U.S. Envoy Sees No Excuse for Human Rights Abuses in North Korea
09 November 2005
Vershbow says United States, South Korea share same goals for the North
Alexander Vershbow, President Bush's newly appointed ambassador to the Republic of Korea, says the Pyongyang regime has no justification for the abuses it inflicts on its citizens and that the United States and South Korea share the same goals for the people of North Korea.
During a November 8 webchat interview with South Koreans, he rejected suggestions that the United States might be partly to blame for the suffering of the North Korean people.
"The regime, which drives its 1-2 million people to starve to death while pursuing nuclear programs, and indiscriminately confines its people to concentration camps, should take the full responsibility for the situation in its own country," Vershbow said.
He added: "The U.S. has 30,000 troops stationed in the ROK (Republic of Korea), while North Korea has over 1 million soldiers deployed near the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. The U.S. made it very clear quite a few times that it has no intention to attack North Korea. Therefore, there is no external threat that justifies the human rights abuses committed against North Koreans."
Vershbow said that although the United States and South Korea "do not take the same approach toward all issues, we have the same goal [for North Korea] in our mind."
President Bush, during his visit to Korea November 18-19 for the 13th annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting, is expected to speak out against human rights violations in North Korea, the ambassador said.
Vershbow noted that Bush has read, and made required reading for his staff dealing with Korea, the book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. Written by Kang Chol-hwan, who spent some 10 years in North Korean prison camps, the book is one of the most moving accounts of human rights abuses in North Korea to reach the West in the English language.
The ambassador noted that under the Bush administration, "more overseas aid is being provided than at any time before. But what is more important than financial assistance is to help poor countries establish adequate institutions and systems so that they can address their fundamental problems themselves."
Vershbow reiterated the U.S. hope for "a substantial breakthrough" in Six-Party Talks now being held in Beijing. The talks, which include North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States, are aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
"The North Korean people," Vershbow told the South Korean interviewers, "deserve a better life." He added: "[O]nly when the North Korean people can enjoy the same freedom and prosperity that the ROK people enjoy now will peace persist on the Korean Peninsula."
Vershbow said the United States is "increasing efforts to build trust with North Korea." But he stipulated that trust-building between the two countries would be possible only if the joint statement issued September 19 in which North Korea agreed to abandon nuclear weapons is implemented smoothly. (See related article.)
On the reconfiguration of the American military presence in South Korea, Vershbow said the number of U.S. troops will be reduced from 30,000 to about 25,000 within three years. Over the same period, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) bases now scattered across South Korea will be consolidated into two major bases.
"However, we share the view with the ROKG (Republic of Korea Government) that the reduced USFK should remain stationed in the ROK for the sake of its security," Vershbow said. "Therefore, the complete withdrawal of USFK is not an option either side is considering. USFK will, of course, stay as long as the ROKG wants them to."
Following is the transcript of the webchat:
United States Embassy
Seoul, Republic of Korea
[November 8, 2005]
Ambassador: I am U.S. Ambassador to the ROK Alexander Vershbow. Although I have already greeted you several times through Café U.S.A., this is my first time to say hello to you in real time. I am glad to meet you, and I am anticipating many interesting questions.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, is someone else typing your remarks for you?
Ambassador: Nice to meet you. Although I am chatting in English, some of my staff is helping me to type in English because my typing speed is slow.
Q: You must be very busy preparing for APEC.
Ambassador: It was in Busan that I posted the last message on the bulletin board. With regard to the preparation for APEC, I recently visited the venues. While looking around, I found out that preparation is being very thoroughly carried out. With the WTO cabinet meeting scheduled for December in Hong Kong, I think the APEC summit will be greatly conducive to helping negotiations aimed at improving international trade. I believe the summit will be greatly significant in addressing the bird flu issue. On top of that, security, anti-corruption and other pending issues will be discussed.
Q: Autumn is beautiful in the ROK, isn't it?
Ambassador: Fall is so beautiful in Seoul. It reminds me of autumn in New England where I was born.
Q: We sincerely welcome Mr. Alexander Vershbow´s arrival in Seoul as U.S. Ambassador and President Bush's second visit to Korea.
Ambassador: I would like to express my gratitude to all Koreans welcoming President Bush and me.
Q: Please pay more attention to the North Korean human rights issue. My family is currently living in North Korea. They may be suffering a lot there. Whenever I think of the suffering of my family, I cannot even sleep. With the suppression of the North Korean human rights mounting, we felt encouraged to see Kang Cheol-hwan meeting with President Bush. We feel much grateful to President Bush for his commitment to peace and interest in human rights. We hope that the U.S., our ally, is aggressively dealing with this issue.
