United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Kathleen Stephens, spoke to an assembled crowd of students, faculty, staff and community leaders during the evening of February 28th, 2011 in the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Diplomacy room, on the importance of a strong and evolving U.S.-Korea relationship.
Introduced warmly by Josef Korbel School of International Studies' Dean, Christopher Hill, who also extended a warm welcome to the Korean community based in Colorado, Dean Hill spoke on Ambassador Stephen's long ties to Korea, beginning when she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the south of Korea, where she was able to learn the Korean language and develop ties to the Korean people. "Every embassy needs to have a 'go to person' who speaks the language. The year 1985 was crucial and Kathy (Ambassador Stephens) was able to have these contacts, not only with the ruling party but with the opposition. She got to know a lot of Koreans through the internal section of the embassy's political unit. Kathy has been utterly groundbreaking," said Dean Hill in his introductory remarks.
Taking to the podium amidst sustained and warm applause, Ambassador Stephens began her remarks by explaining that last November, the last time she'd been on her way to the Josef Korbel School, she disembarked from the plane in San Francisco to be met by an official who told her that due to actions by North Korea (The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea), she had to turn around and head back to Seoul. Remarking on how "delighted" she was to be in Colorado during such a beautiful time in Denver, Ambassador Stephens also commented that she was a "western girl" who was born and raised in Arizona. She then congratulated Dean Hill on his "good taste" in choosing to continue his career as the new Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
Finishing her opening remarks, Ambassador Stephens began her speech by focusing on the tremendous changes in Korea, which have taken place since she first visited as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Narrating the 20th century in Korea as a century filled with "a lot of challenge and pain" for the Korean people, the ambassador moved through the challenges the Korean nation has faced including occupation and annexation by the Imperial Japanese army and an attendant civil war which resulted in a partition of north and south Korea and which left the south, in particular, devastated economically and divided artificially. Remarking on the armistice ending the Korean War she noted how the agreement was supposed to be temporary but that "it's better never to call something temporary unless you know there's an end. date." Calling the Korean and American deaths in the war "an extraordinary tragedy," Ambassador Stephens noted their sacrifice and the resolute commitment of the United States and other members of the United Nations operating in Korea, of their commitment to the defense of the armistice agreement and the protection of the Republic of Korea.
The Ambassador then moved on to discuss how, in the aftermath of the Korean War, the North was in far better shape than the South and how prospects in South Korea were limited by scarce natural resources and a devastated economy. Remarking on Korean attachment to "education and betterment" the South began to change in the 1960s, and by the time she arrived in 1975, "the economic change was happening pretty quickly."
"I feel that I've been a witness to at least three major transformations in Korea," said Ambassador Stephens. "The first one was the one I saw in the 1970s [while a Peace Corps Volunteer in the south of Korea]." "Life was really tough in Korea, for someone who grew up in Arizona, it was cold," she remarked to laughter from the crowd. "I taught in a classroom, a boys school, of 70 young boys packed in a classroom where it was very cold. But they were very eager to learn and very curious about the world." Following these comments with remarks on seeing the industrialization of the country and the growth of cities and the countryside, and in particular commenting on the small ways someone in development would see growth expanding in a country: "Suddenly someone would have money for a bicycle, a local store would carry milk and white rice was more widely available. You could see life was getting better."
But what there still wasn't, as Ambassador Stephens said, was a "sense of political freedom." Noting that this was in the days prior to the Internet and e-mail, where she valued her weekly copy of Time Magazine as a link to the outside world, many times when the magazine arrived lines and paragraphs were inked out by Korean government censors. Noting the change in attitudes within the country since the 1980s, the ambassador remarked on how today that would never happen and that the idea of military governance in the Republic of Korea is "unthinkable." Remarking on a visit by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright (and daughter of the founder of our school, Josef Korbel) in the 1980s, who was visiting Korea on behalf of the National Democratic Institute and her message that change-democratic change, was necessary in Korea, the ambassador said that she couldn't imagine a female secretary of state and then, to laughter from those assembled, noted that now it's hard to imagine one who is not a woman.
Political change was the second evolution in Korea, and had been solidified in 1987 during presidential elections. Ambassador Stephens remarked on how inspirational she found the change in Korea during that time in her career as a diplomat and as a person who had lived in Korea. Saying, "Korea has never looked back," the ambassador was clear on how vibrant, consolidated and important the growth of the Korean nation, both economically and democratically, has been for the region and for the globe.
The third transformation on which the ambassador spoke was how global the Korean identity had become. Using the Korean proverb, "We are frogs in a well," to illustrate the difference in Korean perceptions of their state and people as one which at one time was very isolated to one which is now increasingly self-confident and sees itself as a proud member of the international community. Stating that the frog is "a global frog," the ambassador remarked on how this allows the Korean people and culture a much wider stage on which to exercise its talents and vibrancy. Korea hosting the Olympics in 1988 and Korea hosting the G20 in 2010 are examples of this newfound confidence amongst the Korean people.
"How does all of this impact the U.S.-Korean relationship?" asked Ambassador Stephens. The U.S. has played a very positive role in the evolution of Korea, and the ambassador noted three main aspects of that role: Defense, Diplomacy and Development. Comparing these three tenets to a "three-legged stool," the ambassador noted how these elements are crucial to a healthy relationship between the United States and Korea. The maintenance of 28,000 US troops in Korea, U.S. development aid to Korea including Peace Corps involvement and joint initiatives on the part of the Korean and U.S. governments are all examples of the strength and vibrancy of the relationship between the two allies.
Shane Hensinger, MA candidate in International Security
Josef Korbel School of International Studies