue that they didn't participate meaningfully in the last meeting of the six-party talks in December. The other parties continue to coordinate very actively and intensely to make sure that we're all pulling in the same direction. Ambassador Bosworth, one of my many bosses, was in the region last week visiting China, the ROK and Japan to coordinate policies. Sung Kim also ran off to Moscow to do the same thing. The messages that we are receiving back and the messages that we are delivering were very much in parallel. Right now it's really just a shared sense of disappointment among all five parties that were cooperating with North Korea that North Korea has chosen temporarily at least to step down the wrong path and seems to be headed in the - at least in recent days - in the wrong direction. But it's also a shared sense of patience and resolve that if we can send consistent messages and make it clear to North Korea that they are pursuing the wrong policy, the wrong policy direction, that they will understand the error of their ways and come back to a more responsible dialogue where we can actually achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establish a more stable and peaceful situation on the Korean Peninsula.

So I've prattled on long enough. I imagine you all might have some questions or maybe just want to go out and enjoy the sunshine. So either way works for me. We have a panel of experts here - a very knowledgeable group. I'm not sure whether they're going to hold up score cards and rate my dive here - how I did. But we'll take it from there. Thank you.

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