Ambassador: We share peoples' concerns over the North Korean human rights situation. President Bush and I will encourage the ROK and the U.S. to change their approaches toward the Kim Jong-il regime in this aspect. Though the two nations do not take the same approach toward all issues, we have the same goal in our mind. As you know, President Bush has already read the book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag," and this book has become a must book among people engaged in North Korean issues.
Q: When do you think the US beef imports will be resumed? ROK Agriculture Ministry officials say there was no specific demand from the U.S. It seems that the ROKG is dragging its feet over the issue though the U.S. consumers eat its beef without much concern.
Ambassador: We hope that the ROKG will resume the U.S. beef imports quickly based on the outcome of its review of the scientific evidence.
Q: A ROK Agriculture Ministry official says that the U.S. is not that aggressive.
Ambassador: We are very actively engaging in talks, and after resolving this issue we will be able to begin the negotiations on FTA.
Q: As far as I know, the U.S. government delivered the findings of its BSE epidemiological test to the ROKG this past August. What are the findings? Did the U.S. ask the ROKG to resume its beef imports then?
Ambassador: Yes, we handed over the findings of our epidemiological test to the Korean side last summer. We are not applying pressure on the ROKG. We just want the ROKG to consider the scientific evidence we presented. We hope that the ROKG will complete the review process as soon as possible.
Q: What do you think of the ROK and its food? How do you study the Korean language?
Ambassador: My wife's and my first impression of the ROK is 100% positive. Seoul is as dynamic as New York and London, and it boasts of its living tradition and cutting-edge technology. I am still learning about Korean food, but Korean dishes that I have ever eaten so far are all delicious. I have not had much time to study the Korean language, but I will take time to continue to study the language. It seems to be certainly difficult to learn.
Q: Have you ever been to Seokguram Grotto?
Ambassador: I visited Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto last Sunday. The day was probably the most beautiful day. My wife and I took photos of beautiful buildings and surrounding scenery with our digital camera. And my wife got the indescribable impression. During the APEC summit, U.S. President Bush will probably visit Bulguksa Temple, although he will not have much time to go to Seokguram.
Q: I am a North Korean defector and I go to Kumnan Church. With President Bush slated to visit the ROK for the APEC summit, I am preparing chinaware as a present for him with Chosun Ilbo reporter Kang Cheol-hwan and other members of the church. Is there any way we can deliver the gift to President Bush during his upcoming visit to ROK? We would like to express our wishes to him.
Ambassador: I will tell President Bush about your heartfelt gift. I am not sure if he could meet you in person because his schedule will be very tight. But if it is okay, let me try to deliver the gift to him on your behalf.
Q: What is your hobby?
Ambassador: My hobby is music. I like collecting jazz and classic record albums. I have also played in a rock band composed of diplomats and public officials. My wife and I enjoy watching plays and going to museums. While in the ROK, we hope to have an opportunity to go to big and small mountains in the ROK.
Q: What is your religion?
Ambassador: My wife and I are Jews. So I observe religious subdivisions along with my family. We are glad to have come to the ROK where many people are enjoying freedom of religion and are actively leading a religious life.
Q: Many ROK NGOs and Teachers' Union voice oppositions to the APEC summit. The Teachers' Union recently created a video clip criticizing President Bush and the overall APEC meeting. What do you think of that?
Ambassador: I don't agree with the perspective displayed in teaching materials on the APEC summit prepared by the Busan Office of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers' Union and some civic groups. Of course, we respect their freedom of expression. However, it is important that perspectives from both sides should be presented in an impartial and balanced way without exaggeration or the use of only selected information. In my opinion, the ROK will earn more benefits from globalization than any other nation. The ROK and the U.S. most strongly advocate changing an international trade system to give many benefits to least developed countries. Therefore, we need to honestly discuss this issue with an open-minded attitude.
Q: Many within the ROK NGO community and the Teachers' Union are against the ROK's hosting of APEC. The Teachers' Union even made a video that expresses their opposition against APEC and President Bush. What is your view on this?
Ambassador: In relation to the Teachers' Union's video, I also fully support the freedom of expression. However, young students must have the chance to listen to different views in the most objective manner.
Q: I hope President Bush understands that the U.S. is one of the reasons that contributed to the deterioration of North Korea's human rights situation. I'm curious about how the U.S. President thinks about events that took place in his own country (racial discrimination revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), Iraqi civilian casualties, and economic sanctions against North Korea imposed by the U.S.
