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Vice Ministers

Keynote Speech by H.E. CHOI Jong Kun 1st Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, KF-CSIS ROK-U.S. Strategic Forum, 15 November 2021


Keynote Speech
H.E. CHOI Jong Kun
1st Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea

KF-CSIS ROK-U.S. Strategic Forum
15 November 2021

Dr. Lee Geun, President of the Korea Foundation,
Dr. John Hamre, President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
Dr. and Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan from Roh Moo-hyun government,

Good morning. Distinguished guests joining us here in-person and virtually.

First of all, thanks for having me here. I am very happy to make a speech here at the CSIS. I guess this is my second time doing so. Last time I was here was about four and a half years ago serving as the Secretary to the President for Peace and Arms Control back in 2017 and 2018. At that time, I remember explained why the ROK-U.S. alliance should engage North Korea and we exchanged views on pressing matters relating to peace and security on the Korean peninsula.

Friends and Colleagues,

One of the prominent features of our alliance is that we do actually evolve. The ROK-U.S. alliance was first forged as a military alliance during the Korean War. With the noble sacrifice of some 34,000 American soldiers, territory of the Republic of Korea was defended. Korean soldiers have also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with American soldiers in every major war led by the U.S. since the Korean War, joining the U.S. in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. We do also fight together piracy in the Middle East and Africa and conduct peacemaking missions around the world.

The values deeply embedded in our societies are important aspects of our ties. Korea has fostered the values sown by the U.S. in our own way. Our people have safeguarded democracy and human rights whenever a shadow was cast over them – be it in the face of colonization, dictatorship or corruption. Korean people shed their own blood in our own streets for our own democracy and human rights throughout the modern history. Thereby, Korea has become a beacon of democracy and capitalism in East Asia. Now we are even widening our areas of interest to other parts of the international community in order to uphold our values of democracy, multilateralism, rule of law and above all cosmopolitan culture.

The win-win nature of our bonds and the mutual trust grounded in shared values lie at the heart of the comprehensive and strategic partnership which we are now proud to be a part of. The ROK-U.S. Leaders’ Joint Statement adopted at the Summit held last May between President Moon and President Joe Biden showcased how far our alliance has come. Our Leaders also committed to advancing our partnership into one that encompasses not only traditional security, but also the economic and cultural domains as well. Our two nations have shown the world what an alliance should look like in the 21st century, especially during these pandemic years.

Dear Friends, 

In my time serving as the 1st Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for the last year or so, I have gained an even deeper sense that our alliance is no longer dominated by a single issue. You may imagine my work calendar starts from agendas related to North Korea and ends with them. To be frank with you, I don't always wake up worrying about North Korea. But in fact, my schedule is always filled with meetings about and traveled to other regions such as Southeast Asia, Central and South America, West Africa, Europe, and the Middle East including Iran. I have engaged with our partners and friends in these regions on issues ranging from responding to the pandemic to enhancing development cooperation and protecting democratic values throughout the world. Paradoxically enough, the more I engage with non-U.S. partners the more clearly I realize that Korea’s standing in global affairs is higher than we thought and that Korea and the U.S. have vast amount of potential to expand our areas of cooperation even further.

Our two countries’ respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region are one good example. Korea, as a nation which has itself lived through the pain of losing sovereignty, going through state-led development and democratization together at the same time, achieving highly dynamic economy, has been a persistent proponent of ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led regional architecture. Korea has been a vocal advocate of democratic values when it comes to the current situation in Myanmar. Those citizens calling out for democracy in Yangon remind us of our people in Gwangju who protested against the military regime forty years ago. We see yesterday’s Gwangju in today’s Myanmar. Korea’s support for people of Myanmar will be strong, persistent, and relentless.

