The Honorable Kathleen Stephens, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, has witnessed a three-pronged transformation in the country since she first arrived as a Peace Corps worker in 1975. But the diplomat rejects the notion of a “Korean Miracle,” as the transformation is sometimes called.
“It wasn’t a miracle,” she said Sept. 15 at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. “It was hard work, a lot of determination and good policy.”
Stephens visited Thunderbird as part of a U.S. tour organized by the Korea Economic Institute in Washington. Her audience included students, faculty, staff and about two dozen SK Group managers from Seoul, who are on campus for four months of management and language education.
“Korea was a recipient of development assistance when I arrived in the Peace Corps,” she said. “Now, Korea is a donor in its own right.”
The nation of 48 million has emerged as the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner. In the other direction, the United States has become South Korea’s second-largest trading partner after China. Stephens called the transformation a case study of success in U.S. foreign policy.
She described three specific movements she has witnessed over the past 30 years.
The first transformation involves the emergence of the Korean economy.
Stephens said the country, once known as the “Hermit Kingdom,” had dim prospects in the 1960s following the Korean War. The country had few ties to the outside world, few resources and many security threats.
But Stephens saw strong determination when she first visited the country. “There was a sense of hope and change and optimism in the air,” she sad.
In the decades that followed, Korea developed strong trade partnerships with the United States, India, Europe, China, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
“They’re not standing still,” said Stephens, who urged the ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement signed June 30, 2007.
The second transformation involves the emergence of Korea as a democratic republic.
Stephens said few people gave democracy much chance in Korea following the war, but the nation pressed forward. She said she enjoys walking through Seoul 30 years later and hearing the diversity of viewpoints that thrive among the people.
“Candidates from among the political spectrum have held office,” said Stephens, who speaks Korean.
The third transformation involves the emergence of the Korean relationship with the United States.
“I can’t think of two more natural partners than the United States and Korea,” Stephens said.
She said the partnership manifests itself in Korea, where the goal remains a peninsula whole, free and at peace. But the partnership also manifests itself globally and through millions of personal relationships.
More than 800,000 Korean tourists visited the United States in 2008, and Korea also provides the largest foreign student population in the United States.
“Koreans are investing their most precious resource — their children — in our education system,” she said.