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Keynote Address By H.E. Cho Sei-young Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, The 5th ROK-U.S. Strategic Forum
Dr. John Hamre, President and CEO of CSIS; Dr. Lee Geun, President of the Korea Foundation; Distinguished Participants,
It would be a privilege to address the distinguished attendees of this forum in any year. But this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. So today it is a special honor for me to speak to you on how far this alliance has come and how much farther we can go together.
I would like to begin by sharing with you an anecdote. In Korea, as in other countries, sending face masks and testing kits overseas in the thick of the pandemic is a delicate topic. But when my government decided last month to provide 500,000 masks to American veterans of the Korean War, the Korean public expressed overwhelming support. After 70 years, our boundless gratitude to the Americans who helped defend Korea in its darkest hour has faded not one bit.
An Ever-Strengthening Partnership
Over the past several months, Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the fact that this alliance concerns not just the difficult and seemingly far-off issues of security or the economy, but that it can also directly touch the daily lives and well-being of the citizens of our two countries.
The Korean government spared no effort to support the U.S. in its time of need, airlifting hundreds of thousands of testing kits to its ally. In April, upon becoming the first country to hold nation-wide elections in the midst of a pandemic, Korea promptly responded to a request by U.S. officials to share its experience of election management.
Naturally, this spirit of close collaboration extends to the top. Our Presidents have spoken on the phone on three separate occasions in as many months, underscoring the fact that our shared interests are simply too important to wait out the pandemic. I believe that the personal trust between our two leaders played an important part in President Trump's decision to invite Korea to the G7 Summit.
I don’t think it was an accident that the invitation was extended to Korea. We are recognized as among the top ten countries by measure of economic, military, technological and other indexes. In fact, it is often the Koreans themselves that are caught staring unfamiliarly into the reflection of a capable, mature figure that they have yet to fully recognize. So in a way, the G7 invitation represents Korea finally stepping onto the big stage.
But with privileges come responsibilities. And Korea is ready and willing to take on the duties. For instance, our ODA level still falls short of what is expected of Korea. That is why Korea’s ODA budget for this year was one of the few areas exempted from across-the-board budget cuts following the pandemic – and actually earmarked for increase.
Transforming the Alliance
I think it was in this context that Deputy Secretary Biegun spoke of the need to renew or rejuvenate the alliance. I understood his core message to be that certain preconditions for launching the alliance have shifted over the past 70 years, and that the partnership needs to also evolve with the times.
This is an acute observation, with which I agree completely. It is only natural that Korea raise contributions to the alliance in concert with increased capabilities. At the same time, there is a corresponding expectation among the Korean people for genuine recognition and appreciation as an equal partner of the United States. Striking the right balance between the two will be crucial as the alliance continues to evolve.
Allow me to take a moment to share with you our efforts to contribute to the alliance.
Foremost, Korea is increasing its financial contributions. For almost thirty years, we have supported U.S. troops in Korea in accordance with the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). Last year, this support topped more than 900 million dollars, an 8.2 percent increase from the year before. 8.2 percent may seem modest until you realize that it is over four times the rate of economic growth in Korea.
Korea is also a top importer of U.S. military equipment. And we have been increasing our own defense budget by an average of 7.5 percent every year since 2017, and now spend 2.6 percent of the GDP on defense. No major U.S. ally spends at a higher figure. These efforts paint a clear picture of an unwavering commitment to the alliance.
As you are aware, our two countries are currently engaged in difficult SMA talks. Negotiations between countries are never easy – even among the closest allies. But as they say, April showers bring May flowers, and I have not the slightest doubt that we will find a creative solution for moving forward.
The Korean government is also continuing efforts to strengthen its military capabilities. Clearly, a stronger Korean military serving alongside the U.S. benefits Korea's own security and national interest. At the same time, it contributes directly to the national interest and strategic goals of the United States, also.
The transition of wartime operation control will be an important symbol of an alliance that is adapting and evolving with its sights set on the future. This will also provide the Korean people with a sense that their country is appreciated as an equal partner of the United States. And we shall do our part to meet the required conditions for a speedy transition.
The role and status of the UN Command is also an important subject in the evolution of the alliance. The UNC has kept the armistice for the past 70 years. While Korea is deeply grateful for these efforts, the Korean public also recognizes that it is time for Korea to take center stage in maintaining its own peace and security, by ending the current state of armistice and establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Lifting dated restraints on developing space and satellite capabilities, which had been placed on Korea decades prior, will be a good place to start.
Korean Peninsula: Recent Developments
Significant progress has been made over the past two years. Along the way, however, we remained clear-eyed about the challenges and difficulties we face. Unfortunately, we are once again confronted with the reality of rising tensions between North and South Korea.
Nevertheless, the Korean government will continue efforts to prevent escalation. The stakes are simply too high for us to turn back the clock now or become disheartened by setbacks. Dialogue, steadfast engagement and a healthy dose of patience are the only constructive options for moving forward.
While Northeast Asia is a region more accustomed to rivalry than solidarity, opportunities for real cooperation are by no means lacking.
Achieving denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula is one important area in which the United States and China can set aside differences and work towards a common purpose. We must firmly reject cynicism and the self-fulfilling prophesy that lasting peace in this region is but a pipe dream, now made even more distant by U.S.-China rivalry
Bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, achieving denuclearization, and creating a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula will not only benefit Korea, but also open up opportunities for Washington to implement its strategic objectives in the region. It is such shared strategic goals and interest of our two countries that will ultimately sustain and strengthen the alliance.
Others predict – in fact yearn for – a world brought together in its fight against the pandemic and problems that defy go-it-alone solutions. Under this scenario, global resources are consolidated and connectivity deepens. Call this the future of re-globalization.
Our world is interdependent like never before. So the only way to fight global problems is through inclusion, not exclusion; by committing ourselves to cooperation, not by going down our separate paths. Covid-19 is testing not only the immunity of individuals, but also the immunity and resilience of the liberal international order itself.
I am hopeful that, unlike Covid-19, the post-Covid world will not catch us off guard. We have a choice to make between linking arms versus retreating into our respective borders.
As you may be aware, Korea’s open, democratic and transparent approach during the pandemic has been praised as a winning formula for fighting infectious disease. However, we did not set out to promote these values per se. Rather, our health authorities found themselves embracing a certain set of principles as the touchstone against which acceptability of new Covid-19 measures was assessed.
When sharing our experience with health professionals from around the globe, we have been emphasizing the potency of the open and transparent approach at every turn. We will continue to stress these principles, working alongside partners like the United States. Covid-19 is prompting like-minded countries to pool resources like never before, with the realization that “no one is safe until everyone is.” This is yet another area in which the U.S.-Korea partnership can shine.
I am convinced that this alliance can and should be pushed to evolve into a partnership that is even more effective, even more adaptable. While the United States and Korea have been co-authoring new chapters of history every single year for 70 years, I firmly believe that the best days of the alliance lie ahead still. Thank you.