Our collaborative reach does not stay within the Southeast Asian theater. For example, in Central America, Korea has long sought mutually beneficial cooperation as a bona fide partner. Korea is the only country in Asia which has Free Trade Agreement with Central America as a group and the only Asian member of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). We are the 6th largest donor to the Northern Triangle states, contributing around $35 million annually. Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea invited Vice Ministers of seven Central American countries to Korea, and we had the first “Korea-Central America Special Roundtable” to find a way forward for our partnership. Our role in Central America, for example, is gaining more significance as we help address the root causes of migration to the U.S. by leading to better standards of living for people and constructing social stability in this region.

Our two countries, Korea and the U.S. have managed to keep our approach to Iran in tune as well. As the custodian of one of Iran’s largest overseas frozen assets, Korea has actively engaged with both Washington and Tehran at the same time. I myself visited Iran three times this year. Let me tell you, it was not that exciting trip to begin with. Based on our communication with Tehran, the United States, the European Union, and E3 nations, our government has expressed its firm intention to render active diplomatic support for reviving the JCPOA as the keeper of the Iranian frozen funds and a verifier of the potential deal that might happen in Vienna, hopefully soon. I reaffirmed this position whenever the occasion arose to relevant parties in the Iran nuclear deal: my great friend, the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran, Dr. Robert Malley and the Deputy Secretary-General of the EU, Mr. Mora, to just name a few.

Today, our alliance has significantly enhanced our global profile. Our two countries are at the very forefront in responding to new challenges. COVID-19 has illustrated that no one is safe until everybody is safe. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Korea and the U.S. have helped each other when each of us was in need. We further elevated the level of our cooperation by exploring ways to fundamentally tackle this global challenge through the launch of the ROK-U.S. Global Vaccine Partnership. Our two countries are leading global climate change initiatives. On the occasion of the COP26, recently, Korea announced an upgraded 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which is 40 percent reduction of carbon production by 2030, and a plan to put a complete end to coal-fired power generation by 2050. Korea and the U.S. remain committed to strengthening partnership in green technologies as well as making joint efforts in a range of fora such as the OECD, as we believe in multilateralism.

Dear friends,

The evolving nature of our relationship is in fact only natural when we come to think about the policy that our nations pursue. We believe that foreign policy should serve the needs and interests of our own citizens. Foreign policy, just like any other domestic policies, must protect and increase the welfare of its citizens. And Korea is no exception. In this light, we have confidence and I am very personally confident that our alliance has been adapting itself to serve their pressing demands and respond to the diverse present-day challenges that our people encounter.

So I believe this is a time to ask ourselves whether we are also looking at our bonds from a new angle. At times, we have viewed our alliance through the lens of the very issue that has haunted us for long – North Korea. Peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is still at the core of our alliance. And our alliance, I have to emphasize, is the linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity for Northeast Asia. So I believe we should diversify areas of our attention and see how inter-regional interactions affect evolution of our alliance since we are global partners.

Policy communities of both our countries, including experts, scholars and journalists who are joining this event, should update the narrative of our alliance. You are the opinion leaders generating ideas and affecting perspectives. What you envision for our relationship does affect how our alliance evolves. As a policymaker and a scholar myself, I say to you that we need to construct a shared conceptual reference point on our alliance and to map out its way forward. This will serve to deepen the understanding of our relationship and make the discourse more policy-relevant and vibrant during and after the Pandemic era.

I know that Korea Foundation runs an excellent Next Generation program with the CSIS. I met many of them whenever they come to Korea before the pandemic. I would love to do so more when they actually come to Seoul, either as position I am taking now or as professor at Yonsei University, which I really look forward to going back to. I hope the next generation of opinion leaders will come together and discuss matters as broad as global green energy initiatives, water management in Southeast Asia, development cooperation in Central America, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, and of course, Korean issues as well. I look forward to the CSIS, as a key element in the U.S. policy circles, playing a full part in such work as well. I also have another hope. I hope that the Korea Chair will be recognized as a position that not only examines “Korea” – the country itself and its very own issues – but also explores and discusses Korea’s enlarged horizon of global engagement as well.