Ambassador: Regarding the Human Rights situation in the U.S., we believe we have not fully resolved racial discrimination in the United States. However, we have achieved progress to the extent that we can now hold frank discussions in search of solutions, which is a development made possible by the establishment of an open democratic government. When Hurricane Katrina led to the collapse of levees and many African Americans in New Orleans were hurt, we admitted that we failed to fully prepare for such an incident.
Q: I hope President Bush recognizes that the U.S. is partly to blame for the poor human rights situation in North Korea. The North Korean human rights should be improved, and there needs to be an open discussion over its causes and ways to improve the situation. Removing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is not an answer.
Ambassador: But, I don't agree with the argument that the U.S. is responsible for the pain the North Koreans is experiencing.
Q: I don't mean that the U.S. is responsible for the worsening human rights situation in North Korea, but for the improvement of the situation there. That is why the U.S. needs to adopt more proactive steps, for instance, such as the normalization of relations with North Korea and energy aid.
Ambassador: The regime, which drives its 1-2 million people to starve to death while pursuing nuclear programs, and indiscriminately confines its people to concentration camps, should take the full responsibility for the situation in its own country.
Q: But, the U.S. needs to show compassion and generosity, and it is capable of doing so. The ROKG, the civil society of the ROK, and ethnic Koreans living in the U.S. offered condolences and relief funds to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. As seen in this case, a human rights issue is not the responsibility of a specific country, but a global issue.
Ambassador: The U.S. has 30,000 troops stationed in the ROK, while North Korea has over 1 million soldiers deployed near the DMZ. The U.S. made it very clear quite a few times that it has no intention to attack North Korea. Therefore, there is no external threat that justifies the human rights abuses committed against North Koreans.
Q: If we look at the situation in the world, many problems are arising due to isolated human rights abuses. Therefore, I believe that if we pay more attention to the overall human rights situation of the world, many of the problems will be resolved and the situation will be improved politically and diplomatically. I think the rich must try to help the poor and underprivileged to live in harmony all together.
Ambassador: I fully agree with you. All rich countries must help developing countries meet the basic needs of human beings. These countries currently face many hardships including poverty and AIDS. Under the Bush Administration, more overseas aid is being provided than at any time before. But, what is more important than financial assistance is to help poor countries establish adequate institutions and systems so that they can address their fundamental problems themselves. As an old saying goes, we should teach them how to catch fish, instead of giving them fish.
Q: There is talk that USFK would be pulled out. Is there any chance that USFK would be withdrawn?
Ambassador: The number of USFK shrank to about 30,000 and it will be reduced further to 25,000 within three years. Over the same period, we also have a plan to consolidate USFK bases scattered across the nation into two major bases. In this plan, the closure of a huge base in Seoul is also included. However, we share the view with the ROKG that the reduced USFK should remain stationed in the ROK for the sake of its security. Therefore, the complete withdrawal of USFK is not an option either side is considering. USFK will, of course, stay as long as the ROKG wants them to.
Q: Have you met monk Hyungak here in the ROK?
Ambassador: It is merely three weeks since I arrived here, so I have not met monk Hyungak yet.
Q: Have you seen any Korean soap opera?
Ambassador: I have great interest in ROK soap operas, but my Korean is not that good yet, so I have not seen many.
Ambassador: But I've seen "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring," and a few other recent releases with subtitles. "Shiri" was interesting too. If I were to watch Korean dramas (soap operas), what would you recommend?
Q: "Princess Aurora".
Q: "Genghis Khan".
Q: I recommend watching Korean family dramas. Also, "Immortal Lee Soon Shin".
Ambassador: Are there ones with English subtitles?
Q: "Dae-jang-keum" does have subtitles. I also strongly recommend "Tae Guk Ki: The Brotherhood of War".
Q: I hope the APEC meetings will be successful and held safely, because the ROK will be hosting many guests here.
Q: On the subject of USFK, most ROK people want USFK to continue to stay on the Peninsula. Koreans are always grateful to the U.S., and they hope for continuous friendly relations between the two countries. The minority appears to be the majority because they have a loud voice, but the reality is different.
Ambassador: Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for being friendly toward the U.S. We were impressed by the safety measures taken for APEC, and were moved even more by the warm welcome the Busan citizens and many Koreans gave us.
Q: When you have the time, I hope you get to visit many celebrated mountains in the ROK like Mt. Bukhan, Mr. Seorak and Mt. Jiri. And I also hope you will listen to various opinions and media, as well as have direct contact with the Internet press.
Ambassador: I hope to visit all over the ROK in the future, and listen to the various voices of the ROK people.
Q: Mr. Ambassador, do you know something about ROK history?
Ambassador: Ever since it was decided that I would be coming to the ROK, I read books about the country. And after spending some time here and experiencing the culture first hand, I have come to understand the ROK's history better.
