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Woodrow Wilson Center inaugurates its very own Korea center
Diplomatic Pouch / June 18, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Nearly 65 years to the day after the beginning of the Korean War, Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center — one of the capital’s most prestigious think tanks — launched its new Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy.

On hand to inaugurate the new center June 10 were Ho-young Ahn, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States; Sun Jounyung, former Korean envoy to the United Nations; Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and other dignitaries.

“Since the 1990s, our history and public policy program has been the one-stop shop in Washington for archival sources on Korea,” said Wilson Center President Jane Harman. “We do the deep dive on Korea, thanks to more than 100,000 documents in our Korea archive, but our programming is not just looking back, but looking forwards. Korea is embedded in the work we do, and we think with this new program we will make Korea so much more important in Washington.”

The center will be bankrolled through a generous gift from South Korean auto manufacturer Hyundai, with additional funding from the Korea Foundation. Neither entity disclosed the dollar value of their respective donations to the Wilson Center, which is located in the massive Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

“This is certainly a very historic day for me,” said Ahn, who’s been Seoul’s top diplomat in Washington since July 2013. “The first time I came to the Woodrow Wilson Center was in 1990, when I was first secretary at the embassy and didn’t have any white hair at all. I didn’t know, at that time, that one day I would have this pleasure of participating in a ceremony to open the Center for Korean History and Public Policy.”

The ambassador, noting that his respect for the think tank has only grown over the past quarter-century, said he’s confident the U.S.-Korea relationship will endure for another 60 years.

Next on the podium was Kwang-guk Lee, Hyundai’s senior vice-president and chief executive coordinator. He said initial meetings in January 2013 led to a series of discussions in Seoul and Washington, eventually culminating in the center’s opening.

“We’ve developed a deep understanding and respect for the values the Woodrow Wilson Center represents,” Lee said. “Today, I’m pleased to announce our commitment, which marks the next step in our journey together. I’m certain this program will contribute to a positive relationship between our two countries. The United States and Korea share strong economic, cultural and security bonds.”

Lee said Hyundai has created more than 100,000 jobs in the United States and has invested $2.8 billion in manufacturing, research and development, and is “committed to building safe and green cars for the future.”

Some 2,700 people work at the Hyundai car plant in Montgomery, Ala., transforming vehicles “from sheet metal to street legal” in 19 hours. The factory contributes $3.8 billion to Alabama’s economy annually.

The new center becomes the fourth of its kind in Washington devoted to Korea, said Dr. Hyun-seok Yu, president of the Korea Foundation.

“My hope is that we can have one or two more before my term ends,” he said. “Since its establishment in 1991, our foundation has been working very closely with the Woodrow Wilson Center to promote greater awareness of Korea in the U.S. and around the world. As a political scientist, I knew about the Woodrow Wilson Center long before I joined the foundation.”

James Person, the newly created center’s deputy director, said one of his goals will be to advance research on North Korea, “a country many of us see as being unknown and unknowable.”

“Our documents that we’ve obtained from international archives advance our historical knowledge, but also have real policy relevance,” he explained. “They allow us to do long-term trends and patterns, and more accurately interpret current developments. A better understanding of the past also helps us understand the strength of the U.S.-Republic of Korea relationship today.”

That relationship was the focus of a keynote address by the final speaker, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Korea Caucus.

“This new center devoted to Korea comes at a very important time,” said Royce, noting that South Korea now ranks as the sixth-largest U.S. trading partner. Last year, two-way trade amounted to $114.1 million, exceeded only by Canada, China, Mexico, Japan and Germany.

“When I travel across my district, I visit veterans who served in the Korean War, and they share with me what they saw with their own eyes on the ground 65 years ago. And you think of the magnitude of what the Koreans went through — the loss of 2.5 million civilians,” said Royce.

“Ultimately, it wasn’t just a matter of seeing that Korea remained free,” he continued. “It was, over the years, watching Korea push itself toward democracy and reforms that ultimately led to what we see today. That’s why Americans take great pride in this relationship. We feel the affinity but we’ve also pushed a number of policies that I think have been mutually beneficial.”

Royce said his biggest hope is that the center will be instrumental in getting more information into North Korea, and pushing for human rights there.

“We need to press countries like China to properly treat North Korean refugees,” he said. “In the meantime, myself and Charlie Rangel are pushing legislation that would allow Americans of North Korean heritage to have reunions with their families there.”

Royce added that Beijing “can be part of the solution here.”

“There’s a lot of angst now in Beijing about how uncertain the leadership has become in North Korea, and there is concern about whether or not we can collectively do something to bring some kind of order out of the chaos we’re seeing there,” he explained. “Now it’s a question of how we establish that leverage. If China helps, it gives us a better chance of getting there.”

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