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New U.S. Envoy to Korea Quizzed

The next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, on Wednesday went through her confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate. Stephens, a career diplomat, in the 1970s taught English at a middle school in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province, going by the Korean name Shim Eun-kyung.

When Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, claimed the South Korean government has not responded to repeated requests to dispatch troops to Afghanistan, Stephens replied, "I think this is a discussion we should have with the new government. I think we need to discuss what the needs are in Afghanistan and see how they can contribute." Stephens added she thought that this was the kind of issue that will be discussed during President Lee Myung-bak's U.S. visit next week.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official denied the government has received any request to send troops to Afghanistan. “Nor do we have any plan to dispatch troops again to the country,” the official said. He added since Korea’s Dongui and Dasan units were pulled out of Afghanistan in December last year, a civilian provincial reconstruction team has been operating there.

Boxer, who presided over the nomination hearing that day, introduced Stephens’ son James, a 21-year-old college student born to Stephens and her former Korean husband, and James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to Korea who was her superior. "I am joined today by my son James,” Stephens said. “Like all foreign service family members, he learned to be a bridge-builder."

In her opening statement, Stephens said, "One reason I am an optimist about Korea’s future, and about the still-untapped potential of the (South Korea-U.S.) partnership, is because I was fortunate enough to live and work in Korea during periods of amazing economic and political transformation. The twin engines of a dynamic economy and a vibrant democracy have lifted Korean accomplishments to new heights and new fields."

Turning to the human rights situation in North Korea, she said, "As democratic societies, the U.S. and South Korea also share a deep interest in promoting an improved human rights situation in North Korea. If confirmed, I will work closely with the South Korean government on the issue of human rights in North Korea, including in seeking sustainable solutions to the plight of North Korean asylum seekers."

Stephens anticipated “a lot of listening and learning. I will ask the forbearance of my audiences as I attempt to improve my Korean language ability and to use it to understand better a culture and people I respect so deeply." In an interview with South Korean correspondents, she said in Korean, "If confirmed, I'll do my best to see the Korea-U.S. alliance consolidated."

But Stephens also made it clear that her chief responsibility is to the U.S. national interest. "We must ensure that (South Korea) follows international guidelines and fully reopens its market to U.S. beef," she said, referring to some import restrictions that remain in place over a U.S. outbreak of mad cow disease.

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englishchosun.com  (Posted 4/11/08)