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Director's Forum with Song Min-soon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Republic of Korea

November 09, 2007 // 10:00am11:00am
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On Friday November 9, South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Song Min-soon spoke at a Director's Forum about the future of the ROK – US alliance. Describing the ROK-US alliance as one of the best, if not the best, alliance that the United States has built since the Second World War, he suggested that the alliance has served as the foundation for Korea's political, security, and economic successes.

Noting that the alliance originally focused primarily on defense issues and on preventing the outbreak of war on the peninsula, Minister Song said that Korea has evolved into a more mature, if "excessively dynamic" democracy and that the ROK-US alliance has been undergoing a very serious transformation to make it more suitable for future common needs. "The alliance is now expanding," the minister noted, "with broader regional and global implications."

With the relocation of the US 2nd infantry division, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2012, and the return of wartime operational control to the Korean military, the ROK-US alliance will take on more of a stabilizing role for the entire region instead of just focusing on the defense of Korea. Minister Song expressed confidence that this transformation is acceptable to the other regional powers, explaining, however, that "we have to continue to persuade the other players why this transformation is necessary and how it will benefit all in the region."

Minister Song explained that Korea and the US now have a "shared vision" for the future of North Korea, for the Korean peninsula, and for the future of East Asia in general. This "shared vision" will serve as the basis for the successful transformation of the alliance and resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue. The KORUS Free Trade Agreement, Minister Song noted, is also something that both nations are doing with a long-term vision.

Turning to the nuclear issue, Minister Song emphasized that North Korea's nuclear capability is a source of instability and danger in the region, but the more serious possibility is that in the event that North Korea cannot be deterred, then we will need to face the danger of regional nuclear proliferation. To illustrate his point, Minister Song noted that when North Korea conducted a nuclear test last October, there was "noticeable clamoring" in other countries in the region that they might also need nuclear weapons. North Korea has the potential to become a nuclear domino, and we could be forced down a road to disastrous nuclear proliferation, not only in the region, but all across the globe. For this reason, Minister Song suggested that the US and South Korea need to make "strategic investments," though not in economic terms, to end North Korea's nuclear program.

Minister Song made assurances that Korea and the United States are united in handling the nuclear issue. These coordinated and consultative efforts have become even more conspicuous since the September summit between President Bush and President Roh. According to the minister, "the two presidents reached agreement on a common and broad approach." At that meeting the two presidents decided to engage in "aggressive diplomacy" to "comb out North Korea's willingness to negotiate away their nuclear program" in return for a persuasive, bright future for North Korea. "If North Korea verifiably gives away its nuclear program," Minister Song claimed, "we will show them that they can get what they want." Minister Song described this as "the very basis of this aggressive diplomacy." If North Korea holds out on dismantling its nuclear program until the last minute, however, "North Korea has to face the consequences." Minister Song explained that with that agreement between the two governments, the ROK and the US have moved ahead very actively and very successfully to the agreements of February and October of this year to implement the 2005 September agreement between the six parties. Currently, Minister Song continued, through the October agreement, "we agreed to disable the North Korean nuclear program to a certain extent." Once this is disabled, it will be difficult for the North Koreans to reverse it in any short period of time. At the same time, the ROK and the US are obliged to give North Korea energy and economic assistance and improve relations between North Korean and other countries, including the United States and with South Korea.

"I think now," Minister Song continued, "the process of denuclearization in North Korea, North Korean-US relations, and inter-Korean relations are moving forward in parallel." They are moving in a manner that is mutually reinforcing. During last month's summit meeting in Pyongyang between President Roh and Chairman Kim Jong-il, the South Korean president made it quite clear to the North Koreans, according to Minister Song, that if we move ahead with denuclearization, there will be good things for North Korea in economic terms. "We did not clearly link them, but we made it clear that this successful denuclearization process will open doors for North Korea in inter-Korean relations." South Korean leaders also envisage that with the improvement of inter-Korean relations and denuclearization, the two Koreas will move towards a peace regime, "by transforming from an armistice regime to a peace regime on the Korean peninsula." On top of that, Minister Song continued, we want a multi-lateral regional security and cooperation dialogue, which was also envisioned in the September 2005 agreement. Noting the conspicuous absence of such regional institutions as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Northeast Asia, the minister stressed the importance of institutionalizing dialogue and the role of the United States in the region.

Turning to the KORUS Free Trade Agreement, Minister Song explained how both countries would benefit. Citing statistics released by the US International Trade Commission, the minister said that the FTA will increase American exports to Korea by 10 to 11 billion dollars. Korean exports to the US will increase by an estimated 6.5 billion dollars. These numbers demonstrate, Minister Song argued, that Korea is not just focusing on increasing Korean exports to the United States, but also on increasing what Korea imports from the US. That is something to be mindful of. Through this FTA, Korea and the US can have more balanced trade.

Continuing, Minister Song suggested that Korea's deepening economic and cultural ties with China would only expand if the US Congress fails to ratify the agreement by reminding those present at the Director's Forum that China is Korea's largest trading partner and that the rate of increase is very rapid. More Koreans are visiting China than any other nationals in the world. Every year, more than 5 million Koreans visit China, with more than 100 flights going to China per week. There are also numerous ferry connections to China. "Korea is that linked to China" according to the Minister. Yet, Korea wants more balanced economic relations with the US. There are therefore strategic implications to the FTA.

Stressing the permanence of the ROK-US alliance, Minister Song noted that the ROK-US alliance is based on shared values: democracy, the market economy, and respect for human rights. Although the modus vivendi and modus operendi are being transformed to become more suitable for common future needs, the modality of the alliance will not be changed by any forthcoming administrations in Seoul and Washington. The alliance, according to the minister, is not just based on idealism, but is based on reality and has a very bright future.

Minister Song explained that America should continue to serve as a stabilizer in Northeast Asia, suggesting that he considered it acceptable to China and other countries in the region. To avoid any misunderstanding or misperception about this role, there needs to be more regional security and cooperation dialogue. Highlighting the importance of a dialogue mechanism, the minister noted that "we need to talk to each other more, rather than talk about each other."

Minister Song concluded by describing Korea's role in Northeast Asia, comparing the ROK to a ball-bearing in a security and cooperation mechanism. The US, therefore, has a "strong interest" in fixing South Korea in place so the entire mechanism can function smoothly.
While responding to questions, Minister Song stressed that that failure by the United States to take North Korea off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a key North Korean demand, could give the North justification for walking away from six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. "Any side balk[s] at this agreement, that justifies others to renege. We should not give each other any justification of reneging from this agreement."

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Senior Program Associate
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant