Ambassador to U.S. Discusses North Korea, KORUS FTA

September 13th, 2012

The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea (AMCHAM) hosted a talk in Seoul by South Korea’s ambassador to the U.S., Young-jin Choi, on the topic of “21st Century and Trade Paradigm.” In his speech, as well as in answers to questions from the audience, Choi offered many interesting insights into North Korea, the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and a great number of other issues having a vital impact on the Korean Peninsula. Since taking up his current position, Choi has only been back to South Korea twice, and it was during one of these visits that he gave today’s AMCHAM talk.

Choi, a career diplomat, was appointed to his current post in March 2012 by South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak. Since joining Seoul’s foreign ministry in 1972, he has held numerous positions as a Korean diplomat and UN official; including serving as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Cote D’Ivoire from 2008 to 2011 as well as Permanent Representative of Korea to the UN from 2005 to 2007. His certification of the Ivorian presidential elections during his tenure and his leadership as the head of UN Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) are considered to have been instrumental in resolving the post-electoral crisis there.

He started out his speech by pointing out that he wanted to offer some guidelines for planning the future given that this year, North Korea has a new leader, the U.S., China and South Korea will be choosing their leaders, and Japan will also probably select an individual to lead its people. Thus, he said, many countries impacting South Korea would all be undergoing a leadership renewal or change in 2012.

Those guidelines, according to Choi, demand that we adopt two guiding principles. One is the paradigm of trade, which countries must embrace instead of the military-first paradigm of raid. The other is the Pacific era, which has now supplanted the era of the Atlantic.

The ambassador said that FTAs were “mushrooming and in this age of economic interdependence, North Korea could not continue down its path of putting military strength above all else and developing nuclear weapons.” Instead, Pyongyang must “get away from the paradigm of raid and embrace the paradigm of trade, including foreign investment, if it wants to survive and not be isolated.”

In addition, he used a comparison of the former Soviet Union and communist China to show how countries must follow the paradigm of trade instead of the paradigm of raid. “The ex-Soviet Union collapsed because it refused to give up its paradigm of raid and its military-first policy. By contrast, communist China adopted the paradigm of trade instead of putting primary importance on building up its military. So it became wealthy and successful,” according to Choi. “In the past, until 50 years ago, we had raids, wars and plundering. But now we have competition in trade,” he added.

According to Choi, “For at least the last 500 years, we were living with the Atlantic era, with Western countries out to conquer and colonize the world.” But as “the paradigm of trade replaced the paradigm of raid,” he said, “there was no region in the world that could compete with East Asia when it comes to making the trade paradigm work for itself.” He cited the examples of Japan rising in the past to become the second biggest economy in the world, as well as China also repeating Japan’s success and growing its economy to No. 2 among all countries. On top of that, he said, “the example of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong – also shows the rise of East Asia and the arrival of the Pacific era.”

He also emphasized the importance of the KORUS FTA in “deterring the North Korean threat, in addition to promoting the peace and stability of all of Northeast Asia, because it has strengthened the South Korea-U.S. alliance in this era where the trade paradigm has replaced the raid paradigm.”

Choi called on “the new regime in North Korea” to “come in from the cold by adopting the trade paradigm instead of sticking to the raid paradigm at the expense of the North Korean people’s livelihoods,” and expressed confidence that “all of the countries other than North Korea involved in the six-nation talks on denuclearizing the North – South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia – will start to help Pyongyang if it does so.”

When asked how he thought the upcoming presidential elections in the U.S. would affect U.S. policy toward North Korea, the ambassador said he thought “whether Obama or Romney is elected, they will not take an unduly tough stance toward North Korea. The reason is that China is a major ally of the North and the U.S. has to maintain good relations with Beijing because it is such an important trading partner of America.”

For instance, he said, “my private conversations with the Romney camp indicate that in contrast to the hardline stance they say on their Web site they will adopt if Romney is elected president, they don’t want to push China too far and will urge greater restraint in being tough on North Korea than what their Internet site says.” He also said he was “confident no matter who is elected this year as president of America and South Korea, they have the right mindset to handle North Korea well.”

Another audience member asked Choi if South Korea was being too deferential toward China in handling issues such as Kim Young-hwan, a North Korean human rights activist who is a South Korean citizen and who claims to have been tortured while he was being detained in China for trying to promote North Korean human rights. Choi answered, “The problem is we always have to maintain our alliance with the U.S. while cooperating with China. This is a difficult stance for the South Korean government to maintain and Seoul is bound to run into criticisms as a result.”

Finally, when the ambassador was asked what the prospects were for the resumption of bilateral talks between South and North Korea or the reopening of the six-nation talks now that Pyongyang is reported to have accepted flood aid from Seoul, he said  “it is not possible to say yet until South Korea talks more with North Korea because Pyongyang has only accepted the aid in principle and has not gotten beyond asking Seoul what type of aid items it plans to send, and how much, after South Korea offered the flood assistance to North Korea.”

Also, he added, “It is too early to tell whether Kim Jong-un will adopt capitalistic reforms even though he has shown some indication that he plans to do so in the future. So we still don’t know whether he will make a clear choice embracing the trade paradigm instead of the raid paradigm.”

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About the Author

Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang is a freelance broadcast and print journalist. She is now a Seoul-based correspondent with Global Radio News in London, and makes appearances as a reporter on English-language TV networks around the world. She also contributes articles to various publications such as the Christian Science Monitor's Global News Blog and Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Report, a magazine with subscribers in over 30 Asia-Pacific nations. Prior to working for GRN, she covered North and South Korea for the U.S. network, CBS Radio News.