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June 18, 08

NEWS / A New Strategic Partnership Based on Common Values and Global Interests

Alexander Vershbow
U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea

Korea Maritime Security Studies Institute
Seoul - June 12, 2008

I would like to thank Admiral (Retired) An Byung-tae for inviting me to speak to you today. Admiral An has been an inspirational leader who is known as the “Father of Korea’s modern blue water navy.” He has really been a man ahead of his time, and has done much to advance the theme of my talk today: Promoting the new, upgraded strategic nature of our great ROK-U.S. Alliance.

I’m excited about the opportunity to speak to you today because the Korea Maritime Security Studies Institute has really been at the cutting edge of shaping a new paradigm in the long-lasting partnership between the United States and the Republic of Korea. That partnership is based on a foundation of common values and global interests.

It’s also nice to talk about something besides American beef for a change. Obviously, we are very aware of the protests that have been taking place in Seoul this past month, and are worried that so many Koreans have doubts about the safety of U.S. beef – the same safe beef that we Americans eat every day – and we are working very hard to find a solution that can address public concerns and restore confidence in the quality and safety of U.S. beef exports.

Some of my Korean friends tell me, “Don’t take this personally, this is partly about U.S. beef, but largely about Korean politics.” That’s fine, but I think we have a responsibility – both in the United States and in Korea – to ensure that our alliance is insulated from domestic politics in either country. There has been strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-ROK Alliance in the United States and in Korea – that has been one of the sources of its strength, and we must strive to maintain that. In fact, by safeguarding freedom, the Alliance actually helps to provide the opportunity for citizens to voice their dissenting opinions.

The security partnership between our two great countries has helped to secure peace and stability on the peninsula, and in the region as a whole, for over fifty years. The formal ROK-U.S. Alliance dates back to end of the Korean Conflict in 1953. The foundation of the Alliance is the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953. But how many of you have actually read the Mutual Defense Treaty? This agreement between the Republic of Korea and the United States has formed the basis of one of the most successful security alliances in modern history.

The framers of this enduring document must have recognized the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula because when they drafted the Mutual Defense Treaty they stated that its purpose is to provide for security “in the Pacific area.” Note that they did not just say “on the Korean Peninsula.” That broader security view is very important because, in the words of some historians, Korea is the “shrimp caught between whales,” having suffered a string of foreign invasions throughout the centuries. Even today the region remains a potential tinderbox, with over a million armed forces facing each other across the DMZ and an additional three million men under arms supported by almost 29,000 tanks and about 1,000 warships deployed by Korea’s neighboring countries in the region.

In the midst of all that, the ROK-U.S. Alliance remains a key balancer and stabilizing force in the region, helping to facilitate phenomenal economic growth and, in Korea’s case, providing the secure and peaceful environment to support record economic expansion since the 1960s. Despite all the uncertainty in past years about what the North Koreans would do next, our ROK-U.S. Alliance has faithfully served the interests of peace by providing a credible deterrent through military partnership and collective national strength for over 50 years.

Nonetheless, our partnership with South Korea needs to continue to evolve to keep pace with the changes in the rest of the world. Most Koreans understand, as recent polling data suggests, that our ROK-U.S. Alliance is a fundamental necessity with a peaceful purpose that extends beyond the peninsula to include regional peace and global assistance.

President Lee Myung-bak clearly understands this and has put forth a very forward-looking, global agenda on a wide array of issues to further South Korea’s interests. From expanded peacekeeping operations, and energy security to increasing trilateral and regional ties with Korea’s neighbors to beginning new FTA negotiations to build on the KORUS FTA, the new ROK administration knows that national interests, in this day of globalization and international competition for markets, now extend beyond geographic borders.

It is this same forward-looking view of the world that has also allowed Korean and U.S. leaders to reexamine the structure and organization of the Combined Forces Command. The critical, ongoing transformation of the alliance, including the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from CFC to the Republic of Korea, along with additional upgrades in new technology and capabilities, has enabled a new, more strategic approach to take shape.

I think it is entirely appropriate for a strong and prosperous country like Korea to take primary responsibility for the defense of its homeland – in the same way that our other allies in Asia and Europe do. Transfer of wartime OPCON will be the logical next step in an evolutionary process in which Korea’s highly capable armed forces have been taking the lead for many of the critical military tasks traditionally handled by the United States. Under the Strategic Transition Plan that is now being implemented, we have four years to ensure that our forces are fully trained and equipped so that our combined ability to deter or defeat any North Korean aggression will remain as effective under the new command structure as it is today.

