The U.S. Embassy in Seoul and Human Rights Policy
Jung Yeon-je / AFP

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul and Human Rights Policy

Interview with Kathleen Stephens
December 4, 2020

U.S. foreign policy has long reflected what is sometimes seen as a tension between idealism and values such as human rights, on the one hand, and a more pragmatic, “realist” approach, on the other. Diplomats abroad have the challenge of implementing this foreign policy—of representing and explaining the United States to foreign audiences, as well as helping Washington understand foreign attitudes. Olivia Truesdale interviewed Kathleen Stephens (Korea Economic Institute of America), who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea (ROK) from 2008 to 2011, to better understand the general role of U.S. embassies in human rights policy and the specific impact on the U.S.-ROK relationship.

What types of social or human rights issues are commonly addressed by U.S. embassies? To what extent are embassies part of discussions about human rights and social issues abroad?

The notion that U.S. behavior in the world should reflect our values is embedded in our national identity, but specifically how and when that is reflected in our foreign policy has varied over time and place. Human rights were explicitly introduced as an element of U.S. foreign policy by the Carter administration in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter entered office with the notion that human rights would be a key pillar of informing U.S. foreign policy, which had an immediate, and in some ways a rather disruptive, impact on a number of U.S. relationships, including with South Korea. During those years, embassies began drafting annual, congressionally mandated human rights reports on every country in the world.

These reports have grown in scope and influence over the decades since. Issues that are commonly addressed by embassies have expanded a lot—from covering a narrow list of primarily political and civic rights to a much broader range of issues. Every embassy and bilateral relationship is different, but all U.S. diplomats are expected to play a role in promoting and protecting human rights. The responsibility of writing the first draft of the annual human rights report to Congress, in addition to other frequent reporting, is usually assigned to an embassy political officer, with the participation of others throughout the embassy and with the oversight of the ambassador.

Another function of the embassy is to reach out to the host government either to get its cooperation on human rights issues elsewhere or to address specific human rights issues the United States wants to raise in that country. Human rights are thus an intrinsic part of diplomatic work now. As the U.S. presence on the ground, embassies not only help shape policy but also articulate it and do the on-the-ground reporting. Every person from the ambassador on down has a role in this process.

How do U.S. embassies typically promote their human rights and social issue agendas? What freedom do individual embassies have to highlight issues of interest that are not formal priorities?

The answer depends on the country, the issue, and the administration. During my career, there was an expectation that embassies would be the leading voice in identifying areas that needed attention. It is a matter of duty to give your best assessment of what issues need attention and report that back to Washington with recommendations, sometimes with a little bit of lobbying to your colleagues at the State Department.

The range of what we rightly consider to be human rights issues has grown. When I was in South Korea in the 1980s, human rights were an enormous issue in the U.S.-ROK relationship. The focus then was on political rights, freedom of expression, labor rights, and political participation. The United States took a strong public and private position on torture and on political prisoners. At that time, we were not dealing in a concerted way with human trafficking and LGBTQ rights, but these issues were bubbling up. As a result of the lived and witnessed experiences from the people on the ground at embassies, both what the United States considers to be human rights to address and how to approach them have evolved.

The embassies engage in a dialogue with Washington about where issues fit into our priorities. Embassies are expected to bring cultural and historical context to that process, which is not to say they become apologists. I think that only after living somewhere, knowing the culture, speaking the language, and seeing what is important to people there can one begin to prioritize issues.

How did Korean citizens react to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul’s actions on social and human rights issues during your tenure, and how have attitudes shifted? How are the embassy’s actions on issues perceived now?

In my experience, the Korean public does not react with just one voice. I covered human rights in Korea in the 1980s, and one issue that the United States took a strong stand on publicly was torture. Some Koreans would tell me that I did not understand how ingrained torture was in police practices at the time. There was a reaction of, “Who is the United States to tell us?” Others had new respect for the United States taking such a clear stand, and our position helped ensure that torture by the security forces was rejected by Koreans themselves. I think Koreans understand we were standing for a principle we deeply believed in.

South Korea, as I witnessed with my own eyes, is an extraordinary example of enormous social and political change over the last four decades. I think that the United States—not only with our troops, but especially with our embassy as the policy arm and eyes and ears of diplomacy in Korea—has made an impression on the country by opening the aperture a bit. Events like the Seoul Pride Parade in earlier years started off with individual U.S. embassy officers participating rather than there being an official presence, but when you are a diplomat in a foreign country in some ways you are always official. Such participation sent a message, and I think ambassadors and others welcome that.

