WASHINGTON-SEOUL -- The U.S. ambassador-designate to Seoul said Wednesday she hopes to discuss South Korea's redeployment of forces to Afghanistan with the new government of President Lee Myung-bak, as well as work closely on North Korean human rights issues.
"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," Kathleen Stephens said at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
She was responding to questions from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), who asked why Seoul was hesitant to send forces there despite requests from Washington to help stabilize Afghanistan.
"South Korea understands the need to have stability at its border," the senator said, suggesting that such an understanding should extend to security in central Asia. "I would hope that in this new opportunity we have with you and the new president, that we will make that case."
Boxer was referring to President Lee, who took office on Feb. 25. He will visit Washington next week for a Camp David summit with U.S. President George W. Bush. Lee's administration represents a shift to the right after 10 years of more progressive governments.
A ranking South Korean official, however, dismissed Stephens' view as too hasty, saying the country has yet to make any decisions on the issue.
"Those are only remarks made by a nominee at a confirmation hearing. There has been no such request (from the United States) as far as I know," the official from the Defense Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
South Korea had engineer and medical units in Afghanistan but withdrew them at the end of last year. A group of South Korean church volunteers were taken hostage in August by insurgents who demanded that Seoul pull out the units as a condition for their release.
The withdrawal was completed last year, but Seoul made clear that it was already scheduled under a legislative mandate.
Questioned by reporters at the end of the hearing, Stephens spoke more generally, saying that the U.S. and South Korea have very close consultations ongoing on a variety of issues.
"I think all of these issues will be discussed," she said, referring to next week's summit.
The nominee also highlighted North Korea's human rights issues.
"We have a special obligation and duty to try to improve the human rights situation in the North, and I hope we can do that," she said. "I will work with the new government to do that."
In her written statement, she noted that President Lee has made clear the importance his administration attaches to this issue.
"The United States has equally deep resolve," she said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at her hearing earlier in the day with the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the North's human rights situation is something "that we have spoken to, should try to speak to."
"No people on earth, I think, live in more difficult circumstances, she said. "We have noticed that the new South Korean government is speaking to this issue more now."
A career diplomat who has been an adviser for East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, Stephens will the first American female ambassador to Seoul. She was recommended as the single candidate for the post.
She began her foreign service career in 1978 and served twice in South Korea, most recently as principal officer at the consulate in Busan in 1987-1989, and as internal political unit chief in 1984-1987. She also taught English at a high school as a Peace Corp volunteer to South Korea.
She speaks fluent Korean and showed it off to Korean reporters, telling them she considers it an honor to be nominated for the post and will do her best to strengthen the bilateral alliance if confirmed.
Calling the pending FTA the most commercially significant free trade deal the U.S. has concluded in over 15 years, Stephens spoke strongly about ensuring strict adherence to the terms once the agreement is approved by the respective legislatures.
"If confirmed as ambassador, and upon FTA ratification, I will make it a top priority to work with the U.S. Trade Representative to ensure that the provisions of the agreement are enforced across the board," said Stephens. "This includes enhancing our current cooperation with the South Koreans on environment and labor standards."
She also reinforced her government's pressure for Seoul to reopen its market to U.S. beef.
"If confirmed, and as the progeny of Texas ranchers, you can be assured I will do all I can to ensure that our safe and delicious beef has unrestricted access to the South Korean market," she said. (Yonhap)