Many issues await new U.S. ambassadorAfter months under the reins of interim head of mission Mark Minton, the U.S. Embassy to Seoul welcomed its new ambassador Alexander Vershbow yesterday.
Calling ties between Seoul and Washington “one of our most important bilateral relationships,” Mr. Vershbow vowed to interact with the public and look for ways to strengthen the bilateral relationship before he headed for the embassy.
Embassy staff, excited prior to his arrival, have described the new ambassador as a thorough professional who brings a vast amount of experience to the table.
Mr. Vershbow was described by Robert Ogburn, the press attache at the embassy, as “thoughtful” and as an individual “highly evaluated” by the U.S. State Department. Mr. Vershbow is expected to engage in official duties as soon as he has presented his credentials to the Blue House.
His wife, Lisa Vershbow, has a deep interest in the arts and does metalwork. Mrs. Vershbow plans to maintain a studio and exhibit her works at local galleries.
The arrival of Washington’s new top envoy takes place at a time of change in the bilateral security alliance between the two countries as both nations actively pursue the ongoing North Korean nuclear negotiations.
Some key issues such as the relocation of the Yongsan base and a gradual withdrawal of 12,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula have already been resolved. But Seoul is pushing for more changes in the security arrangements. Last week it announced that it wanted to discuss obtaining wartime operational control of South Korean forces, which are currently under the Combined Forces Command.
The new ambassador is also likely to play an active role in implementing last month’s nuclear agreement, under which North Korea is expected to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs in return for energy, economic aid and security assurances.
The ambassador is also expected to tackle economic issues such as lifting import bans on U.S. beef and making a free trade agreement. As part of the latter, Mr. Vershbow is expected to try to persuade Seoul to drop its screen quota system designed to protect the domestic movie industry. This issue was often named by the previous ambassador as a key obstacle to an agreement.
He is also expected to help Korea gain admittance to the United States’ visa waiver program, which has been a long-term goal. This program enables citizens of member countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa. Seoul and Washington began their first round of working-level talks on this last December.
Acting as America’s face, another task for the new ambassador will be to interact with the South Korean public, particularly the younger generation that did not experience the Korean War. This is important because Seoul has increasingly been making clear in recent years that it wants to be treated as an equal partner in the bilateral relationship.
Mr. Vershbow is also expected to push Seoul more on North Korean human rights, but exactly how much he can do remains to be seen considering the ongoing nuclear talks and Seoul’s kid-glove handling of the issue.
A career diplomat who entered the Foreign Service in 1977, Mr. Vershbow has held assignments at embassies in Moscow and London, and also served as an advisor to the U.S. Delegation to the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks in Geneva. From January 1998 until July 2001, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Mr. Vershbow is regarded as an expert in Russian and East European affairs. He received a B.A. in Russian and East European Studies from Yale and a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Columbia University.
by Brian Lee