[FORUM]Ambassador brings vast experienceNewly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Alexander Vershbow, took up his duties on October 17. The 52-year-old ambassador is a renowned authority on Europe within the U.S. Department of State, having spent most of his 28-year diplomatic career there. Mr. Vershbow majored in Russian and East European studies at Yale University and international relations at Columbia University. He joined the State Department in 1977, and his first posting was to Europe. He mainly worked in Moscow and London. On the basis of his long experience in Europe, he served in two of the most crucial positions in the State Department, ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and ambassador to Russia.
In the late 1980s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was near, Mr. Vershbow was working as director of the State Department’s Office of Soviet Union Affairs. The working-level White House official in charge of Soviet Union affairs at the time was Condoleezza Rice, the current Secretary of State.
Then U.S. President George H. W. Bush had promoted the Stanford professor in her 30s to become director of Soviet and East European Affairs in the National Security Council and entrusted Ms. Rice with the important mission of managing the dismantling of the Cold War system. Mr. Vershbow worked with Ms. Rice in managing U.S. policies regarding the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
As the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics vanished from the map, filling the vacuum of power was a key objective for Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy. Preventing a possible internal explosion of the former Soviet Union and establishing a new order led by the United States, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, required imaginative and sophisticated diplomatic tactics.
The key was the restructuring and expansion of NATO. Mr. Vershbow was given the tasks of modifying the characteristics and status of NATO, which used to function as a collective defense system of countries in the North Atlantic region against the Warsaw Pact, to fit in the post-Cold War environment and expand its influence to Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, Mr. Vershbow had to appease Russia, which was growing anxious and dissatisfied with NATO’s expansion in the East.
Despite the extreme complexity of the challenges, Mr. Vershbow successfully managed the NATO enlargement and the establishment of a new relationship with Russia. In recognition of his service, he was awarded the Joseph J. Kruzel Award during the Clinton Administration and the State Department’s Distinguished Service Award during the George W. Bush Administration.
The Korean Peninsula in 2005 is in the turmoil of significant changes. Depending on how the grand premise of the denuclearization of the peninsula agreed upon in the six-party talks materializes, the order of the East Asian region is bound to tremble. The future of the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, which is one of the most crucial variables in the region, will also be decided according to the denuclearization process. Just as the controversies over the removal of General Douglas MacArthur’s statue and Professor Kang Jeong-koo’s pro-Pyongyang remarks symbolize, Korea is going through a serious identity crisis in a transition period.
Amid the chaos, the inter-Korean relationship is displaying rapid progress on the surface. This year, the number of South Korean visitors to the North is expected to reach 100,000, and the inter-Korean trade volume is forecast to exceed $1 billion for the first time. Modification of the Korea-U.S. alliance has emerged as an unavoidable task. We must not overlook the hidden intention of Ms. Rice in pulling Mr. Vershbow from Moscow and sending him to Seoul.
In an interview with Korean correspondents in Washington before leaving for Seoul, Mr. Vershbow said the grand finale of the Cold War was beginning on the Korean Peninsula. He also said that getting over the division of the Korean Peninsula was certainly a goal shared by Seoul and Washington.
Many experts say that the unification of the Korean Peninsula is closer than people think. While they have different analyses, the estimated time until unification is as little as eight years and as long as 15 years. Managing the process is surely yet another challenge of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy.
Mr. Vershbow is the biggest name among the series of U.S. ambassadors to South Korea thus far. Just like Ms. Rice, he is well-versed in Europe and an authority in Russian affairs. Ms. Rice must have thought it is time for Mr. Vershbow to display the diplomatic ability he accumulated in Europe before and after the Cold War here on the Korean Peninsula.
* The writer is the international affairs editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok