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.