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Common Vision to Solidify Korea-U.S. Relations /A Participant’s Report on the 4th KF Global Seminar

“America and South Korea: Obama’s Most Improved Bilateral Alliance” (article headline of The Economist, March 31, 2012). This is the title that one of my graduate students used for his news article presentation and class discussion. The 2009 U.S.-ROK Joint Vision Statement has affirmed that the two countries are willing and capable of moving the alliance to aglobal level, beyond the KoreanPeninsula. As such, the question is: “What exactly do we mean by globalizing the U.S.-ROK alliance, and how should we go about its implementation?”

Reinforcing Partnership Bonds

Reinforcing Partnership BondsAgainst this backdrop, the 4th Korea Foundation Global Seminar, held on June 8-11 in Warrenton, Virginia, on the theme of “Globalizing United States-Republic of Korea Relations,” could not have come at a better time. The co-organizers of the seminar (East Asia Institute and the Brookings Institution), along with the Korea Foundation as the event’s host, challenged the participant scholars, policy analysts, practitioners, and journalists from the United States, Korea, China, and Japan to work together and devise doable policy measures to answer these basic questions.

For the seminar proceedings, the participants were assigned to two groups: Faculty Members, who included leading figures of academia, government, and think tanks; and Fellows, comprised of mid-career professionals who are slated to serve as tomorrow’s leaders of U.S.-Asia relations. To share their expertise, the Faculty Members made presentations and presided over discussion sessions. Thereafter, two Working Groups were formed, one for matters related to the Korean Peninsula and another for regional and global issues, to assess the opportunities and challenges in the efforts to promote U.S.-Korea relations. In addition to the formal sessions, there was sufficient time for casual conversation, eating, walking (as well as jogging and bike riding for those so inclined), and daily happy-hour sessions, which I believe well served the seminar’s purpose of “strengthening relationships.”

I tend to understand things better when I can link ideas with actual people. So what I enjoyed most about the seminar was its helpful, informal, and incredible combination of “learning” and “people.” You can learn about the U.S.-ROK alliance and East Asian international relations by reading materials or attending lecture talks. But it is truly a rare opportunity if you can spend four days at a remote and beautiful conference center (known as “Island of Thought”) and ask questions in person to those who were directly involved in the affairs of the alliance. For example, I was aware of the OPCON issue (transfer of wartime operational control), but to hear a presentation by U.S. General Burwell Bell, who formerly served as commander of the Combined Forces Command and the U.S. Forces Korea, was a clearly more enriching experience than simply reading about it. This gave me a better sense of what it means for two countries to be in an alliance relationship.

Information Sharing for Diplomatic Interests

Information Sharing for Diplomatic Interests Similarly, my lunchtime conversation with Ms. Tami Overby of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who was involved in the KORUS FTA negotiations, was so fascinating, because she shared personal accounts about the U.S.-ROK trade relations that you would not find in media articles. This showed me how, behind the scenes, there are individuals like Ms. Overby who care deeply about the friendship between our two countries and have been working hard for our mutual interests. And of course, as a junior scholar, I took advantage of every opportunity to spend time with Professor Ha Young-Sun of SeoulNationalUniversity, who generously shared his advice on how I might better appreciate Asian diplomatic history as an international relations scholar.

The seminar couldn’t have come at a better time for me, too. I had just completed my first year of teaching at AmericanUniversity’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C. where students are always eager to learn more about how the world of diplomacy works in actual practice. The seminar provided me with valuable resources that will be helpful for my instruction of Korea/Asia-related courses. I also identified a dozen or so potential guest speakers whom my students would love to hear from. And fortunately, for those that I extended an invitation to visit my “Nuclear North Korea and Korean Politics” and “Foreign Policy” classes, during the course of the four-day event, everyone kindly agreed to share their firsthand knowledge and insight with my students.

Throughout the proceedings, due to my own research interest, I was most interested in seeking answers to the question: “How might these new developments in the U.S.-ROK alliance affect the regional security dynamics in East Asia?” In this regard, I learned a great deal from Professor Zhu Feng’s illuminating lecture on China’s approach to the KoreanPeninsula and U.S.-China relations. During the gathering’s four days, my own thinking on the relationship between the U.S.-ROK alliance and China, vis-à-vis North Korea, was further deepened by the questions of equally inquiring minds of other Fellows, as well as commentaries of various Faculty Members who raised diverse points from a new perspective.

The Working Group that I was assigned to spent much time and effort to identify specific nontraditional and security challenges at the regional and global levels, which are relevant to U.S.-ROK cooperation. The list included overseas development assistance, the rise of China and the changing security environment in Asia, climate change, Japan’s defense policy, human rights, and disaster relief operations. The Working Group session exercise showed me how grand concepts, such as “Global Korea” and “globalizing U.S.-ROK alliance,” can mean different things to different people, with varying degrees of importance. This is not necessarily a bad thing and certainly points to new challenges and opportunities. It also suggests that the U.S.-ROK relationship can benefit from engaging in further discussion and contemplation in Seoul and Washington, and across the region, about what this new post-Cold War adaptation of the alliance can and cannot be. The seminar was a rewarding experience, even though I left with more questions than answers.

Lee Ji-young,
Assistant Professor
School of International Service, AmericanUniversity

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