&#91OUTLOOK&#93U.S., Korea need understanding

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93U.S., Korea need understanding

On the harsh winter day of Dec. 22, 1902, the American steamboat S.S. Gaelic departed from Jemulpo to cross the Pacific, carrying 102 of the first Korean emigrants to leave their country in search of jobs. They greeted the new year before they arrived at their final destination, Hawaii.

On Jan. 13, 1903, almost exactly 100 years ago, 56 men, 21 women and 25 children arrived in Honolulu to build the first Korean immigrant society in the United States. From that time until 1905, when Korea fell under Japanese control, 7,843 Koreans emigrated to Hawaii. The flow that was interrupted by the Japanese occupation started again after the Korean War, and the number of emigrants grew over the years.

At the end of 2000, the Korean consulates general in the United States estimated that there were almost 2.2 million Korean immigrants living in the United States.

There are Korean consulates in 10 U.S. cities; the offices in Miami and Anchorage were shut down as part of a government effort to downsize after the financial crisis in the late 1990s. There are more than 500,000 Korean immigrants living in the Los Angeles area and a similar number in the New York City area.

These numbers tell us that the United States is not just a foreign country to Koreans. It is an important base of life for the Korean ethnic community that has spread all over the world. U.S.-Korean relations have continued to develop in all fields, but it is perhaps the living, breathing 2 million Korean immigrants in the United States that tell most clearly the story of the alliance between the two countries.

The year 2003 not only marks the centennial of Korean emigration to the United States, it is also the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. In 1953, the war that caused so many deaths and brought devastation to the Korean peninsula ended indeterminately with an armistice and with the country torn in two.

This writer vividly remembers the rallies that were held throughout the country to protest the armistice, having participated in them himself. Yet at that time, we had not anticipated that the defense treaty would be signed, providing the foundation of security and stability for the industrialization and democratization of our country.

Fifty years later, we have succeeded in achieving the democracy and market economy we strove for, and it is only natural that we should seek the international prestige that befits our pride and dreams. As a part of that effort, we should turn the 50th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty into an opportunity to reflect on the new face of U.S.-Korean relations.

Several urgent issues must be dealt with this year, including our concern over the nuclear weapons program in North Korea and the issue of the Status of Forces Agreement.

A serious re-examination of Korean-U.S. relations is needed, but we must always keep in mind the special character of Korea-U.S. relations -- that Korea and the United States are two of the world's closest allies -- in discussions among ourselves here in Korea and in our dialogue with the United States.

Even if we engage in conversations or negotiations in which our interests do not coincide, we can always come up with a wise decision befitting our mutual needs if we do not lose faith in our friendship. Friendship between countries, as between individuals, can only be maintained through earnest efforts to understand the other side's position.

The United States must redouble its efforts to understand the special position in which Korea finds itself on the Korean Peninsula that is an exception of its own. The world now finds itself in the 12th year of what is called the post-Cold War era, yet the Korean Peninsula alone remains mired in the division and strife of the Cold War.

Koreans have vowed to defend the freedom that they have chosen for their democracy and market economy, and yet at the same time, we dream of a peaceful reunification with our people in the North. This is something that the United States must understand.

On the other hand, Korea must strive to understand the special national characteristics of the United States. The United States is the first lone superpower to have appeared in world history.

Yet it was proved by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that even the United States is not a safe haven from its outside enemies. Since then, the United States has been overcome by a sense of crisis and the anxiety that it could be the object of terrorism at any time, rather than the confidence and ease of an unchallenged superpower.

For Koreans to think that the United States has no reason to be more alarmed by the danger of North Korea's nuclear program than we are who live on the Korean Peninsula only creates needless and unproductive misunderstanding between the two countries. It is already embedded in the conception of the United States that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possibility of terrorist groups forming alliances is a direct threat to the security of the United States.

Korea and the United States are now facing a most crucial moment. They must try more than ever to understand each other's position and to readjust their cooperative stance.

by Lee Hong-koo

* The writer, a former prime minister and ambassador to the United States, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
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