Wednesday, September 30, 2009

WSJ on Ambassador Kathleen Stevens and US-ROK ties

The US edition of the Wall Street Journal has an interesting overview of the trend toward "tightening" of ties betwen South Korea and the United States. The story accompanies an extensive interview with US Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stevens.

Ambassador Stevens is fairly popular in South Korea, in part because she has extensive experience in the country, going back to her days in the Peace Corps, during which she learned Korean.

The interview covers a lot of ground, including North Korean nukes, US ties with South Korea, the visa waiver program, the free-trade agreement, etc. Here's what she said about reunification:
For the United States in particular, as such a close ally of South Korea, we have to be really clear at all times that this is a peninsula that belongs to the Korean people. The future of this peninsula should be in the hands of the Korean people. We do agree with our allies in South Korea that the reunification of Korea peacefully, under democratic principles and principles that allow respect for human rights and opportunity for everyone, is the way to go. That's kind of an obvious thing to say but it's important to say it.

Beyond that, I'm interested in Koreans' thoughts about the future of this place because the U.S. has a supporting role to play and we also have very important interests here. That is a conversation we can have at all kinds of levels. If you look at the joint vision statement of the two presidents, they kind of said it there. We want to be clear as Americans that we do believe reunification, as I described it, is what we want.

In terms of development and everything else, I look at as someone who's been here and seen South Korea over a long time. There's 20-odd million people north of the DMZ [the demilitarized zone, the inter-Korean border] who have, I have to think, the same aspirations and talents and humanity that people south of the DMZ have. I've seen what's happened in this country as we all have over the last 30, 40, 50 years. People call it a miracle, but it wasn't a miracle. It was because of the extraordinary talent and hard work of the South Korean people, and good policies and good leadership. To me, it gives me reason to be hopeful that people in the North will have those opportunities too. And if they have those opportunities, they can make the most of them.
She also chimes in on her popularity, and why many South Koreans may feel almost a kinship with her:
I've been obviously pleased but also overwhelmed at times by the interest in me here. One reason for that is the American ambassador is always a person of interest here. But what South Korean people have told me is the fact that the United States chose as ambassador somebody who speaks Korean -- badly, but they don't say badly -- is taken as a compliment to South Korea. And I did try to really use Korean as much as I possibly could when I got here, even when it was cringe-inducing to me. I tried to do some things on a light side, but also in policy when I could use clear terms.

And it's the power of the media, especially on television, because people do recognize me and they come up and speak Korean to me. And they say, "We're glad you're here because you understand us." Well, I may not understand as much as they think I do. And they say, "We really want to have a better relationship between the United States and Korea." Well, that's what I'm here to do, just as every ambassador is here to do, but I think maybe it's a little bit easier for me to be perceived that way.

And they pull out pictures from the 1970s and there's an appreciation, while it's far more than I deserve, that I was here when things were tough and that we've had a shared experience.
It's a popular thing to bash governments, including (especially?) the Seoul government, but for anyone who has been here in the 1990s or earlier, the world of difference between then and now is striking. It is the defining characteristic of South Korea. It's one thing that makes me hopeful and upbeat about South Korea in general, because I can see that with almost everything there is, Korea is headed in the right direction. Not everything, mind you, but in enough areas that I feel that, were I to stay away from Seoul until, say, the middle of the next decade, I'd be pleasantly surprised. Maybe pleasantly overwhelmed.

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