Westin Josun, Orchid Room
Greetings and thank you to Chairman Choi for inviting me to speak as we prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of our historic alliance – one that made us not only allies for our shared security and defense, but ultimately partners in prosperity and the closest of friends. But I’m not going to talk about history. I’m sure that as members of the Korea-America Association, you know it better than I do. Instead, I want to start with a story from the New York Times that you may have missed over the holidays. It’s about a journey that I think is a true reflection of what our alliance means today.
Just days before Christmas, a monstrous snowstorm hit the western part of New York state. That area is used to blizzards, but this one proved unprecedented and thirty-nine people lost their lives in that storm. But nine tourists from South Korea weren’t among them. Their van got stuck in a snowdrift in a small town and they knocked on the nearest door hoping to borrow a shovel to try and dig themselves out. Instead, a dentist and his wife took them all into their home for the weekend. The reporter who wrote the story noted that the Korean guests were surprised their American hosts had things like mirin, sesame oil, and gochujang in the pantry…even kimchi and a rice cooker! They waited out the storm together watching American football, eating jeyuk bokkeum and dakdoritang, and getting to know one another. They had to say goodbye before they got to the bulgogi, with the travelers saying it was fate that they’d ended up stranded with an American family who had a passion for Korean food. Though I’d argue it probably wasn’t as much of a coincidence as you might think.
In the years that followed the war, it was common to find an American staple in Korean kitchens. That’s right, our culinary alliance started in the 1950s with SPAM. That was out of necessity, but as the ROK prospered, Koreans would grow to embrace McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and later the ubiquitous Starbucks. But in recent years, the tides have turned and Americans are now craving Korean food—like budae jigae, chimek, and kimchi. Kimchi Day is now celebrated in states across our country, and Maryland added itself to the list last year after Yumi Hogan announced the state’s governor’s mansion was the first in America with its own kimchi fridge. It would be interesting to ask if the new governor Wes Moore is using the kimchi fridge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he said yes – and you shouldn’t be either.
The truth is we’ve been fascinated by each other’s cultures for generations. In the decades that followed the establishment of our alliance, Koreans watched American movies and TV shows – I hear crime series’ like NCIS and CSI were particularly popular here. But last month, America’s biggest streaming service, Netflix, announced that over a third of the content on its platform is now Korean. Raise your hand if you listened to American bands as a teenager – I understand there were a lot of Korean Neil Diamond fans at one time. Korean teens still listen to American hits, but young people across our country are just as likely to be listening to K-Pop today.
The fact that young people on both sides of the Pacific continue to share that mutual curiosity is important. I’m reassured when I see overwhelming support for the U.S.-ROK alliance among those under thirty here in Korea. That tells me that they have a deep understanding of its continued relevance to their future security and prosperity. They’re right, and we’re working to make sure it stays that way.
In 1953, what stood between South Koreans and hostile forces were troops and tanks. Guns and mortars. Those will still be a factor in the joint exercises our militaries conduct this year, but so will next-generation fighters, unmanned vehicles, and state of the art communications systems—many of which are being developed domestically by Korean companies. It’s essential that the rapid expansion of the ROK defense industry serves to improve the interoperability and compatibility of our forces.
Likewise, our troops must continue to exercise joint capabilities using real-world scenarios based on emerging threats. The ROK sent a naval fleet of unprecedented scale to a U.S.-led, multilateral exercise last summer, with a Korean general in command of an Expeditionary Strike Group for the first time. More recent trilateral and multilateral missile defense and anti-submarine drills were a clear demonstration of our resolve to defend our shared security interests in Northeast Asia and beyond.
We have even prepared for future contingencies by establishing the first overseas U.S. Space Force unit here on the Korean Peninsula. As Secretary of Defense Austin said during his recent visit, the United States’ ironclad commitment is not just a slogan – it is what we are all about.
As we prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the principle on which it was founded remains: the best way to protect ourselves is by helping others protect themselves. We have built a global network of like-minded nations committed to maintaining peace and stability, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law – which includes the freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful use of the air, sea, space, and cyberspace.
Today, as we face unprecedented threats posed by authoritarian states, we are redefining and reinforcing the future of our shared security with joint U.S.-ROK initiatives that touch on every aspect of global security to include not only conventional defense, but also cybersecurity, crisis management and emergency response, humanitarian assistance, health security, climate change mitigation, and much more. We are truly allies in serving the greater good.
