Thanks to its comprehensive democratization and its “Miracle on the Han,” which transformed the Republic of Korea into a developed country, South Korea has realized its aspirations to become a major international player. Nonetheless, the persistent threat from a perennially belligerent North Korea, along with the challenge of having three of the world’s most powerful countries as neighbors, continues to constrain South Korea’s global opportunities.
Although South Korean foreign policy cannot ignore its northern neighbor, the absence of any real movement in bilateral ties has meant that Seoul’s relations with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo have seen the most activity in recent years. In general, South Korea has succeeded in sustaining good ties with the United States and Russia, improved its relations somewhat with China and managed to halt the deterioration in its ties with Japan—though hoped-for breakthroughs in the latter two relationships have yet to occur.
North Korea. Since her inauguration in February 2013, President Park Geun-hye’s foreign and defense policies have differed little from those of her predecessor, President Lee Myung-bak, though this might end should South Korea’s external environment, especially its relations with North Korea or China, change. As expected, North Korea tested Park during her first few months in office with various provocations, mostly rhetorical threats, but also including its third test of a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang’s militant rhetoric intensified in March 2013 after the U.N. Security Council tightened sanctions on North Korea following the tests and after the annual U.S.-South Korean military drill in South Korea known as Foal Eagle was conducted. The North’s angry pronouncements were driven in part because the United States carried out shows of strength during the exercise that included, for the first time, nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 stealth fighters, the most sophisticated warplanes in the world.
That North Korea has been testing the new administration has been unsurprising, since Pyongyang has confronted all new South Korean presidents with provocations. Nevertheless, the North’s recent provocations are arguably of a lesser magnitude that those of 2010, when North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Chenoan, revealed the existence of a new uranium enrichment facility and conducted an artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, located along the intra-Korean maritime border, an act of aggression that represented the first direct attack on South Korean territory by the North Korean regular military since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
During the election campaign, Park advocated a “trust-based diplomacy” that implies gradual and conditional reconciliation provided Pyongyang meets Seoul halfway, which it has yet to do. Park has maintained two red lines for the North, both adopted by the previous Lee administration, within the framework of an overall strategy of “alignment.” The first is refusing to tolerate further North Korean provocations and threatening to respond to them with a strong counter-reaction. The second is demanding that the DPRK fulfill its previous agreements, such as its 2005 commitment to eliminate its nuclear weapons program, as a precondition for new deals. The reasoning is that it would make no sense for South Korea or other countries to sign new agreements if Pyongyang would not honor them.
If Pyongyang respects both these red lines, then Park’s alignment policy allows for limited and conditional engagement. For example, Park had already said she is prepared to offer North Korea humanitarian aid and resume cooperation at the Kaesong joint economic zone. But Park has insisted that there could be no peace agreement, a current North Korean priority, until Pyongyang ceases its provocations and actually eliminates its illegal nuclear program, which it has failed to do.
More recently, Park has been discussing how Korean reunification might occur. Her vision—laid out in a March 2014 speech in Dresden, a city that before German reunification had been under communist control—would begin the process by strengthening humanitarian exchanges, especially between divided families; building common infrastructure for future joint economic development; and promoting activities aimed to integrate the two societies and thereby overcome Cold War divisions. The North Korean government has not shown any interest in supporting this process, although President Barack Obama did on his most recent trip to South Korea.
United States. Strengthening the Washington-Seoul alliance is a key aspect of Park’s strategy of promoting progress on the North Korea issue and enhancing regional security by building trilateral trust and cooperation among China, the U.S. and South Korea. In this, she has a willing partner in the Obama administration, which has responded to continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula due to North Korean provocations by stabilizing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, expanding the size of joint exercises and upgrading U.S. military capabilities designed to defend the Korean Peninsula. Obama has visited South Korea an unprecedented four times as president, and U.S. and South Korean officials have expressed strong mutual commitment to their military alliance.