Q: It seems that you use the Internet often and even write letters to Netizens. Is there a reason why you take particular interest in the Netizens?
Ambassador: I am particularly interested in the Internet because more young Koreans are using the Internet as the medium for sharing opinion and information. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Some people say that I am addicted to e-mail. I can even say that Café USA has elevated my taste. I hope to visit you Netizens at your hometown, and get to meet you personally.
Q: Are there any plans to have Netizens personally visit the Embassy to meet you?
Ambassador: I do want to get together with the Netizens and continue to listen to their opinions.
[Ambassador exits the chat room]
[Ambassador re-enters the chat room]
Ambassador: I apologize. There was a technical problem.
Q: I had a chance to see your wife's exhibit. It was a very unique collection, and I've been taking particular interest in her work.
Ambassador: Thank you for the kind words about my wife' work. She is currently working jointly with Korean jewelry designers, so I am hoping Korea's beauty will be reflected in her works.
Q: I would like to propose mountain hiking with the Ambassador, Internet journalists and Netizens.
Ambassador: To go hiking, I would have to exercise more to get in shape for going to the mountains with Netizens. I say that because my guess is that most Netizens are younger than I am. Thank you for the interesting proposal. I will think about it.
Q: Can I become your adopted son?
Ambassador: We already have two sons in their twenties keeping us very busy.
Q: We are always praying for the Six-Party Talks, slated to begin tomorrow, and for all that you do.
Q: What are the prospects for the 5th Six-Party Talks?
Ambassador: We are all hoping that there will be a substantial breakthrough at the talks. This is what the ROK people need, and it is particularly necessary for the North Korean people, who are your brothers and who deserve a better life. The talks begin tomorrow, and will continue for four to five days. This session will be a venue for all parties to present ideas on how to implement the agreements reached in September. It is expected that after about a month of review period, the talks will resume for more serious negotiations. If North Korea shows sincerity about denuclearization, I think Assistant Secretary Hill, who is a Netizen like you all, will come up with a constructive solution.
Q: I was told that you were anti-Korean before coming to Seoul as the U.S. Ambassador.
Ambassador: I have always been thinking of the ROK and the Korean people, including the North Koreans, in a friendly way. I visited the ROK twice in 1984 and 1990, and have maintained very good cooperative relations with ROKG officials.
Q: Then why are the media saying so about you?
Ambassador: As a person who has strong faith in democracy and freedom, I have negative feelings about the Korean leaders who denied freedom and democracy to the ROK people. Now that I'm living in the ROK, I feel a much stronger bond between the U.S. and the ROK. This is because the ROK is a free and democratic society built by the ROK people themselves. Furthermore, I think the media have evaluated me more positively than I expected thus far.
Q: I don't understand why President Bush called North Korean leader Kim Jong-il a "tyrant," especially at a time when the Six-Party Talks are about to resume.
Ambassador: President Bush is a leader who has very firm faith in human rights. And he is very sad about the hardships facing the North Korean people. Our objective description of the North Korean regime does not mean that our determination regarding the Six-Party Talks is weak. In fact, we think that only when the North Korean people can enjoy the same freedom and prosperity that the ROK people enjoy now will peace persist on the Korean Peninsula.
Q: The U.S. has the greatest responsibility for improving the North Korean human rights situation. The U.S. has been hostile toward North Korea, including establishing plans to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the country. This is why the North Koreans confront the U.S. in a do-or-die fashion and why the North's human rights situation deteriorates. I do not intend to defend the North Korean regime, but the U.S. is also responsible for the deterioration of the North Korean human rights situation.
Ambassador: We have declared that we have no hostile intention toward North Korea, and we are increasing efforts to build trust with North Korea. However, the trust-building between the two countries would be possible only if the joint statement issued in September is implemented smoothly. If you Netizens have a look at the Rodong Shinmun of North Korea, you can realize that the North Korean regime uses offensive rhetoric toward the U.S. 365 days a year.
Q: What can you say about the U.S.'s oppression of the human rights of Iraqi prisoners of war and those detainees at Guantanamo Bay?
Ambassador: I have to get going, so I will give a brief response. The Americans think that all prisoners of war from the anti-terror war should be treated according to the Geneva Convention. Sometimes, some American soldiers violate regulations. We recognize these problems, and have been working to prevent a repeat of such problems. I hope the White House and Congress join hands to deal with specific threats posed by terrorist organizations, and at the same time, to observe the genuine values of America.
Ambassador: I should get going. I'd like to thank all of you Netizens who participated in this dialogue, and hope we can have more talks in the future. And if possible, I hope we can go hiking together. Thank you. See you again.
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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