Northeast Asian Dynamism and the U.S.-R.O.K. Alliance: Past, Present, Future

Daniel R. Russel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
The 3rd US-ROK Dialogue at the Wilson Center
Washington, DC
September 15, 2015

Thank you for the kind introduction. I see many familiar and friendly faces here today – at least three former Ambassadors, eminent researchers, scholars and journalists – people who have rendered great service to both our republics, and from whom I have learned much about Korea. The Wilson Center clearly draws a good crowd, and it’s a privilege to be back.

Last year, this event was focused on threats facing the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance, and I flagged our global partnership and the opportunities in front of us. This year, you’re focused on “dynamism” and the future. This year’s theme is appropriate because we are at a true high-water mark in our relationship.

Our economies are closer than ever as implementation of our KORUS trade agreement moves forward. This is something that should help both our nations weather the economic uncertainty we’ve seen lately in Northeast Asia.

  • Two years after the anniversary of our mutual defense treaty, - the hwangab - our alliance is stronger than ever. We’ve seen this most recently in the outstanding coordination between the R.O.K. and the United States in response to the North’s latest provocations along the DMZ.
  • Our leaders have built a very close relationship, and President Obama looks forward to welcoming President Park to the White House next month.
  • The partnership between an increasingly “global” Korea and a resilient and increasingly "rebalanced" U.S. is yielding real results – and there’s still plenty of room to grow.
  • This partnership is strengthened immensely by the close bonds between millions of Koreans and Americans – students, businesspeople, soldiers, and scholars - people who know the best sundubu spots in Annandale, and the hip hop clubs of Hong dae.

I’ll speak to all our areas of cooperation, but first, since this is a conference about Northeast Asia, let me say a few words about the regional context.

I just returned a few days ago from a trip that included stops in Mongolia and China. And of course since we last met, Prime Minister Abe visited Washington and there have been important – and positive – developments in Korean-Japanese relations.

Mongolia is a great friend to both of us. As a maturing democracy, I think Mongolia looks to both the United States and the R.O.K. for inspiration and for help. Let's give it to them!

In Ulaanbaatar a week ago, I met with government officials, and with young Mongolians who have studied in the United States. And I left with optimism for Mongolia’s future. In addition, with just 3 million people, and despite profound strategic and economic challenges, Mongolia is making extraordinary regional contributions in areas like peacekeeping and democracy promotion.

In Beijing, I worked on preparations for President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Washington. This visit comes at a time when the challenges facing China and the complexities of its international relationships are on vivid display. China’s neighbors have serious concerns, as do we, about its actions in the South and East China Seas. These broad concerns about China’s behavior also carry over to other areas, including cyber, currency, and human rights.

And China’s draft NGO management law, and other pending rules and legislation, have problematic provisions that, if enacted, would be disadvantageous to the strong unofficial relations that so many organizations and citizens have devoted decades to developing.

Without getting ahead of my colleagues at the White House, I can safely say that all of these concerns will be on President Obama’s agenda when the leaders meet. At the same time, the leaders will also discuss areas of cooperation – ways to promote global economic growth and strengthen our strong cooperation on climate in advance of the Paris talks. Ways to continue our joint pursuit of North Korean denuclearization and full implementation of the Iran agreement; and to advance our work to stabilize Afghanistan and promote global health and sustainable development.

The fact is, even as many of our areas of disagreement with China attract public attention, we are steadily and methodically expanding bilateral coordination. This is important, because cooperation between the two largest Pacific powers, the world’s two largest economies, is essential to making progress on some of the most difficult challenges the international community confronts. This is in everyone's interest.

I mentioned the visit to Washington of the Japanese Prime Minister Abe, which represented an important step forward in our alliance and global partnership. The expected passage of security legislation this month will open the door to greater Japanese contributions to peace and security.

Similarly, the conclusion of TPP (although I won't try to say which month!) will open the door to a new era of free trade and economic growth.

A strong relationship between our allies South Korea and Japan serves all of our interests -- it is critical to the national security of all three countries. And as democracies that share and respect universal values, as advanced economies driving global prosperity; as generous peoples committed to helping other nations develop and succeed, we three are natural partners.

This Administration has supported all sincere efforts to deal with historical legacy issues in a manner that promotes healing and reconciliation for all parties. So I commend both governments for their constructive handling of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, and the good faith and seriousness of purpose they demonstrate in working to address sensitive issues.

Good relations between South Korea and China are also important to the region. We benefit in a number of ways from the strengthening of Korea-China ties over the last few years and will continue to state our support publicly. President Xi’s landmark visit to Seoul, and President Park’s meetings in Beijing, were both positive developments. Improved bilateral ties benefit the world economy. And cooperation on North Korea benefits regional security.

The same must be said about trilateral relations.

Regularizing and deepening U.S. trilateral cooperation with Korea and Japan amplifies our voices on everything from key regional challenges to global priorities such as climate change and health security.

Cooperative relationships and open lines of communication among South Korea, Japan, and China are also critical to the region and the global economy. So I was relieved to hear, earlier this month, that the three leaders will at last meet again this Fall.

As the R.O.K. engages actively in the region and beyond, our coordination deepens as well. This extends way beyond defense.

Much of the credit goes to our outstanding Ambassadors, Mark Lippert in Seoul and Ambassador Ahn here in DC. And as they can attest, our leaders are in regular contact – not just when there’s a crisis. Secretary Kerry went to Seoul to deliver a landmark global cybersecurity policy speech over the summer, and just had a productive meeting with Foreign Minister Yun in Anchorage. President Park's visit to Washington is not far away.

