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Melting 50 Years of Ice: South Korean Ambassador Yang Sung-Chul
The Washington Diplomat / October 2000

By Larry Luxner

In the last few months, the world has seen and heard more about the divided Korean peninsula than at any time since the Korean War half a century ago.

Emotionally wrenching reunions between families long separated by the war have aired repeatedly on television, along with footage of the presidents of North and South Korea cheerfully toasting each other in Pyongyang -- powerful images that would have been unimaginable even five years ago.

Close to the center of all this drama has been Sung Chul Yang, a distinguished academic, member of South Korea's National Assembly and the country's new envoy to the United States.

Last month, Yang granted The Washington Diplomat an exclusive one-hour interview -- his first with any U.S. media outlet since his appointment as ambassador on Aug. 17.

During the meeting, Yang frequently praised his boss, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, for having laid the groundwork for reconciliation between the two Koreas.

"President Kim seldom uses the word unification, even though all our previous presidents used that word," says Yang. "He is more interested in removing the last vestiges of the Cold War. He feels that it's a national shame, that here we are in the year 2000, and we haven't removed this barrier."

Yang, 61, knows that barrier all too well. His wife, Chung Chin-Lee, was born in North Korea right before the Korean War--her grandfather had spent some time as a pineapple picker in Hawaii -- and fled with her family at the age of 2.

"South Korea is today a full-fledged democracy, but we have endured half a century of this Cold War mentality," he says. "All my life, I have struggled with this."

Yang, a forceful, articulate diplomat with a very impressive resume and an easy sense of humor, earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Seoul National University in 1964, then worked for a few years as a newspaper reporter -- even though South Korea at that time was a military dictatorship that tolerated little dissent from either journalists or academics.

In 1967, Yang went on to earn a master's degree in political science from the University of Hawaii. After graduating with a doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 1970, Yang spent 16 years as a professor in that state, teaching political science at both Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky in Lexington -- and learning first-hand about life in America's heartland.

Upon returning to Korea in 1986, the future ambassador began teaching at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Seoul's Kyung-Hee University. During that time, he published dozens of articles, on topics ranging from "Korean-US Relations in a Changing World" (Berkeley East Asian Studies Series, 1990) to "The North and South Korean Political Systems: A Comparative Analysis" (Westview, 1994).

In 1996, Yang entered the political arena, becoming a member of the Korean National Assembly. He used his academic expertise to win appointments to several assembly committees, including the Unification and Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as the Political Reform Committee.

Yang and his wife, also a professor, have two children: Eugene, 33, a medical student at Stanford University, and Susan, 30, who works for a private foundation in San Francisco.

Before his current posting to Washington, D.C., in August, Yang served as president of the Unification and Policy Forum, as well as chairman of the International Cooperation Committee for the National Congress for New Politics.

In his new job at the Korean Embassy fronting Massachusetts Avenue, Yang oversees a staff of 150, including 75 diplomats. He's also in charge of nine Korean consulates across the nation.

"I'm very honored to be the first ambassador of South Korea to the United States in the new millennium," says Yang, whose first official function upon taking office was attending the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. "This is a very crucial time to be here. I hope we can prosper together and that bilateral relations will be outstanding par excellence."

Last year, despite the recent Asian financial crisis that devastated economies throughout the region, bilateral trade between Washington and Seoul totaled $55 billion, with the Koreans enjoying a $3.4 billion trade surplus. Overall, South Korea ranks as America's sixth-best customer worldwide, and number four when it comes to agriculture. Only Canada, Mexico and China bought more U.S. farm products in 1999.

"For the last half a century, the United States and Korea have been the model example of how two countries cooperate and prosper," says Yang. "I myself, a child of the Korean War, am grateful to America for what America has done. Even during the IMF [International Monetary Fund] crisis, America was the first country to help us, and we remember this."

South Korea, with 46 million people, is a major U.S. ally and economic partner. Its $406.7 billion economy translates into a per-capita Gross Domestic Product of $8,680. North Korea, on the other hand, has 22 million people and no diplomatic or commercial relations with the United States, and its GDP is well under $1,000.

The two Koreas have technically been at war since 1950, when the communist North -- with help from the Chinese -- attacked the capitalist South. A 1953 armistice put an end to the fighting, but not to the hostilities. Today, some 2 million troops remain stationed along the world's most heavily militarized border just north of Seoul.

