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[Herald Interview] Korea-U.S. alliance linchpin of regional peace: ambassador

The top U.S. envoy to Korea has reaffirmed America’s security commitment to its key regional ally, stressing that his country “stands steadfast” alongside South Korea in countering North Korean military threats.

“The level of trust between our governments remains very high, as demonstrated in the operational control agreement, the special measures agreement and the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement,” the U.S. Ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert told The Korea Herald at the ambassador’s residence Habib House in Seoul last Thursday.

“We have a bilateral relationship that takes on increasingly complex issues, beyond the peninsula and into the region and the world.”
Mark Lippert, the 22nd U.S. Ambassador to Korea, speaks to The Korea Herald about Korea-U.S. relations, North Korea policy and engagement with China at the ambassador’s residence Habib House, Seoul, Thursday. (U.S. Embassy)
Mark Lippert, the 22nd U.S. Ambassador to Korea, speaks to The Korea Herald about Korea-U.S. relations, North Korea policy and engagement with China at the ambassador’s residence Habib House, Seoul, Thursday. (U.S. Embassy)

The U.S. and Korea agreed to postpone the transfer of operational control indefinitely last October to hedge against possible North Korean military attacks; the special measures agreement came into force last April to share costs for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea.

Lippert said that the United States’ North Korea policy has been based on three objectives: North Korea’s denuclearization, Korean unification, and regional peace and prosperity.

The Obama administration will press on with these objectives for the remainder of the term, he explained, adding that “It is imperative to keep moving in the followed trajectory to enhance our alliance.”

The ambassador brushed away the criticism that Washington has been inactive in engaging Pyongyang. “Politically, we have tried hard to isolate the North by imposing sanctions through the international community, principally the United Nations,” he said. “Economically, we raised the cost of the nuclear weapons program.

“On the security side, we have established a viable and robust deterrent to keep North Korean threats at bay through the U.S.-Korea military alliance,” he emphasized.

Lippert criticized Pyongyang for insisting on “conditions and caveats” for inter-Korean dialogue, but indicated that the U.S. had left the door open for dialogue. “If Pyongyang stands ready for credible and authentic talks that lead to verifiable, irreversible and complete denuclearization, the U.S. will engage the regime as it has done with Cuba, Iran and Myanmar,” he said.

Touching on U.S.-China relations ― described as a “multifaceted, complicated and dynamic relationship” ― Lippert said, “The U.S. is clear-eyed about the regional security challenges that China poses although open and hopeful to collaborate and compete with China, particularly on the economic front in an integrated global market.”

The ambassador said that his government aimed to engage with the Chinese more deeply across a wide range of issues. “Together we can strengthen international law to promote peace and sustainability for our common future,” he said.

The youngest and first politically appointed U.S. ambassador to Korea, Lippert, 41, said one of the biggest challenges of being an ambassador was managing his schedule. “As the U.S. president’s direct representative, I’m in a unique position to be responsible for the entire enterprise of my country,” he noted.

“Every single issue of our government and people potentially falls under my portfolio. Managing these responsibilities with all the invitations and opportunities to explore the country is the toughest tradeoff I have to make every day.”

Apart from his formal duties, Lippert plans to reach all corners of Korean society using social media tools and face-to-face meetings. He has an active Twitter account and a blog that shows his family life with his pet dog Grigsby.

His wife Robyn gave birth to a son, James William “Sejun” Lippert, in Seoul on Jan. 19.

Lippert replaced Sung Kim last October. Previously he served as a foreign policy adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama and a military advisor to U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)
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