The South Korean-U.S. alliance remains focused on defending South Korea from external attack, but the alliance has also evolved to address broader geographic and functional issues where the two countries share important interests. Their June 2009 Joint Vision statement expresses support for continuing to expand the global role of the alliance and to partner in economic development, democratization and other non-defense issues. The new vision aligns well with the Asian Pivot and reflects the 21st-century reality that South Korea has become a global player. When Park visited Washington in May 2013, the two governments issued a joint declaration reaffirming their 2009 statement. Despite occasional differences over how much support Seoul will give Washington’s sanctions on Iran and Russia, and South Korea’s interest in developing advanced civilian nuclear energy technologies, the alliance looks to remain strong for at least the remainder of Obama’s second term.
China. Despite the currently healthy state of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, neither Washington nor Seoul has been able to find a successful policy formula to induce Pyongyang to improve its behavior. Both governments seem to be relying on China to do so. South Korea’s relations with China have improved under Park and her Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. In their half-dozen meetings, including two presidential summits, they have announced shared goals such as improving mutual political trust, increasing bilateral trade and investment, expanding people-to-people exchanges and preventing a nuclear-armed North Korea. South Koreans recognize the importance of China as the external actor with the most influence on Pyongyang and as an essential participant in any regional security framework.
The economic partnership between China and South Korea has shown remarkable growth. China has become South Korea’s largest trading partner, largest export market, largest source of imports and main destination of South Korean foreign direct investment, while South Korea is China’s third-largest trading partner and fifth-largest source of foreign investment. In their July 2014 presidential summit, Park and Xi committed to signing a bilateral free trade agreement. The two governments have established the target of raising bilateral trade to $300 billion by 2015. They also discussed using more currency swap deals and other mechanisms to advance mutual economic ties.
In the past, Beijing exploited its influence over North Korea as leverage to remind South Koreans that only China might be able to induce North Korea into softening its belligerent policies. But relations between China and North Korea have deteriorated sharply under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Until now, Kim has concentrated on consolidating power at home and eliminating rivals who may have enjoyed closer ties with Beijing, such as the December 2013 public execution of senior North Korean leader Jang Song-taek, who had helped build China-North Korea economic ties.
While Kim’s father and grandfather, North Korea’s first two leaders, regularly went to China during their years in power, the younger Kim has shunned direct contacts with foreign leaders since assuming power in late 2011 and has shown no interest in visiting Beijing or rendering China the kind of deference Beijing expects to receive as Pyongyang’s most important foreign partner. Given China’s weakened leverage in Pyongyang, Beijing has had to pursue a more direct path toward better relations with Seoul. Although Chinese-North Korean tensions have been evident for years, Xi broke with precedent in becoming the first Chinese head-of-state to visit South Korea without traveling to the North beforehand.
Nonetheless, South Koreans feel apprehensive about China’s growing influence, particularly as it contributes to regional instability and both Koreas’ growing dependence on the Chinese economy. They resent how, under the pretext of pursuing a policy of equivalence regarding the North and the South, Chinese officials have sided with Pyongyang in most bilateral disputes. Many South Koreans would like Beijing to apply greater pressure on Pyongyang to end its nuclear program and improve its human rights policies. Both Beijing and Seoul have proposed regional security concepts that are harmonious in some respects but conflict in key areas. Neither China nor South Korea represents a direct military threat to the other, but each has defense ties with third parties that worry the other country. China has sought to exploit divisions between South Korea and Japan, and China’s leaders still see the Seoul-Washington military alliance as threatening vital Chinese interests.