Distinguished Guests, I am not done yet. I have not talked about the elephant in the room – North Korea. I know, once I talk about it, what I said so far about our dynamic alliance and Korea’s global engagement will just evaporate. And media will only cover North Korean issues. I am so used to experiencing that. Out of my twelve page-long speech, I spent about eight pages on our dynamic evolving nature of alliance. I bet a hundred dollars in my pocket that no one is going to talk about it in the media. But, Please. The alliance is not solely about North Korean issues. But it is a very important issue. And thereby a balanced perspective on the issue itself is really important.

So, let me finally turn to North Korea. Two more pages. For a nation which experienced a tragic war and is still living in a state of incomplete peace, making sure that ordinary people go about daily lives without fear of war is a fundamental responsibility of the Korean government. And we, the Korean people, know from experience that peace is never a given, but something that must be earned. Also for the last five years, Korea increased its military expenditure by seven percent annually. Our military expenditure accounts for 2.7 percent of our GDP, which is the highest among U.S. allies. Having that as a backdrop, the Moon Jae-in administration, in close consultation with the U.S., has strived tirelessly to advance our goal of achieving denuclearization and establishment of peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

What we have focused on is to establish an enduring structure for engagement with the DPRK. This is the exact line that I used four years ago in this building. As a member of the security team of the Moon Jae-in administration from the summer of 2017, I can say that we have never fantasized about the peace process. The peace process could likely be long, arduous and even tortuous; on the way North Koreans might be tempted to look back and doubt, or hesitate to stay the course. In this vein, we need a framework that can keep Pyongyang on track. It is imperative to devise a structure from which no one can easily walk away, from the whole process. By presenting North Koreans with a clear picture of what they can gain or lose through the process, we may be able to convince them that their best bet is to stick to the process.

In 2018 there was a sense of fresh hope that we could establish such a framework and push the peace process forward. We created a structure where inter-Korean relations and U.S.-DPRK relations proved to be mutually reinforcing, creating a virtuous cycle. But you know what happened. I know that we still have a long way to go. But we never give up. We do never give up. The ROK-U.S. summit in May laid a strong diplomatic foundation to make progress again on this ongoing task, which is a fundamental responsibility of the Republic of Korea government and the U.S. government at the same time. Our two leaders agreed to the importance of picking up where we left off and building on what we have brought about through previous agreements with North Korea, such as the Singapore Joint Statement and the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration.

Also, the September 19 Comprehensive Military Agreement, known as CMA, is another advancement reached in 2018. This inter-Korean military agreement has greatly reduced the likelihood of incidental military skirmishes and clashes between the South and the North in the DMZ. This in turn has provided space for both of us to concentrate on the denuclearization dialogue, which is a bigger talk and a highly sensitive process that can be undermined by even minor military clashes in the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, the agreement has set a meaningful precedent for future talks with Pyongyang. During the negotiations with North Korean military, I learned a precious lesson that we can come to an agreement even in a short time if we can secure both the political will of leaders and the working-level negotiations that fill in the details – an optimal combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches, I believe.

In an effort to revive dialogue with the DPRK, President Moon Jae-in once again proposed an end-of-war declaration at the 76th UN General Assembly. By putting an end to the Korean War, our government intends to commence the process of making irreversible progress in denuclearization and turning the abnormally long armistice into a peace regime. Long, long way to go. But think about it. Really do think about it. Who can propose such a bold initiative other than the Republic of Korea? And which country is more qualified to do so? The peace regime will comprise a set of norms and principles that would define the future of the Korean Peninsula, including those regulating the inter-Korean political relationship, military confidence-building measures, and economic and social exchanges. The end-of-war declaration would mark a meaningful entry point for two Koreas and the U.S. to shape this new order, by opening up avenues for denuclearization dialogue and the peace talks. Above all, it is morally right thing to put an end to the war and begin the peace process.

Friends and Colleagues,

So far I have outlined the new chapter of our alliance that our two countries are opening together. Also I briefly touched upon North Korea and the end-of-war declaration. I hope that you will find it very useful.

