Richard Holbrooke on the Launching of New Songdo City

Richard Holbrooke
Richard Holbrooke

Remarks by Richard C. Holbrooke, Asia Society Chairman

Seoul
October 30, 2003

I am profoundly honored to be part of today’s ceremonies. What you are launching today will grow and resonate throughout Korea, throughout Asia, and throughout the world. I am confident that decades from now, people will come to New Songdo City and marvel. At Songdo, they will see the true genius and strength of the Korean people.

How fitting, therefore, that this extraordinary project will develop on the very same land where one of the most important military events of the last century unfolded – one that set the stage, although no one could have known it then, for the great project we celebrate today.

The Incheon landing on September 15, 1950, was an event of great daring and imagination. For weeks before the landing, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff had told General MacArthur that the operation was too dangerous. In July 1950, the Chiefs even traveled to Tokyo – a most unusual event – to tell MacArthur that he should land further south, where the tides were not so high and the risks far lower. MacArthur, of course was adamant. “We shall land at Incheon,” he said in typical MacArthur fashion, to the reluctant American Chiefs, “and I shall crush them!” Two months later, even as MacArthur assembled his forces, Washington still had not given him permission for the landing. Furious, MacArthur demanded approval, thundering back in a telegram, “It represents the only hope of wresting the initiative from the enemy and thereby presenting an opportunity for a decisive blow. To do otherwise is to commit us to a war of infinite duration, gradual attrition, and doubtful results…..” Finally, reluctantly, Washington gave him the green light.

At 6:25 a.m. on September 15, 1950, the forces of nine nations, under the flag of the United Nations, began the assault. Thousands of Republic of Korea Marines and Koreans directly under American command participated. Twenty-two minutes after landing, the forces took Cemetery Hill, which protected the causeway leading to Wolmi Do. A few hours later they took Observatory Hill which overlooked the city of Incheon. Less than two weeks later, the UN forces were in Seoul, and the North Koreans were in retreat. While the war would go on for more than two more years, the course of Korean history was forever altered.

Why do I begin by recalling this story, so familiar, I hope, to all of you?

For a very simple reason: We would not be standing here today, beginning this project, if it were not for the daring, skill, and sacrifice that took place in Incheon in 1950. Indeed, what we celebrate today may one day be called the Second Incheon Landing. It may one day be celebrated as something fully as remarkable, in its own way, as the first landing.

Both events have several things in common. Great daring. Vision and imagination. A determination to prevail over heavy odds. And an unbreakable Korean-American partnership.

But this has been the story of Korea for the last fifty years. No nation in the world – I mean this literally – has made as much progress in the last half-century as the Republic of Korea. Korea in 1953 was a physically destroyed, divided and very poor nation. Today it is the twelfth largest economy in the world.

I have been privileged to observe personally about sixty per cent of this remarkable growth since I first visited Korea in 1972. My frequent visits – almost 100 by my own count – since have made me a true believer in the genius and determination of the Korean people.

When I first visited Seoul, then a much smaller city, there was still a curfew, and I vividly remember people racing through the streets to get inside their homes or hotel rooms before the magic hour of 11:00 p.m. This was no joke; it was dangerous to be outside after curfew. The press was censored. Democracy was only the dream of a few brave dissidents, including one who had been kidnapped and whose life was in the greatest danger. His name was Kim Dae Jung. I remember racing to Seoul in1979, the day after President Park was assassinated; I was then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, and in the chaotic hours after President Park’s death we decided that, to show our support for the Korean people and to deter any temptation by North Korea to take advantage of the situation, we would move an entire American carrier task force into the Sea of Japan – a gesture much appreciated at the time.

Even then, however, the dynamism of the Korean people was already evident in South Korea’s rapid economic growth. But almost no one then thought that South Korea could make such a rapid and orderly transition to democracy, let alone host the Summer Olympics less than a decade after that dramatic event. I can remember arguing with learned conservative Americans over whether or not South Korea could become a democracy at all; many felt that Korea was not ready for democracy and that economic growth and political stability needed authoritarian rule. They were wrong.

I am well aware that some Koreans no longer wish to discuss all this history, that in the new attitude among many toward North Korea some feel that to revisit these events is to stir up old history best left buried. But my purpose in raising these memories is not to rekindle old anger or enmities. Rather, it is to stress how far the Republic of Korea has come in the course of less than thirty years – a very short time in the long and complicated history of Korea, and done so with continuous American friendship and support. I am told by my Korean friends that among some younger Koreans there is pessimism concerning their economic situation, or their political situation, or a new anti-Americanism. But let us put such views in their proper context: This is a natural product of democracy, and the Republic of Korea is now a fully functioning democracy. Democracy is sometimes messy, sometimes chaotic, and often disappointing – if you don’t believe me, look at the recent recall that led to Arnold Schwarznegger’s election as Governor of California, or ask Al Gore, who got 600,000 more votes nationally in 2000 than George W. Bush, but yielded gracefully to a controversial legal process that installed his opponent in the White House. But this is democracy – the best system of government in the long run, no matter what its difficulties, because, if properly structured, it allows the participation of everyone.

