A Talk with America's Man in Seoul

Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard discusses U.S.-South Korean relations and the North Korean crisis

Even by the often volatile standards of the Korean peninsula, the last few months have been tumultuous. First, North Korea admitted in October that for years it had been secretly pursuing a nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with the U.S.

Then came a victory in the Dec. 19 South Korean presidential election by dark-horse candidate Roh Moo Hyun, a former dissident who in the past had called for the removal of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. In the days after the election, candlelight vigils protesting the acquittal by a U.S. military court of two American servicemen who had accidentally killed a pair of South Korean teenagers in a road accident vividly showed the antagonism that many younger Koreans feel toward the U.S.

Making matters worse, North Korea has repeatedly signaled its determination to push ahead with its nuclear program.

BusinessWeek Asia Regional Editor Mark L. Clifford and Seoul Bureau Chief Moon Ihlwan recently spoke with U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas C. Hubbard at his office in Seoul about these issues. Edited excerpts follow:

On U.S.-South Korean relations:

Relations between our two governments are better than they are often portrayed in the press. We both agree that we have an important relationship. We both agree we have economic ties that are important for both countries, we have many people-to-people ties, and we're working together on North Korea.

We share the same goal vis-á-vis North Korea. We both want a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula. We both want to resolve the nuclear issue in North Korea peacefully through diplomatic processes. We believe in the value of our coordination together with the Japanese and others. We agree more than we differ.

We've had a recent low point in public perceptions in Korea of the U.S.-Korea relationship in the aftermath in particular of this tragic accident in which two young teenage girls were killed. We've seen a lot of demonstrations. President-elect Roh Moo Hyun and President Kim Dae Jung have been very quick to say that these people are not anti-American. Most are just upset about the death and the way that was handled.

People don't really want an end to the alliance. In fact they don't want the withdrawal of our troops. They just want a change in relations, and there is a perception somehow of inequality in our relationship that they would like to see changed.

I think we, as Americans, have to recognize that there's a perception in Korea that this relationship is unequal, is unfair in some respects toward the Koreans, and reflects some degree of U.S. arrogance. I don't think this is the correct perception, but we have to work hard to correct it.

On specific steps that might change the relationship:

We need to address concerns about the security relationship. We have a lot of calls for a revision in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). We don't think we need to revise the SOFA. We did so just two years ago, but we are reexamining in a joint task force how we can improve implementation of the SOFA, how we can make it more transparent, how we make it more understandable to the Korean people.

We are also jointly examining the future of the alliance. Both sides agree that this alliance remains important, for North Korean and regional reasons, and that the alliance needs to involve some level of U.S. military presence on the peninsula. President-elect Roh has reaffirmed both of these points.

On the future of the U.S. base in Yongsan, in central Seoul:

We would like to move out of Yongsan. We agreed to do that 10 years ago, once we found a satisfactory location for replacement facilities, and that remains our position. We have reenergized our efforts over the past year and set up a joint working group on Yongsan location. We take that very seriously.

Many of our bases, which used to be isolated in rural areas are now surrounded by cities. We have agreed to a 10-year plan for reducing the number of our facilities. In fact, this 10-year plan calls for our giving up about 50% of the land now used for U.S. bases. That would be a starting point in a structural way for working on the future relationship. The 10-year plan was approved by the National Assembly in October, 2002.

Concepts of military operations have changed. We are moving toward a more mobile force worldwide, and we are looking to improve our ability to transport forces. The land issue has become an important one. We all agree that frictions would probably be reduced if we find ways to move our headquarters out of Seoul.

On the possibility of a U.S. troop withdrawal:

We don't foresee that happening. Both sides agree that some level of U.S. military presence is both desirable and necessary. Nobody is talking about a pullout of U.S. forces.

Some in the U.S. have been upset by some of the manifestations of hostilities toward the U.S. seen in demonstrations. They were disturbed when our solders were attacked on the streets. They were disturbed when restaurants and bars put up signs saying no Americans allowed. There are some in the U.S. who are upset about that and say if they don't want us we'll pull out. I don't hear anybody in the U.S. government saying that.

First and foremost, Koreans are not saying they want us to pull out. The President-elect has made it clear that he sees a future U.S. military presence here. The majority of the Korean people continue to support that. I think this whole seemingly anti-American mood in Korea is calming down. This is in part because the President is making clear he would like to see it come down. We will see a comparable reduction in some of the rash concepts Americans have developed. On perceived differences in the U.S. and South Korean approach to North Korea:

There's a sense that the average Korean is maybe less concerned about North Korean nuclear weapons than we think they ought to be. I think we see some of the answers by looking at what we see around us in Seoul. This is a very active, vibrant city. The Korean economy is very successful. Democracy is thriving. The last thing most Koreans want to think about is threats and wars. The younger generation has no direct memory of the Korean War.