Our economies have grown closer as we’ve built and worked to strengthen a high-standard free trade agreement, the KORUS FTA. South Korea has become America’s sixth largest trading partner. In 2014, our trade was north of $145 billion.

Our businesses are investing more across the ocean. In 1996, Samsung opened what is now one of the most advanced semiconductor “fabs” in the world in Austin, Texas.

All told, Samsung supports over 4,000 jobs in Austin, and they’re still expanding.

General Motors is the largest U.S. investor in Korea, making a fifth of its global production there. Koreans are also enjoying one of the true joys of suburban American life – getting in that shiny new Chevy and driving to Costco. I hear the lines are out the door at their newest warehouse store in Seoul.

The ties between our two peoples are strong: Per capita, there are more Korean students studying in the U.S. than students from any other country. They account for nearly 8 percent of all international students in the U.S. And over the last decade, the number of Americans studying in Korea has grown by more than 300 percent.

If I had to set a “relationship status” for our two Republics on Facebook, it would be, “never been better.”

These close ties are important, because of the challenges and opportunities in front of us. I’ll talk about the challenges first.

Last month, we again dealt with provocations from North Korea – this one leaving two young R.O.K. soldiers permanently injured. Our response, as always, was calm… resolute... unified.

Our alliance, forged in war, built on trust, and tested repeatedly, is stronger than ever. And it will keep growing stronger, bolstered by our shared resolve; bolstered by the investments each of our countries make in our armed forces and in our joint capabilities on the Peninsula.

We also know that the stabilizing effect of our deterrence sets the stage for progress in inter-Korean relations and ultimately reunification. I'm heartened that family reunion visits have been scheduled after a painfully long gap.

And I hope – as I think we all do – that North Korea at last will respond positively to outreach from Seoul. Together with the international community, we have tirelessly tried to show the North that a brighter future is possible – but only if it chooses a different path… only if it is willing to fulfill its denuclearization obligations; only if it abandons destabilizing provocations.

The D.P.R.K. has for decades now cut itself off from opportunity, from prosperity, from the world. As a result, the extraordinary dynamism of Northeast Asia has passed it by.

The Republic of Korea, of course, is a big part of that dynamism. It has seized the region’s – and the world’s – opportunities. Together, we’re working on and aiming to do much more.

We will be able to do more on energy with an updated “123” agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. This agreement supports Korea’s emergence as a global leader in civil nuclear energy, and reaffirms our strong and growing counter-proliferation partnership.

We will be able to do more to expand trade and investment. Nearly 95 percent of consumer and industrial products will be duty free by 2017 under KORUS.

And as we work to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership with our original 11 partners, we welcome Korea’s interest in joining in the future.

We can do, and we must, do more on global development.

Take health security: The Ebola epidemic is receding, in part because U.S. and Korean experts went to West Africa to help – a humanitarian deployment unprecedented in Korea’s history. President Park just hosted a very successful meeting of 56 partner countries and international organizations involved in the Global Health Security Agenda, our signature multilateral effort to prevent future outbreaks from becoming epidemics.

During that meeting, South Korea made a major new commitment to spend $100 million over the next five years to help 13 countries fight against infectious diseases. Korea’s leadership on the Global Health Security Agenda is making a major difference to prepare at-risk countries and will ultimately save lives.

Take disaster response: Our two countries provided both personnel and financial assistance to Nepal Earthquake relief efforts. Helping those in need in lands far from home is a duty of global nations – of those that have the abilities and the expertise to mount a life-saving response.

We encourage Korea to ‘go big’ with sustained engagement in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and around the world.

We can all do more to counter global warming – a problem that affects every nation on earth. Korea is playing an important role as the host of the global Green Climate Fund, to which the U.S. has pledged $3 billion. And we know Korea can do more to drive climate innovation, and help deploy those innovations to the places that need them most.

We must all be resolute in the fight against terrorism and the humanitarian efforts to help victims. South Korea is a member of the Counter-ISIL Coalition and its Foreign Terrorist Fighters Working Group. It was among the first to commit USD $1 million to a U.N. Development Programme stabilization project in areas liberated from ISIL in Iraq. We work together to identify political and economic opportunities for communities vulnerable to violent extremism. And we can do more.

The future of Global Korea shows in the faces of volunteers signing up for the Korea International Cooperation Agency’s World Friends Programs, just as generations of Americans have joined the Peace Corps.

World Friends engages youth volunteers, senior experts, and everyone in between… there’s even a “Taekwondo Peace Corps.” As a practitioner of a martial art myself (although I won’t say which!), I know their ability to bridge different cultures and bring people together. Over 20,000 Koreans have volunteered overseas since 2009, but I’m sure the number who want to go is even greater.

Because, as dynamic as Northeast Asia is, Koreans do not want to be confined to it.

Korea wants to share that dynamism with the world. And that’s good, because the world needs it. The world needs the advanced products Korea makes, and help to develop more advanced national economies. The world enjoys Korean culture like K-pop, but it needs Korea’s culture of compassion and generosity of spirit.

As the Chuseok holidays draw near, we are apt to reflect on the passage of time. As we give thanks for our alliance and partnership with each other, I hope we’ll redouble our efforts to share our good fortune with the world.

Thank you.