But back to New Songdo City. What the planners of this project have in mind sounds, at first reading, almost incredible. The numbers, the scale, would astonish even MacArthur: 1400 acres, 35,000 high rise apartments, 40 million square feet of office space, 11 public multilingual schools, a Jack Nicklaus golf course, world class restaurants, a waterfront that rivals Chicago, canals that rival Venice. And a hub of intelligence, art and technology that will rival any city in the world: a 60-story international trade center, top notch research and medical facilities, world renown art museums, and a multi-million dollar cultural center dedicated to leading performing artists, entertainment, and music. All of this to be completed in a remarkable 10 years time. Yet, I am certain it will all come to pass. This great nation has proven over and over again that it can do whatever it sets our to do (usually ahead of schedule and under budget).

Curiously, at times I have been more optimistic about Korea than many of my Korean friends themselves. Perhaps that is because I live far away, do not speak the language (although I love the food) and am mercifully uninvolved in the hurly-burly of domestic Korean politics. But this distance from details may make it easier for me to see South Korea whole, in the context of its tremendous achievement since 1979. I hope that every Korean understands this, and continues to take the same sort of pride in Korea that has always been a hallmark of this amazing country.

Of course, no one should yet confuse Korea with a fully normal country. To be sure, three of the four conditions for a normal nation are now in place. South Korea is a democratic nation, with freedom of speech and free and fair elections. It has a vibrant economy that is increasingly open. It is an accepted member of the international community, a member of the United Nations, and one of the world’s largest economies. These are tremendous achievements.

But Korea is still divided. As long as Korea’s northern half remains under the control of a totalitarian regime that starves its people, controls their lives completely, and threatens its neighbors and other countries with its military might and its propensity to develop a nuclear capability and nuclear fuels that it can export, then the situation in Korea cannot be called “normal”. Since we are currently in the midst of delicate negotiations, it would not be helpful for me, as a private citizen, to address the specific issues on the table in the talks between the United States, China, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan. But I do wish to underscore my firm belief that in the long run the Korean peninsula must and will be unified, but this should happen only in a manner acceptable to all the people of Korea.

Even though the division is now many decades old, it is unnatural, as all Koreans know in their hearts. Although I cannot offer any timetable or process, ending the division of Korea must remain a goal for the people of Korea as well as the rest of the world. This event, when it comes, will not be easily controllable or predictable. It may be calm and orderly, or it may be confusing and chaotic, given the vast differences in the way the two Koreas have developed. As the American Ambassador in Germany just after German unification, I saw first-hand how the Germans dealt with a similar problem. It was sometimes painful, it was expensive, and it did not always work perfectly. But it was so much better than the preservation of the artificial division of the country. In the end, it was a success. So, I believe, will ultimately be the case in Korea. Unification will be costly, but it will unleash the creative genius of the Korean people. In the end, it will make Korea a stronger nation, a greater economic force in the world.

Meanwhile, Americans will continue to support Korea, as we have since 1950. There is very little political disagreement over this issue, even in the wake of America’s new and difficult engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Americans are enormously grateful for Korea’s contributions to the efforts in both countries, and especially your plans to send more troops to Iraq soon. Americans will never forget Korea, and the growing importance of the Korean-American community in the United States makes that all the more certain.

I heard, from time to time, of growing anti-Americanism among young people in Korea, but as long as this is directed at specific actions or policies, rather than the United States as a whole, I would consider this a manifestation of the very democracy we favored rather than a fundamental change in attitudes towards the United States. Surely the majority of South Koreans, mindful of recent history, and aware that North Korea still poses a threat to peace on the peninsula, recognizes that despite differences and unfortunate incidents, the underlying fundamentals of the relationship remain vital. The great project we celebrate tonight is one more proof of the unbreakable ties between Korea and the United States.

And so I salute you – all of you associated with this great project. The City of Incheon. POSCO. The Gale Corporation. The entire government of Korea. And, above all, the indomitable spirit of the Korean people themselves. I know you, for over thirty years. I have come to learn that on one – but NO ONE – should ever underestimate the Korean people. You have repeatedly defied predictions and overcome obstacles that would have defeated lesser people. I know that, at Songdo City and elsewhere, you will do it again.

Thank you.