Our efforts to enhance global security go hand-in-hand with our partnership to promote prosperity. As economic partners, we want to give people outside our respective borders a chance to thrive, because we know that the world is a safer place for us all when others enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that we do. South Korea is an essential partner with the United States in diversifying supply chains to bolster economic security. Massive disruptions caused by the pandemic had an impact on businesses and the consumers they serve in communities around the world. We all need stable supplies of goods and diverse sources of the materials needed to make them, and the U.S.-ROK alliance is helping us get there through initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Minerals Security Partnership, and the East-Asia Semiconductor Supply Chain Work Group. Last year, Korean and U.S. firms committed tens of billions of dollars to joint ventures and investments in areas critical to the global economy like semiconductors, solar cells, and high-capacity batteries. This extensive bilateral trade and investment benefits both Koreans and Americans. Samsung is building its largest chip fab in Texas, and American company Coupang is the largest creator of new jobs in Korea. We are proud to be partnered with Korea in all of these efforts, because we know U.S.-ROK economic engagement will continue to be marked by mutual trust, openness, transparency, and inclusiveness.
As a further reflection of our close partnership, the United States and ROK just signed a renewed Science and Technology Agreement to continue our work together on scientific advances that will serve the citizens of all countries. We are focused on joint research and development initiatives tied to critical and emerging technologies for the same reason, because our shared history of excellence in innovation should serve the greater good. The world can count on American and Korean businesses and industries to work together, making continued progress in areas like the digital economy, biotechnology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and clean energy technology.
I mention clean energy technology specifically because we recognize that Korea is pivotal to the transition to a green economy in the United States, here in Korea, and throughout the world. When we pair ROK leadership in tech innovation with the scalability and market access that joint partnerships with U.S. companies afford, we can make meaningful change and work to stem the devastating impact of climate change on our planet.
We are equally committed to helping other countries help themselves by developing sustainably with the reliable infrastructure and human capital needed to build a better future. And because our economic cooperation is rooted in shared values, we trust our companies to respect human rights in the countries where they work and hold them accountable if they don’t.
The U.S. Agency for International Development and ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs contribute to these efforts as well, recently committing to deepen our bilateral cooperative relationship for development. Our two countries collaborate on a range of initiatives worldwide, including combating climate change in the Pacific Islands, enhancing cybersecurity in Southeast Asia, and strengthening health systems in Africa.
Likewise, Korea has emerged as a global leader and key partner for the United States in fostering emerging democracies, as well as upholding democratic principles around the world. From standing with Ukraine against Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war of aggression, condemning human rights violations by the regime in North Korea, to working to hold the junta in Burma to account, the United States and Republic of Korea promote democratic values in ways that undermine the influence of authoritarian regimes across the region and globally.
The vision I’ve outlined of our alliance for the future is fairly staggering in both its depth and breadth. Fortunately, we’ve been working toward it for quite some time. Sure, we’ve been allies for 70 years, but we’ve been friends for twice that long. The U.S.-ROK relationship goes back 140 years. And in all that time, Koreans and Americans themselves have been building the vast network of ties between our two countries. In business and industry, civil society, between communities, and between families. Not because those of us in government told them to. But out of shared interests, shared passions, and shared affinity. We just enjoy each other’s company.
Organizations like KAA are perhaps the best reflection of that, but you find Koreans and Americans building bonds in every facet of society. Koreans play for a dozen Major League Baseball teams, including the best of them – the Boston Red Sox. Oklahoma native AleXa won of the first “American Song Contest” with her K-Pop style and is now a rising star here in Korea. And more and more cities and states now celebrate Hanbok Day as a chance to spotlight Korean heritage.
Which brings me back to our Korean sojourners who were snowbound along with their American hosts in rural Williamsville, New York. The American couple told the newspaper they hope to come visit their new friends here in Korea. I hope they do. They may have bonded over a shared love of Korean food, but in just a few days, everyone in that house must also have come to realize just how much we as Koreans and Americans have in common.
So to mark this important 70th anniversary, I encourage everyone to reach out to your old American friends and vow to make new ones this year as our group of wayward travelers did. Those close ties between people are the true strength of our relationship as we look to the next 70 years as allies, partners, and friends.