The close security alignment between Seoul and Washington has reinforced Beijing’s caution about breaking with Pyongyang. Although Beijing and Seoul agree on the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula, their joint statements avoid, presumably at Beijing’s insistence, specific mention of North Korea’s nuclear program. China has also conducted a major campaign to discourage South Korea from joining U.S. efforts to establish a regional missile defense structure. Exacerbating matters is the fact that China and South Korea have unresolved territorial and historical disputes. Moreover, the Chinese leadership still has not accepted that China would be more secure and better off economically if the Korean Peninsula were unified under Seoul’s leadership. Instead, Chinese policymakers continue to believe that they benefit more from keeping the Korean Peninsula divided, thereby constraining South Korea from realizing its full economic and strategic potential. Until Beijing breaks with Pyongyang, it cannot fundamentally elevate relations with Seoul.
Japan. South Korea and Japan face a common military threat from North Korea, made evident most recently by the North’s artillery strike against Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 and by Pyongyang’s recurring launch of ballistic missiles over Japanese territory. In recent years, the two governments have generally stood in solidarity against this threat, with Tokyo backing Seoul’s hardline policies following the 2010 provocations and pledging not to resume direct negotiations with Pyongyang until an intra-Korean dialogue had been restored and Pyongyang had apologized for its previous misdeeds. Japan and South Korea share a commitment to liberal democratic principles and fundamental human rights. They have achieved high levels of wealth based on market economics and innovative high-tech industries. Their cultural products, from Korean pop to Japanese comics, are increasingly admired in both countries.
Yet several developments have recently resulted in a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations. These issues include the repeated visits by senior Japanese government officials to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine; Korean fears of renewed Japanese militarism; and a reignited territorial dispute over the South Korean-administered Dokdo Islands, which the Japanese claim as the Takeshima. Park has indicated that she is waiting for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make a major initiative to restore ties, but Abe has been focusing his diplomatic engagement on Russia and North Korea as he seeks to balance sustained Chinese pressure against Japan.
Russia. Russia has deepened relations with South Korea while maintaining relations with the North. Moscow’s objectives regarding the Koreas include averting another major war; preventing North Korea’s actions from prompting additional countries to seek nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles; maintaining Russia’s role as a major security actor in the region; and eventually eliminating the North’s nuclear program by peaceful means. Russian policymakers are eager to normalize the security situation on the Korean Peninsula to reduce the risks of war and other security threats and to realize Russian economic ambitions there.
Economic cooperation between Russia and South Korea has increased dramatically during the past decade. More than half of South Korea’s civilian helicopters are Russian-made, while Russia provides South Korean nuclear power plants with over a third of their fuel. Since 1996, Russia has supplied tanks, combat vehicles and military helicopters to the South Korean armed forces as partial payment of Russia’s $2 billion debt to the South. Both parties look to deepen bilateral economic cooperation beyond the exchange of Russian energy for South Korean consumer goods and machinery to include outer-space exploration, nuclear energy and other high-technology areas. Russian policymakers seek South Korean investment and technology to help modernize Russia’s industry.
Yet, like their Chinese counterparts, Russian officials are still more concerned with a possible collapse of North Korea than with Pyongyang’s intransigence over its nuclear program. Another difference with Seoul is that Moscow would not welcome Korean reunification because it could result in the deployment of U.S. military forces to the northern half of the newly unified Korean state, close to Russia’s border. In addition, Russia would stand to lose the substantial South Korean investment currently flowing into the country, which would likely be redirected toward North Korea’s rehabilitation in advance of the peninsula’s possible reunification.
