Nation & World

Firm allies, past and present

4 min read

Two experts assess U.S.-South Korea relations

In 1975, Kathleen Stephens was fresh out of Prescott College in Arizona when she arrived in Yesan, South Korea, as a Peace Corps volunteer. The country was still very poor and isolated. Most people in her village had never seen a Westerner, and it was hard to get a passport.

But even decades after a truce was declared in the Korean War (1950-1953), Stephens felt a sense of “shared sacrifice” between South Korea and the United States during her Peace Corps tour — “a relationship forged in blood,” she told a recent Harvard audience.

Today, South Korea is stable, prosperous, and cosmopolitan and enjoys the 13th largest economy in the world. And today South Korea also has Stephens, who last year was named U.S. ambassador to the country in which she spent two years of her youth.

She visited the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum last week (Sept. 11) and, in a rare double ambassadorial appearance, took the stage with her South Korean counterpart, Han Duck-soo. Earlier this year, Han — a former prime minister of South Korea and one of the architects of its economic boom — assumed the duties of ambassador to the United States.

In a conversation in front of a capacity crowd at the forum, the two diplomats reflected on the historical strength of the alliance and what issues might put it at risk. Both agreed it would take a lot to shake a political relationship that dates back to the 19th century, and one that was forged in steel by the Korean War.

It is an alliance “less brittle and far more resilient than it ever has been,” said Stephens.

Han, who in 1984 earned a Harvard Ph.D. in economics, called the U.S.-South Korea alliance the foundation of his nation’s “economic growth, prosperity, and security.” It remains so firm and mutual today, he added, that it could be an international model of cooperation — “the exemplar alliance relationship of the future.”

Moderating the public conversation between ambassadors was Graham Allison, a terrorism scholar who has studied the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea. He is Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Skeptical and probing, Allison prompted the two diplomats to imagine a near future in which the traditional alliance enjoyed by the United States and South Korea goes sour. In sum, he asked, what could go wrong and what issues need attending to?

Neither of the ambassadors budged much. In fact, said Han, “there is a very, very fundamental notion that U.S.-Korea relations cannot be swayed by one or two events.” It is and has been an alliance, he said, that has never been “underestimated or disregarded. It was always central.”

But it is true, Han added, that the two nations share a set of 21st century problems — global issues that include terrorism, piracy, climate change, and the challenges of development and trade.

U.S.-South Korea relations are resilient and strong, said Stephens, but three areas deserve a measure of vigilance: economic crisis, North Korea, and the continued presence of 26,000 American military personnel on Korean soil. “We need to be good neighbors, good friends” on the issue of that presence, she said.

And on the issue of North Korea, said Stephens, it is important for the United States to remain sensitive to South Korea’s aspiration: a united Korean peninsula.

Allison accepted the twin diplomatic message — that U.S.-South Korea relations are “very solid.” But he pressed on the issue of North Korea — a “de facto nuclear power,” Allison said, with the potential to not only destabilize an alliance but a region.

Stephens acknowledged North Korea’s “pattern of isolation, threats, and provocation” — but said that stiffening United Nations resolve will help defuse potential dangers.

She also acknowledged the diplomatic mistakes and missteps of the past in dealing with North Korea — but used the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to note a lesson learned: “We’re not going to buy the same horse twice.”