And this morning, I woke up early because of the jet-lag at 3AM. You know how sentimental you become at 3AM, especially in Washington DC ahead of this big meeting. So I jot down a couple of points. This is purely my personal point. Before I conclude my speech, I just want to share my personal realization. Having gone through the peace process in 2017 and 2018, and as a scholar, I always think about this, “Who else?” Korea, we go through a lot of difficulties and challenges, living next door to a rising power. But I come to think of this term, “Who else?” In other words, every time we come to face difficulties, obstacles and hurdles, it is our friends in the United States, consulting with us, giving advices and exchanging views and sometimes debating very harshly behind the doors. But who else can we do that with? That's what I realized. The United States is the only treaty ally of the Republic of Korea. It is true. But I think it is beyond that. Whenever we have problems, especially during this pandemic, who else did we talk to? We did not go to Beijing. We did not go to Tokyo. We did not go elsewhere. We went to and came to Washington D.C. I think that speaks to a lot of facts, a lot of traditions, and a lot of realities that we have. I think we have a strong epistemic community between Seoul and Washington. I really do hope that this gets expanded and this gets really evolved. I just talked about how on global stage the Republic of Korea is doing our own parts, tackling global agendas, and also tackling and resolving peace problems on the Korean Peninsula. So with that, I wish you could explore further how alliance can go forward through this constructive dialogue.

Thank you very much. 

--------------------------- Q&A Session ---------------------------

Victor Cha (CSIS Senior Vice President and Korea Chair): Thank you very much, Vice Minister. That was a wonderful set of remarks and also very personal in many ways. We are very grateful that you would share that with us and that you take the time. Again, I know that your schedule is very busy. And we did want to set aside some, at least a little bit of time for questions. If anyone here would like to ask a question, there is a mic over here on the far end of the stage, and we would be happy to take out. I do not know how many we can take. But if you could just line up there. And while folks are thinking about their questions, Vice Foreign Minister, if I could ask you. You know, I agree with you that your tour de force with regard to the alliance is both important and well deserved. And your administration has done an incredible job of reestablishing and expanding the importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance for both countries and for the world. But you are right. The press will focus on just what you said on North Korea. But my question is not about North Korea, even though that takes up a lot of our time in the headlines. The bigger and broader question for the alliance is China. And there I guess I wanted to just get your views on how, in your mind, Korea navigates this new environment in which there is a lot more competition between the U.S. and China than Korea arguably has been used to. And as one of the people in the South Korean government that has to conceptualize and think about Korea’s path, if you could offer some thoughts on that, that will be great.

Vice Minister: I did not say anything directly about China in my speech, reasonably because we have a good working relationship with government in Beijing. They are strategic partner. And as I said in my speech, just like any other domestic policies, foreign policy also should serve the needs and interests of all Korean citizens, namely middle-income class. The trade volume of Korea with China is larger than our trade volume with the United States and Japan put together. And we make money out of it. We make big surplus out of it. And who enjoys the surplus down in the market is our citizens, ranging from the small to medium entrepreneurs to big conglomerates. We cannot ignore them. At the same time, we are also worried about supply chain resilience, meaning that (we are worried about) overdependence on many parts and components coming from China. And that is not a problem of our own. That is also a problem for, I guess, everybody, as we all are getting much more interdependent or otherwise dependent on the Chinese. So we realize issues are out there and they are coming upon. But, at the same time, seeing interaction between Beijing and Washington, as it gets more competitive, we get really high tension within our foreign policy communities. Our array of questions is something like this; what kind of impact our exporters and our market actors will have; what kind of strategic constraints we will have on our foreign policy arrays; and what kind of impact we will have on the Korean Peninsula as a whole. But as I mentioned, our government is trying to make peace on the Korean Peninsula and create a structure. We cannot do it without obviously support and back-up, and consent and consultation from our friends in Washington. But also, realistically speaking, we need partnership from Beijing as well. That is the strategic theater that we belong to, whether we like it or not. That is the reality of our policy as well. So what we are trying to be is that we are trying to form a good working relationship with China. After all, we are the country that lives right next door to (China). At the same time, we try to diversify our market shares. In other words, we have a very strong, aggressive approach to our friends in Southeast Asia, under the name of “New Southern Policy.” We are engaging with our European partners. We are the only country that has Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, America and, at the same time, China. So we want to become so-called porous nation in trading states. After all, we have many identities as a nation. But, most of all, we are enjoying our trading-nation identity. So we try to be very pragmatic about it. I also want to toss a rhetorical question, something that we can also think about. For the interest of the United States, which one is better? South Korea having a really bad relationship with China or South Korea having a good working relationship with China. Which one will be good for the interest of the United States? I do not have a clear answer. It is something that really arises in my mind these days. And that is my answer.

Victor Cha: Thank you very much, Vice Foreign Minister, for that response. I mean Korea does really have one of the most complex relationships with China of all U.S. allies and partners. I know you have to go. But if you would allow me to ask this one other question, it is about North Korea. There is a lot of attention now and, talk and debate and discussion here in Washington about the end of war declaration. And one of the questions that I often get, which I do not have an answer to, so maybe you can answer, is that the U.S. and the Republic of Korea are working very hard on thinking about this. But in these discussions, is there any sense that there is actually going to be a positive reception from the North with regard to this framework, this broader framework that you proposed in your speech for a peace process on the peninsula and denuclearization?

Vice Minister: It is hard to predict. But think about what happened back in 2017, and compare that with 2018. Back in 2017, every weekend, North Korea fired a lot of missiles. I was in the Situation Room in the Blue House. And I was really mad with the fact that they especially fired on Friday night. And then 29th of November. With the lofty launch of ICBM, they certainly declared they completed everything. And then we moved to a so-called “Peace Winter Olympic season,” transforming the whole nature. And we had a really highway ride in 2018. Sometimes it went really fast. And then we had Hanoi. I know I can say because on that day, when Hanoi Summit crumbled, a lot of people drank a lot of Soju in Seoul and I was one of them. But we never gave up though. Second of all, we have never thought that North Korea is an easy partner. But we saw a glimpse of possibility. With a very strong partnership between Washington and Seoul without any daylight, we could have pushed little bit harder on engagement, and we could have crossed that threshold. But we could not. Maybe because of a lot of reasons, but I am not going to linger on the reason. What I’m telling you is that with a very strong coordination and cooperation between two allies, I think we could push and begin anew, open the door, and bring North Korea into this, as I said, long, arduous and torturous process that nobody can walk away. And I believe that end-of-war declaration is a good ticket to the peace process as well. My government, Moon Jae-in government has about six months in power. We do not aim to achieve everything at once. We do not push this in any hurry. As I told you and talked to our friends here, we want to create a structure and roadmap so that we can update, adapting to different circumstances and environments. And we believe that end-of-war declaration is one good example. As my capacity as a presidential secretary for Peace Planning, one of my job portfolios was monitoring sanction regime. And I can surely tell you that we have a very fierce sanction implementation. I cannot say any detail, but other than any other nation in our theater, we are actually doer, implementer of sanctions. But also we need to give them an idea about how creative we can be in sustaining this process when it actually begins. Because at the end of the day, this is essentially a semantic analogy. It is like standing in the very shallow river, but with very high streams. Unless you go against the tide, you will just fall back. In other words, there is no status quo when you deal with North Korea. You have to engage and try to create a structure to bring North Korea out of dungeon. And I do not have the exact answers. We tried it. We never give up. And my President took a very bold initiative to put out what he believes is a very valuable option and go from there. Whether North Korea will take it or not, we will have to wait and see.

Victor Cha: Thank God. That is actually very interesting expression – there is no status quo on North Korea. That is actually very interesting way to think of it. We are out of time. I would like to first of all thank you for your service, and for all that you have done for the Republic of Korea and for the alliance. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm round of applause. 

 / END /