The focus of today’s meetings and trip makes me consider the national security aspect of the U.S.-Korea FTA. We have a unique and strong bond with Korea, having led the United Nations Joint Combined Forces that fought in the Korean War. After 1953, when the truce agreement was signed, the United States has remained in the Republic of Korea, jointly guaranteeing the peace and securing the nation alongside the ROK military.
I think about this because, for about 5 minutes today, I stood in North Korea. We visited the DMZ this morning, and each mile that brought us closer to the border reinforced how important the U.S.-Korea national security relationship is to both nations,and how the trade agreement is about more than just expanding commerce and removing trade barriers – it is also a sign of trust, mutual dependence and mutual appreciation.
I would be remiss in not noting -at least in passing – that among the 17 or so nations that make up the U.N. joint command still in operation at the DMZ is Colombia. Troops from Colombia fought in the Korean War, and Colombian officers still fill slots in the U.N. command at the DMZ, along with officers from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Turkey and other nations.
For miles before you reach the border, you drive on a highway bordering the Han River, and you can’t help but notice the side of the road is blockaded by rolls of barbed wire and interspersed with guard houses. As you get closer to the DMZ, of course, security grows tighter until you need to be on an official escorted tour to proceed. But it is the fact that for miles and miles before the border – Seoul lies only 50 kilometers from North Korea, and is well within range of 20,000 artillery and missile tubes that could turn the city into rubble – you are reminded that North Korea has an army of 1.6 million, positioned mostly within 90 km of the border. This is a real and active threat – it is a far cry from the undefended borders of the EU or U.S.-Canada. And the United States has guaranteed the security of the border since 1953.
So, while it might seem a stretch to some opponents of the KORUS FTA when the national security argument is used as one of the reasons for why it is so important to pass it – and I would argue the agreement certainly stands on its commercial benefits alone – once you visit the DMZ you realize that national security is a valid, true and very serious component of the relationship. I have no pictures from our trip through the 2km wide DMZ up to the border. The DMZ itself has no fences – the defenses are located on both sides of the DMZ. On the South Korean side, they are substantial, imposing, and very impressive. Observation posts, guard posts, tank walls, land mines, American and Korean soldiers, tanks, and more – these all stand at the ready to defend against a significant threat and an often irrational North Korea.
When you finally stand at the Peace Village and see the ROK troops facing the border and the North Korean troops staring back at you across the way, well, it drives home that the U.S.-Korea relationship is about more than just trade. But you trade more with allies than with other nations, as our previous agreements with Israel, Canada, Mexico, Australia and other nations show. Korea is a strong ally of the United States. In a briefing with Four Star General Skip Sharp this afternoon (Commander of U.S. and Combined Forces in Korea), we were told that polls consistently show that more than three-quarters of South Koreans view the United States favorably, and well over half consider us as their best and closest ally and friend.
There aren’t many countries on earth who view us that way. Most of those who do we have already signed free trade agreements with, I’d bet. I’ve always felt a bit disingenuous using national security as a secondary reason for a free trade agreement. With South Korea, however, I believe it’s entirely valid and responsible to do so. The U.S.-Korea FTA will open this market for U.S. goods and services and will be an economic boon for manufacturing in America. It is also, however, a powerful reassertion of the bonds of a unique and strong relationship we have built, over the last 60 years, that marks the best of America – our role as defender of democracy around the world and as an engine of global economic growth.