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U.S. Ambassador Leaves S. Korea Focused On Protecting U.S. Allies


We've been talking with some of President Obama's key ambassadors over the past few days. His political appointees are all out of a job tomorrow, that's when Donald Trump becomes president. This morning, we hear from U.S. ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert. He's represented the U.S. in Seoul for the last two years. He joined us from the U.S. embassy there, and he started off explaining how the U.S. has been countering the nuclear threat from North Korea.

MARK LIPPERT: While we have been watching this growing threat we've been spending billions of dollars to erect robust missile defenses here in the Western Pacific. We've added ground-based interceptors to Alaska. We've added a second big - what's called a TPY-2 radar in Japan. We've added two Navy ships in the western Pacific that can shoot down missiles as well. So all of that is designed to push Kim Jong Un into a choice where he comes back to the table and keep the United States protecting its key allies in the western Pacific.

MARTIN: But has any of that actually changed the North Korean leader's behavior?

LIPPERT: Well, what I would say is that it has isolated him more. There's no doubt that hard currency is dwindling. You know, sanctions - regimes are miserable failures until they're not, and, you know, I think that's what the Trump administration should be focused on.

MARTIN: The U.S. has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea. Donald Trump has said South Korea and other U.S. allies in the region need to take more responsibility for their own defense, and he has suggested South Korea even develop nuclear weapons. How have those ideas been received in Seoul?

LIPPERT: In Seoul the Koreans obviously object strongly to being characterized as a free rider. And, you know, my opinion is they are absolutely not a free rider. They have a draft, all military age males serve. They are building the largest overseas U.S. military installation in Korea at the cost of $10 billion and paying 96 percent of that. Those are just a few examples. So, you know, on the nuclear weapons issue, you know, we feel that there is a strong commitment of the nuclear umbrella through what we called extended deterrence that provides ample protection and obviates the need for South Korea to bring nuclear weapons back to the Korean peninsula.

MARTIN: As President Obama tried to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from a foreign policy perspective he talked about this pivot to Asia. Are you convinced the Trump administration will maintain that focus on Asia, and what are the consequences if it doesn't?

LIPPERT: Well, there was strong progress made under President Obama. But I do think going forward we're going to have to find some way to resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the big multilateral trade deal that is good for U.S. consumers, that is good for U.S. manufacturers and good for U.S. companies. And if we don't, China is going to write the rules. And that's going to be a lower standard, and it's going to be a trade agreement that is not fundamentally in the United States' interests.

MARTIN: I guess in closing I would just ask you how you're feeling in this moment, what your personal reflections are as you get ready to leave this post. I would remind listeners that this job, this move for you started out in a violent way.

LIPPERT: Yeah. I mean, I obviously was a subject of this vicious knife attack in March of 2015, but, you know, everybody has moments of crisis. It's not whether you're going to face moments of crisis, it's how you're going to respond. And, you know, the South Korean people, all the people who helped me and all the people who supported me and my family after that attack, it was remarkable. The other thing too that I would just say is that, you know, we had two children here. And, you know, it's, you know, we came as two, we're leaving as four. If - and then I don't know how the dog fits in that equation, but...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LIPPERT: ...The point is, you know, we're really linked to this country. And our children have Korean middle names, our son speaks and understands Korean. And so, look, this is a place that we will always remember, always cherish and always come back to.

MARTIN: Mark Lippert is the outgoing U.S. ambassador to South Korea. He spoke to us from the U.S. embassy in Seoul. Ambassador Lippert, thank you so much.

LIPPERT: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.