Park has shown skill at navigating the tensions between China and the United States to sustain good ties with both Beijing and Washington. Relations with Japan, however, have stagnated due to both Seoul and Tokyo’s seeming unwillingness to launch a major initiative to overcome their differences. The coming months should make clearer how Russia’s interest in improving ties with Japan and North Korea might affect the complex East Asian power mosaic.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the South Korean armed forces consist of 640,000 active-duty personnel and 4.5 million reservists, or almost 10 percent of the country’s population of about 49 million. The 522,000 soldiers in the army are equipped with some 2,400 main battle tanks, 2,800 armored personnel carriers, 11,000 artillery pieces, 60 attack helicopters, 175 multirole helicopters and modern air defense systems. The air force has 65,000 active-duty personnel and a modern fleet of more than 550 combat aircraft, including F-4E, F-5E/F, F-15K and F-16C/D fighters and ground-attack planes, along with more than 100 UAVs and hundreds of air defense systems. While certainly more capable than that of the North, the South Korean air force would still find it difficult to rapidly suppress all the North’s artillery and missiles before they could devastate South Korean cities. The South Korean navy is a modern force with 68,000 sailors and marines. It possesses three cruisers, six destroyers, 23 tactical submarines, 12 frigates, 30 corvettes and several dozen coastal defense craft and amphibious vessels. Some of the South’s naval vessels are equipped with state-of-the-art AEGIS anti-missile systems and other capabilities that are transforming the fleet into a blue-water navy, which will give the South greater power-projection abilities.
South Korea’s strong economic, industrial and technological base means that it can better support a lengthy war than North Korea’s less advanced military-industrial complex, which is optimized for a short war. Unlike North Korea, South Korea lacks nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, though it has been developing missile defense systems, pre-emptive strike capabilities, personnel protection gear and other means of negating the North’s weapons of mass destruction. But South Korea can count on extensive U.S. military support, while North Korea would likely stand alone in any conflict on the peninsula.
Seoul’s total military expenditures surpassed $31 billion in 2013, making it the third-largest defense spender in Asia and the 12th-largest in the world. South Korea is one of the largest arms purchasers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, during 2008-2012, South Korea accounted for 5 percent of all global imports of major conventional weapons; of these imports, 77 percent came from the U.S., 15 percent from Germany and 5 percent from France. In recent years, the government has bought more non-U.S. weapons, developed more indigenous defense systems and exported more sophisticated arms to other middle-range powers.
The South Korea-U.S. Defense Treaty
The South Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in October 1953 shortly after the end of the Korean War, commits the U.S. to defend South Korea from external aggression and authorizes U.S. military forces to deploy on South Korean territory. Under its terms, some 37,500 U.S. combat forces were until a few years ago stationed near the intra-Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), established in 1953 to separate North and South Korean military forces. In late 2002, the South Korean and U.S. governments agreed to relocate most of the United States Forces Korea (USFK) to a few consolidated locations south of Seoul. The move, which has also seen a reduction in the number of U.S. forces deployed in South Korea to 28,500, has taken an enormous amount of time and effort but is currently scheduled to be completed by 2016. Some South Koreans fear that recent troop relocations represent, or would be seen as, a decreasing U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea.
These concerns have been manifest in the angst over the transfer of operational control of South Korean forces in wartime to a new joint command led by a South Korean commander. Initially planned for 2012, the transfer has been repeatedly delayed and is now scheduled to take place in December 2015. Operational control currently resides with U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command, which is led by a four-star U.S. general with a South Korean four-star deputy commander. South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff have had operational control of South Korean units in peacetime since December 1994. The ongoing debate over wartime operational control partly reflects different priorities over national sovereignty versus national security. The decision originally aimed to signal to Pyongyang the strength of the alliance and mutual faith in growing South Korean capabilities. The new command arrangement was also meant to assuage South Korean nationalists, raise South Korea’s international status and bolster South Korean self-confidence by demonstrating the U.S. belief that Seoul could command its own defenses. However, anxiety caused by the raised tensions on the peninsula over the past several years made many South Koreans averse to such a radical overhaul.
The media has recently been speculating that the South Korean government will offer to increase missile defense cooperation with the United States, which China and Russia have lobbied Seoul against, in return for a further delay in the transfer of wartime operational control.