And to those that worry that such changes may mean the U.S. will reduce its commitments to Korea, you need to look no further than places like Europe where we have maintained a very robust military presence long after the end of the Warsaw Pact and the break-up of the Soviet Union, to help assure the continued stability in Europe. In case there was any lingering doubt, our two Presidents agreed at Camp David to maintain the current level of U.S. forces in Korea.

I speak from experience as U.S. Ambassador to NATO when I tell you that the 1990s was a period of transition, as NATO was very much an organization in search of a new mission. I think we have learned from that experience that security cooperation should not be defined by geographic borders. In this era of globalization, events in one part of the world have a very real impact on domestic, economic and political circumstances in seemingly-unrelated far off places.

We see this today as NATO has taken a very crucial role in the Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan. Terrorism and other transnational threats like the spread of weapons of mass destruction, narcotics trafficking, and global warming know no borders and have become real threats to security for NATO member countries and all responsible members of the international community – to include Korea. And so we believe that upgrading our ROK-U.S. Alliance, based on our common shared values and beliefs in human rights, free trade and representative democracy, is the best way to address the challenges and threats before us. That’s because, by doing so together, we are stronger than we would be by acting alone.

For the United States, the Pacific region has long been viewed as a crucial strategic area for American trade and commerce. The U.S. Navy since the late 19th century has long been seen as the service best equipped to protect our interests in the Pacific area, so it’s no surprise when we see that Korea has now begun to look to the ever more capable ROK Navy to protect Korea’s expanding global and regional interests.

We support this focus on expanding Korea’s naval presence because we recognize that this is an important component of a modern, 21st-Century Strategic Alliance. Increasing ROK naval capabilities, in the context of Korea’s global and regional interests, is an eminently sensible policy objective as Korea conducts 97% of its trade through maritime activities. And while I am no military expert, expanding this capability to a true “blue water navy” also makes sense when you look at Korea’s energy needs as the world’s tenth largest consumer of energy, fourth largest oil importer, and second largest natural gas and coal importer. Those energy facts require that you pay attention to protection of all-important sea lanes of communication.

The Administration of President Lee Myung-bak has made energy security a top priority, recognizing that the Korean economy, not unlike the United States’ economy, is increasingly dependent on secure sources of safe energy. So we very much welcome the idea of an expanding ROK naval role in the Pacific as a global partner. Exercises like RIMPAC, Fleet Review 2008, and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium are great opportunities to showcase Korea’s efforts to take a leading role in multilateral security and foster closer cooperation with the United States and other regional partners.

Progress by the leaders of the ROK and Japan to improve bilateral relations and enhance trilateral cooperation with the United States is another wise policy that I believe serves both your national security interests and the larger cause of regional peace. I understand that on the way back from this year’s RIMPAC exercise, the ROK and Japanese navies will join with the U.S. Navy in conducting passing and search-and-rescue exercises called PASSEX and SAREX. We applaud this new initiative and look forward to continuing to build the ties between us as democracies, friends and partners in peace.

As a student of history, I am an admirer of Korea’s most celebrated military leader, Admiral Yi Sun-shin. So in conclusion let me say a few words about Admiral Yi. He was a true master tactician and commander, often compared to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. That is because Admiral Yi incorporated new technology and rationalized organizational and logistical practices in a way that helped him to defeat his opponents decisively. His strategies resulted in at least 23 consecutive naval victories. What makes his impressive military record even more incredible is that he had to accomplish it with little material support from the royal court or his superiors.

I bring up Admiral Yi not only to highlight that Korea has a rich naval tradition dating back centuries, but also to note the important historic lesson that technological superiority and enhancing Korea’s naval presence as an element of national power do not come cheap. In closing, as Korea looks to the future to expand and upgrade the ROK-U.S. Alliance and Korea’s naval capabilities, I ask that you consider that such priorities must be adequately resourced if Korea truly hopes to live by the ROK Navy’s motto “Pada-ro, Segye-ro” (To the Sea, To the World).

Thank you for listening and I look forward to answering your questions.

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