That number includes 37,000 U.S. troops--an imposing presence unlikely to be reduced any time soon.

"The U.S.-Korean military alliance is the only one we have had for the last 50 years. It's the foundation, the pivot of our foreign policy. President Kim never loses sight of this," says Yang. "We often underestimate the deterrence track. Yet, surprisingly, it was [North Korea's] Kim Jong-il who formally acknowledged the productive role U.S. forces play in the Asian region."

That's not to say bilateral relations are perfect -- they're not.

"Some elements of our relationship must be improved," says Yang, mentioning environmental and quarantine issues, as well as better legal protection for Korean workers attached to U.S. bases. "We don't have the authority to deal with crimes committed by U.S. soldiers, as do the Japanese."

Yet Yang says "we have achieved an economic miracle as well as a political miracle. We are more progressive than anyone else in Asia. The United States and South Korea should mutually recognize the enormous political changes we have witnessed in each other's countries."

Yang says President Kim -- now two and a half years into his five-year term -- has a far more pragmatic approach towards North Korea than did any of his predecessors.

"President Kim asked me why the Soviet Union collapsed while China opened up. He said it's not by a confrontational approach, but by engaging them," Yang explained. "North Korea is no exception. Even though they're very stubborn and resistant, they will change. The president told me to tell my American friends this."

In addition, he notes, "all the previous [South Korean] governments insisted that in order to establish diplomatic relations with the North, other countries had to go through Seoul. But President Kim urges our friends and allies to establish direct relations. Italy, the Philippines and Australia have already done so. President Kim firmly believes that opening up North Korea to the outside world will create an atmosphere of improvement."

Apparently, that policy is paying off better than anyone had expected. In June, the two Kims met for an unprecedented summit in Pyongyang that resulted in an immediate thawing of icy relations between North and South. This was followed by a reunion of 100 families on each side that had been separated by the war for 50 years.

In early September, North and South Korea marched under a unified flag at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Later in the month -- with colorful balloons and lots of symbolism -- South Korea began rebuilding its side of a rail link between Seoul and Pyongyang that had been severed since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

And most recently, Kim Yong Sun, head of North Korea's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, led an eight-member delegation to Seoul, which is likely to pave the way for Kim Jong-il's long-anticipated visit to South Korea -- now expected to take place in March or April 2001.

Asked why all this dizzying flurry of activity is taking place now, after so many years of hateful propaganda emanating from both sides, Ambassador Yang offers two reasons: "First, economic desperation facing North Korea, and secondly, President Kim's clear and consistent policy towards the North."

"In the past, the North tried to provoke the South," he points out. "The first thing the president said upon taking office was that South Korea would not tolerate North Korean military aggression. Secondly, he said the South has no intention of absorbing the North. By the same token, the North must not try to communize the South. Thirdly, if we agree on these two points, we can talk about reconciliation and mechanisms for cooperation. He has been very consistent in pushing for this policy."

Yang says 70 percent of the South Korean people support Kim's opening to the North, which is also leading to greater economic cooperation between the two adversaries.

"The border between North and South Korea is becoming less tight," he says. "Airplanes are now moving back and forth. Hyundai is talking about developing a free-trade zone in the North. And Mount Kumgang has been opened to foreign tourists since about three months ago. Last year, I took a passenger cruise there myself. Almost 350,000 South Koreans have already gone to the North."

No less than 30 South Korean conglomerates, including electronics giants Lucky-Goldstar and Samsung, are now seriously thinking about establishing factories in the North. Their objective is to take advantage of North Korea's incredibly cheap wages, which would make the companies' products more competitive on the world market, while providing employment to thousands of desperate North Koreans.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, not all of Yang's time is devoted to North-South relations. He's also in Washington to push trade and tourism, and to promote South Korea as a stable country in which to invest.

"Last month, the IMF formally announced that South Korea had 'graduated' from the list of problem countries [affected by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis]," he says. "But this doesn't mean we don't have problems. We have a lot of problems. We must pursue reform in four sectors: business, labor, financial and government. We have concrete plans to relentlessly pursue these reforms without delay."

It's clear that Yang, with his overwhelming academic and political credentials, is being groomed by President Kim for higher office -- he may even run for president himself someday.

Yet when grilled about that possibility, Yang's answer is pretty much the same as when we asked him whether Washington ought to drop its proposed strategic missile defense shield against North Korea: "As a prudent diplomat, I should refrain from commenting."

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