Defense Reform and Security Policy
For the past few years, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense has been implementing its Defense Reform Plan 2020 that aims to create armed forces of reduced size but higher quality. The army is securing more modern unmanned aviation vehicles, main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery systems so that it can transform itself into a modernized mechanized force. The navy is building a structure suitable for three-dimensional operations on the surface, underwater and in the air that can move beyond coastal defense to uphold South Korea’s global maritime interests. The air force is developing a structure suitable for air superiority and precision strike and maintaining a high-level combat readiness posture for immediate response, such as retaliatory strikes against North Korean provocations during peacetime.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s military reserves are being reduced in size and restructured into a better-trained force of 500,000 by 2020. The Defense Ministry aims to increase the ratio of officers in the force and introduce a paid volunteer system to reinforce professionalism compared to the current universal conscription policy. Exploding costs and the country’s economic problems have delayed progress but the upgrading continues. If nothing else, the decreasing number of available youth for conscription and the imperative of maintaining interoperability with the U.S. military will sustain some modernization.
In its most recent Defense White Paper in 2012, the Defense Ministry also pledged to contribute to global security outside of the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean armed forces have been increasing their capacity to conduct extra-peninsula missions. Meanwhile, the South Korean air force and navy are receiving enhanced long-range surveillance and strike systems, including some AWACS planes and UAVs as well as KDX Aegis-equipped destroyers, Dokdo-class amphibious warships and longer-range Type 214 attack submarines. Operationally, the South Korean military is increasingly becoming involved in missions outside of its traditional defensive role on the peninsula. As of mid-2014, more than 600 troops were deployed in eight peacekeeping missions around the world, and the South Korean navy has increased its role in counterpiracy missions. In April 2009, South Korea established a dedicated Cheonghae counterpiracy task force to join the international fleet of warships combating pirates in the Indian Ocean. South Korean forces participate in the multinational counterpiracy Combined Task Force-151 (CTF-151), while South Korea’s navy operates an independent counterpiracy mission in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.
During the past decade, South Korea has become a global player with worldwide interests. In support of Seoul’s “Global Korea” policy, South Korean policymakers have sought to raise the country’s international profile by hosting high-level events, participating in international peacekeeping and promoting South Korea as a model for economically developing countries that could soon face a democratic transition. As part of this effort, Seoul successfully hosted the November 2010 G-20 Summit, the November 2011 High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness and the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. South Korea has vigorously participated in the activities of various subsidiary and specialized United Nations agencies, as well as other international organizations.
South Korea has also twice commanded multinational counterpiracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. It has deployed a Provincial Reconstruction Team to Afghanistan and is now training the Afghanistan National Security Forces as they prepare for the departure of Western combat forces. South Korea is a committed member of various international nonproliferation regimes, such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Proliferation Security Initiative. In October 2012, several years after former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was selected as U.N. secretary-general, South Korea was elected to hold a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for the 2013 and 2014 terms.
Despite its small size and limited population, South Korea has become one of the world’s largest national economies, with its companies enjoying a global presence in high-technology products. South Korea has joined the elite Group of Twenty (G-20) leading industrial countries; has entered into free trade agreements (FTAs) with more than a half-dozen countries and organizations, including the European Union, ASEAN and the United States; and is negotiating almost a dozen more, including with China and Japan. South Korea has continued to rise in the global supply chain, most recently having rapidly emerged as one of the world’s leading suppliers of civil nuclear energy technologies and services.
South Korea has built one of the most impressive defense industrial bases among the newly industrialized states in the Asia-Pacific. South Korean defense exports compete internationally in the armored vehicle, shipbuilding and aerospace sectors. Its annual arms exports reached $2.4 billion in 2011, and the government wants this figure to double to $4 billion by 2020. Economic and political considerations augmented the military rationale for this indigenous defense industrialization. The government has consciously pursued a parallel strategy of “security and development,” that is, building up its heavy industry and high-technology sectors while striving for greater self-sufficiency in arms production. Moreover, South Korea wants an advanced arms production capability to enhance its international status and influence.
