For spring 2015, The Diplomat presents “Diplomatic Access,” a series of exclusive interviews with ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region. By talking to these diplomats, we’ll give readers a sense of each country’s perspective on various regional economic and security trends — from TPP to the Silk Road Economic Belt; from the South China Sea disputes to the Islamic State. Check out the whole series to date here.
In this interview, His Excellency Ahn Ho-Young, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the U.S., outlines South Korea’s concerns about and hopes for the Asia-Pacific region, including the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.
The Diplomat: From the Republic of Korea’s perspective, what are the greatest threats to regional security?
Amb. Ahn: It could be said with no hesitation that North Korea’s nuclear development is the single greatest threat not only to the peace and stability of Northeast Asia, but also the world. In particular, by pursuing the incompatible and contradictory policies of simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and its economy (the so-called “Byong-jin policy”), the Kim Jong-un regime has further deteriorated the human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea. At the same time, North Korea also continues to raise tensions in the region through a series of missile launches, which are clear violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and threats of further provocation. It is assumed that North Korea is developing its long-range missile capability that could ultimately reach the continental United States, thus posing a serious security threat to the United States as well. Together, these factors increase the risk of a security and humanitarian crisis that could destabilize and threaten the entire region.
Meanwhile, while the economies of Northeast Asia have grown increasingly interdependent, mutual distrust and conflict remain in the political and security realms. This so-called ‘Asian Paradox’ presents yet another challenge to regional security by preventing regional cooperation.
What can be done to address these threats?
The Korea-US Alliance has been the linchpin of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia for the past 60 years and will continue to contribute to the region’s security.
In order to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and bring sustainable peace to the Korean Peninsula, provocations by the North should be deterred through close Korea-U.S. cooperation. At the same time, our countries should create an environment in which there is no choice for North Korea but to change while concurrently making efforts to build the foundation for peaceful reunification.
The Korean government has maintained close cooperation with the other participants of the Six-Party Talks, namely the United States, Japan, China, and Russia. Additionally, through the “the Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula,” South Korea leaves the door open for dialogue and cooperation so that North Korea can come out as a responsible member of the international community and pursue the path of peace and co-prosperity.
Meanwhile, to address the Asian Paradox, President Park Geun-hye has sought to address the long-standing mistrust and confrontation in the region by sowing the seeds of trust and cooperation. The president understands that the countries in the region need to build habits of cooperation and dialogue, and has proposed the “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” to do just that.
This initiative suggests that accumulated cooperation and dialogue among the countries in the region on specific and practical issues such as nuclear safety, climate change, humanitarian assistance, and energy security can be developed into a multilateral cooperation mechanism in Northeast Asia, as has been seen in Europe. Track-2 consultations have already taken place on various topics over the past couple of years, and the first Track-1 dialogue took place in Seoul last October.
There are a number of regional economic deals in the works, from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and even the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. What is Seoul’s vision for economic integration in the region?
Korea has been, and remains, a key player in the regional integration process in East Asia and beyond. We believe that reducing trade barriers and facilitating the flow of trade across the region are essential to mutually shared prosperity, and we will continue to work to expand our trade partnerships with neighbors near and far.
Korea currently has 11 FTAs in effect with a total of 49 countries, including comprehensive FTAs with the United States and the European Union, which took effect in 2012 and 2011 respectively. In addition, Korea successfully concluded FTA negotiations with China in November 2014. Implementation of that agreement will mean that Korea’s FTA territory, represented by the combined GDP of countries with which it has a free trade pact, expands to 73 percent of global GDP.
About TPP and RECP in particular, Korea already has bilateral trade agreements with many of the participating countries. Given that, the Korean government will be in a special position to promote regional integration and serve as a linchpin between the existing bilateral FTAs and ongoing mega-regional FTA negotiations.
The U.S. has committed to sustaining its presence in the Asia-Pacific region as part of its “rebalance to Asia” strategy. In the ROK’s view, what role can the U.S. play in maintaining regional security? What are the prospects for trilateral security cooperation between the ROK, the U.S., and Japan?
The Obama administration realized that the future of the United States lies in the Asia-Pacific and has pursued the ‘rebalance to Asia’ policy. Korea welcomes this policy because the United States is an indispensable nation to the peace and stability of Northeast Asia.
The Korean government prioritizes the Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation on North Korean issues and has participated in consultations at various levels, including between our heads of state.
The Korean government has also worked closely with the other member countries of the Six-Party Talks on ways to bring real progress to the North Korean nuclear issue and will continue these efforts through bilateral and multilateral consultations.
Given a recent rise in China-U.S. tensions, how does the ROK balance its long-time alliance with the U.S. with a productive relationship with Beijing?
Some argue that the Korea-U.S. and Korea-China relations are a zero-sum game, but this is absolutely untrue. Both relationships are key for Korea and have developed simultaneously.
The Korea-U.S. relationship has both deepened and broadened over the past 60 years. Indeed, it could be said that the partnership has never been stronger than it is now. Meanwhile under the Park administration, Korea-China relations have continued to flourish.
Moreover, the United States supports the balanced development of the Korea-U.S. Alliance and the Korea-China relationship, and believes that the development of both relationships will contribute to the peace and stability of the region.
To resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and realize the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, close cooperation with both the United States and China are essential. Thus my government will continue its efforts to engage in close consultations with the United States, China, and other partners.
President Park has placed a recent emphasis on increasing exchanges with the DPRK and even pursuing the ultimate goal of unification. Are there any concrete actions Seoul would need to see from Pyongyang to help pave the way for greater inter-Korea cooperation?
At the end of last year, the ROK Government announced guidelines to make 2015 a year of practically building the foundation of peaceful reunification and proposed to the North an inter-Korean dialogue on issues of mutual interest. Through her New Year’s statement and her Independence Movement Day Address, President Park has urged Pyongyang to not avoid our proposal and to be more cooperative in this process.
The ROK Government considers the reunification of the Peninsula as a future that all parties will build together, not one that will remain an unrealistic dream. And as my government has put a lot of effort into building a substantive foundation for peaceful reunification, we hope that North Korea will come out of its isolation by engaging in sincere dialogue and embarking on the path of change.