I'm not altogether surprised that many Koreans perhaps don't want to think much about North Korean nuclear weapons. I know the current government is very concerned about North Korean nuclear weapons, and I'm confident, based on what they have said publicly and privately, that the incoming government is very concerned also.

It's more a matter of emphasis than either side ignoring the other. We have strongly supported Kim Dae Jung's efforts to engage North Korea and expect to continue to support the incoming government's approach to engage North Korea. We think that's a good thing for the long term.

The South Koreans have joined us in international organizations like the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. We agree that the issue should go to the U.N. Security Council very soon. We both agree the nuclear problem is a threat not only directly to South Korea but a threat to the global system. I see maybe here and there some differences in emphasis and rhetoric but very little difference in our approach.

Many South Koreans have to me the unreasonable perception that somehow the U.S. is going to deal unilaterally over their heads with North Korea. That is just preposterous. Relations with South Korea are at the center of our approach to North Korea. We won't do anything with North Korea without closest consultation with South Korea.

On North Korea:

I don't think anyone thinks they are close to collapse now. North Koreans are tough people. They have endured a lot of privations. Their economy, of course, is in deep trouble. The power situation is miserable. The industrial situation, partially as a result, is miserable. While their own crop has probably been better over the last year than in recent years, international food aid is down because the Japanese have not been a player over the last year. They've got to be feeling a pinch economically.

We all thought a few months ago that North Korea was reflecting this economic angst by reaching out to the Japanese, reaching out to the South Koreans, trying to establish bases for communications with us. They were introducing changes in the domestic economy that almost required that international assistance. They seemed to be reflecting their economic anxiety in important ways.

The problem is, we discovered they were also building a covert nuclear program, which is counter to their own interest. What we are trying to get across to North Korea is whatever their interests are, we don't want to see their economy collapse. We have no intention of making hostile moves against North Korea. We are not going to attack or invade North Korea. We would like to see a better life for the people of North Korea, but they've got to end this nuclear program.

On the Agreed Framework:

The agreement was not based on trust. With the situation we faced at the time and the circumstances of the negotiations with the North Koreans, we thought we got a deal that was somehow self-enforcing. In particular, the basic deal was that they wouldn't get the new power plant until they dismantled the current nuclear program, shipped out the spent fuel rods, and came to terms with the IAEA.

We think the Agreed Framework, while moving somewhat more slowly than anybody would want, mainly due to North Korean intransigence, was working. The nuclear program at Yongbyon was frozen.

A flaw that we recognized at the time in the Agreed Framework was that it put off the time when the North Koreans would actually have to take irreversible steps by shipping out the spent fuel rods and dismantling the reprocessing facilities of the other plant. That was a result of a very tough negotiation where we felt we got the best we could.

Another flaw pertained to the known existing nuclear program. And while the agreement contained clear language indicating that the North Koreans would not pursue alternative programs, in part by reference to the North-South Denuclearization Agreement, it did not provide its own means of verification to that effect.

It's clear that the agreement was flawed in those two ways. It didn't work. So it's time for a new approach -- a bold approach that President Bush had thought of presenting to the North Koreans, which could be characterized as "more for more." But at the moment, having discovered that the North Koreans have an alternative nuclear program and have taken these negative steps, we have no basis for proceeding with them.

[Under] Secretary for Arms Control & International Security [John R.] Bolton said on his recent visit to Seoul, "You can't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again." We've never declared the Agreed Framework dead. Some parts of the program are still going on. KEDO, which was the institution established under the Agreed Framework, continues to be staffed. The final disposition of the Agreed Framework is not made. The U.S. cannot make a unilateral decision on this, as there are three other important parties to the KEDO -- South Korea, Japan, and the European Union.

We've made clear that we're not going to bargain over North Korea's fulfillment of its international commitment. If North Korea clearly, verifiably, and irrevocably abandons its nuclear programs, and submits its whole program to IAEA safeguards, etc., then one could contemplate a bold approach that would involve some international cooperation. But we would not negotiate or pay them to end this program that they should not have in the first place.

On the meaning of the South Korean presidential election:

I think it reflects a general desire for Korea to see a younger generation come into power and bring about a societal change that parallels the tremendous economic and political changes we have seen here. Roh Moo Hyun seems to be the man of the hour.