Over the past several decades, U.S. society has evolved as well. In South Korea, people saw that Americans had freedom to express and engage on human rights and cultural issues that were challenging in our own country. The message that “we are not saying this because we have it all figured out, we are part of this conversation, we want to be part of this conversation” helped us. Secretary Hillary Clinton and those before her empowered embassies to have more engagement on issues such as pride parades, which became embedded in our own society and our policy abroad. In South Korea, sentiment is still divided on the topic of gay rights, and some are critical of U.S. officials for engaging on a controversial issue in a country not their own. Generally, I think there is a respect for such engagement, though.

In some Korean newspapers, U.S. domestic policies and problems are reported as high-profile news. To what extent do issues in U.S. public discourse become relevant overseas, and does that frame a conversation for discussion of similar issues in Korea?

I think Koreans look at Black Lives Matter and the outpouring of protests in the United States over the last few months and are quite interested. One lens they see the movement through is their own very vigorous protest culture. Now is a really interesting time because many South Koreans, especially older citizens, while they are focused on their own lively and turbulent politics and economy, have a bedrock sentiment that in the end the United States will get things right. However, this has changed over the past year or so. In this respect, the engagement of the K-pop band BTS in Black Lives Matter is very unusual and highlights the changing nature of the bilateral relationship. Current issues have an impact on South Korea’s own broader interests and concerns, including the reliability of the United States as an ally, other geopolitical issues from the region, and the continuing challenges from North Korea.

One of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul’s recent actions on social issues included displaying a Black Lives Matter banner in front of the embassy building. What is the precedent for banners and displays outside the embassy in Seoul? What do Koreans think about them?

When I was ambassador to South Korea, we were in the same nondescript building on a main street in Seoul as the embassy now, and we had an idea of putting up banners to mark occasions because Koreans do so. We started raising banners for different events, and Koreans really liked it. We hung banners to commemorate the Korean War and Korean holidays like Hangul Day. Banners are an example of how embassies can adapt to local practices and promote key issues—by doing so in a way that is comfortable and effective within the local context. Hanging a banner, whatever the banner says, may not be the best approach for London or Moscow, but it is effective in Seoul.

When I saw that the embassy put up the Black Lives Matter banner, I was moved by the gesture, and I think it did resonate with Koreans based on the reactions I saw on social media. It was part of a groundswell of youth support for the movement. BTS, for example, was matching fan donations in support of Black Lives Matter. The banner was a way for the embassy to engage on an important issue and acknowledge the United States’ own struggles with and commitment to pursuing human rights. When posted overseas, you represent the United States as an official and follow policy as best you understand it, but you represent ideals too. In an appropriate way, it is very important that Americans can express their deepest ideals in the context of their service to the administration.

Does U.S. embassy action on social issues encourage change in the Korean political landscape? Do you believe that embassy statements affect the Korean community’s perspectives on the issues discussed?

In South Korea, the U.S. embassy has that impact. Sometimes there will be a backlash. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea when Carter was elected. I remember very well that most Koreans whom I knew were horrified because they thought that he did not understand the situation in South Korea vis-à-vis North Korea and that he was going to pull out all the troops because of Park Chung-hee’s human rights record.

In the 1980s, those of us on the ground saw South Koreans’ growing impatience that democracy was further delayed to first accomplish other milestones. The fact that the United States—as a security ally that was there to help ensure that South Korea would remain safe—was speaking out on this issue was very important. The U.S. approach was nuanced. Certainly, there were many times when the government that was in power was very unhappy with some of the activities of the embassy, such as when we met with people they considered to be radical, revolutionary, or pro–North Korea. They were very unhappy when senior U.S. officials would speak out.

I think, though, that expanding the definition of human rights and keeping a focus on this issue in the U.S.-ROK relationship was an important element in South Korea’s evolution into a more diverse, democratic society. It has also deepened the relationship because there is a sense that there are shared challenges. Seeing how South Koreans have embraced human rights principles, put them into action in their own society, and used them to inform and energize principles for their country’s engagement with the world over the past 45 years is very inspiring. It is a story that the United States can take satisfaction from but not credit for.

Embassies are one of the instruments of the U.S. government and play an important role in implementing policy and empowering communities through their programs. Everyone in an embassy performs a role in representing U.S. values and tries to reflect those values in carrying out their work. Embassies play this role because they are the face on the ground of people, and this still matters even in the digital world we all live in. Those who staff the embassies are the ones who speak the language and know the culture. At every embassy that I’ve worked, whether in a leading role or as a staff member, I have tried to demonstrate through words and actions a commitment to living by certain values and an expectation that all of us are going to try harder.

Kathleen Stephens is President and CEO of the Korea Economic Institute of America. Ambassador Stephens was a Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea in the 1970s and returned to the country as a political officer reporting on Korean political issues, then later as head of the Busan consulate. She served as the first woman and first Korean-speaking U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. She was a career diplomat for the United States for over 30 years.

This interview was conducted by Olivia Truesdale, an intern with NBR’s Political and Security Affairs group.