By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, June 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea already chose a system of democracy decades ago, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday in response to a Seoul official boasting that his country can now choose between the United States and China.
South Korea's position in the growing U.S.-China rivalry came into sharper focus after Seoul's ambassador to Washington, Lee Soo-hyuck, told reporters last week that he feels pride in his country being able to "choose" between the two superpowers and not being forced to choose.
In response to the ambassador's remarks, a State Department spokesperson told Voice of America that South Korea made its choice decades ago when it accepted democracy over authoritarianism.
"Korea made a choice back in the '80s," David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said during a virtual seminar hosted by the Pacific Forum think tank, attributing his remarks to department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
"That's the choice; they chose democracy," he said. "This is not a choice of China. You can work with both the U.S. and China, but you also have to consider your own national character, and most countries have moved to a system of democratic governance for the right reasons -- because it's more stable, it takes advantage of the benefits of the population's thinking, and voting and letting people be heard allows them to buy in and support versus resist, as we saw in Hong Kong and other places.
"So, yes, I don't like the discussion about whether you have to choose between the U.S. and China," he continued. "I think you have to choose your own national system. And if you choose democracy, then you've made the right choice."
U.S.-China tensions are believed to pose a challenge to South Korea's efforts to maintain good relations with both its ally, the U.S., and its largest trading partner, Beijing.
In recent weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump's invitation of South Korea to a Group of Seven summit in the fall renewed concerns that Seoul may anger Beijing by joining a cohort clearly aimed at countering Beijing's increasing political and economic clout.