U.S.-South Korean Alliance a "Positive Force for Progress"
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington - The U.S. relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK) is developing into "a maturing global partnership" with great potential as a "positive force for progress," says Ambassador Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
In testimony delivered September 27 to the House International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Hill said the United States and South Korea now have a "historic opportunity" to transform their alliance to meet new challenges.
"The mature global partnership we are forging together," Hill said, "now reflects the combined capabilities we bring to bear not just in the military sphere, but also in the political, economic and cultural areas."
Hill said the partnership between the United States and South Korea would enable the countries to "pool" their shared goals in the face of challenges ranging from terrorism and tsunami relief efforts to HIV/AIDS, clean development and climate.
THE NORTH KOREAN THREAT
Hill acknowledged that the cornerstone of the alliance remains the security of the Republic of Korea. North Korea, he noted, "remains a very real threat - with over a million troops, possibly several nuclear weapons, and a propensity to export all kinds of dangerous things."
But the United States no longer dictates the terms of the relationship, Hill said.
"It has evolved into a more balanced partnership," the ambassador said. "Working in concert with Seoul, we are realigning our troops, consolidating our bases, and shifting more responsibility to the ROK's armed forces – all while enhancing our capacity to defend the Peninsula in time of crisis."
Of primary concern, he said, is the question of transitioning the operational control of ROK forces in wartime to an independent command structure, in contrast to the current Combined Forces Command arrangement.
"We are now working out the details to fulfill that request, because it makes sense in the context of our 21st century partnership," Hill said.
Regarding plans to reduce and reposition U.S. troops, Hill said Koreans should understand that "it is the United States' enduring commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea - not a military headquarters - that has safeguarded their country for more than fifty years."
At the same time, he said, the effective arrangement has not "diminished the ROK's sovereignty or made it less of a country."
The time frame for the changes will be a military, not a political, decision, Hill said.
Representative James A. Leach, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, cautioned Seoul "not to casually eschew alliance structures in the 21st century" in its desire "to assert psychological independence."
Alliances, the Republican from Iowa said, "involve the profound self-interest of societies and are designed to precede and supersede particular administrations. Indeed, strong alliances do not infringe national sovereignty; they presuppose strengthening it in the most elemental sense."
Leach also cautioned the United States government against "big-power chauvinism."
"We should have been more cognizant that real or perceived expectations of gratitude for past acts sometimes lead to social friction," he said.
A common interest in free trade is becoming the driving force of the U.S.-ROK relationship, according to Hill.
The two countries currently are negotiating a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA), he said. Such an agreement would be the largest U.S. trade agreement "in more than a decade," Hill said. Korea is America's seventh-largest trading partner, he said, and the United States is the largest foreign investor in Korea.
"We have never before been so economically vested in each other's well being than we are today," he said. "An FTA would further strengthen this economic relationship, bringing benefits to both countries and providing a new pillar for the alliance."
More than a million Korean Americans live in the United States, providing a vital and unique link between the two nations, Hill said.
"There is little doubt that lifting U.S. requirements for Korean visitors to obtain visas for tourism or business travel will provide a tangible boost to a closer bilateral relationship," he said.
There are, however, a number of requirements for a country to qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, Hill said. These include plans to issue an electronic passport, a program to ensure effective border security and law enforcement cooperation with the United States and a visa-refusal rate of less than 3 percent.
"The Koreans are developing an electronic passport and expect to have it ready for their general public sometime next year. They've made great efforts to work closely with us on law enforcement and border security, and we have very active cooperation with them," Hill said. But the refusal rate this fiscal year, he said, will likely be somewhere around 3.5 percent - a half percent too high.
The Bush administration, however, is working closely with the Korean government to resolve remaining obstacles as quickly as possible, Hill said.
For more information on U.S. policy, see The U.S. and the Korean Peninsula.
The full text of Hill's prepared remarks is available on the State Department Web site.