Dispelling expectations that she would focus more on East Asian issues than her predecessor, Park made a high-profile six-day visit to Central Asia this summer, with which economic ties have greatly expanded during the past decade. Trade and investment are the focus of Seoul’s relations with the region, with South Korea seeking access to uranium and other natural resources, while offering Central Asian states consumer and high-technology goods and services. Some South Koreans have also suggested their country as a possible developmental role model for Central Asian countries seeking to transition from authoritarian states with strong economies but limited civil rights to a more democratic and pluralist political system. In addition to the Global Korea campaign, the Lee administration pursued a “New Asia Initiative,” both of which encompassed Central Asia. Lee himself visited Kazakhstan seven times in the space of four years, and senior leaders from both countries, including their presidents, now regularly visit each other.
However, South Korea’s global ambitions are constrained by its unresolved conflict with North Korea. For more than a decade, the Six-Party Talks among China, Japan, Russia, the U.S., South Korea and the North have sought to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in return for various economic, diplomatic and other incentives. Thus far, the six rounds of talks have experienced generally poor results. Although the parties have signed several interim agreements, they either were never implemented or later unraveled. Meanwhile, North Korea has suspended its participation in the talks, tested at least three nuclear explosive devices and further developed its ballistic missile capacity.
The talks have been in abeyance since late 2008. Pyongyang formally withdrew from them in April 2009, and while it has since offered to return in principle, it is haggling for international recognition as a nuclear weapons state. The South and the U.S., under the policy of “strategic patience,” have demanded that North Korea give some concrete indication that it will make major nuclear concessions. There is little evidence, however, that the North will ever relinquish its nuclear weapons potential, though Pyongyang might again temporarily freeze or discontinue some nuclear weapons-related activities and even eliminate some of its nuclear material. North Korean statements have varied, sometimes confirming earlier pledges to eliminate its nuclear weapons, while at other times affirming an intent to retain them indefinitely pending universal nuclear disarmament and demanding that other countries acknowledge its new status as a nuclear weapons state.
Even if the North rejoins the talks, the six-party framework faces several challenges to achieving North Korea’s denuclearization. First, they must overcome the current verification deadlock. Second, they must determine whether and how to constrain North Korea’s disruptive launching of ballistic missiles. Third, they must reconcile the still diverging positions, policies and preferences of the six parties. The prospects for the talks have always been weakened by the difficult nature of the North Korean regime and the lack of trust among several of the participants. But the magnitude of the danger—the increased risks of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war—has always sustained the negotiating process despite the magnitude of the setbacks. Neither South Korea nor the U.S. is prepared to abandon the talks until a superior alternative presents itself. Among other considerations, in the 2005 agreement negotiated within the six-party framework, the North formally committed to eliminating its nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the Russian and especially Chinese governments also strongly favor reviving the talks.
Beyond the nuclear issue, a peace agreement is still needed to confirm the formal end of the Korean War, even though the countries engaged in the region will continue to operate in an unstable security environment. Tensions will likely persist, driven by contentious historical sensibilities, continued economic disputes, the absence of robust multilateral security institutions and overlapping territorial claims. The perverse logic of the security dilemma and other balance-of-power considerations will also play their part.
As for reunification, the advent of a united Korea, especially one that possessed enhanced power-projection capabilities or nuclear weapons, could easily cause Japan and other Asian countries to reinforce their own defenses in response. Decision-makers in Japan, China and Russia can readily identify past periods in which they experienced serious threats emanating from the Korean Peninsula. Conversely, the last time that both China and Japan possessed substantial military forces, they fought a war in and over Korea.
Although eventual reunification might establish the most secure and stable Korean Peninsula, in the interim other arrangements may be necessary, including various confidence-building security measures, greater economic integration of the North into the region’s vibrant economy and other measures. In principle, the six parties have committed to consider establishing some kind of broader security architecture for the Northeast Asia region, though whether that step would build on the existing six-party framework or involve modifying other existing—or entirely new—multinational security institutions remains unclear.
While rightly aspiring for reunification and a transformed regional security environment, South Korea lacks the capacity to achieve these goals on its own. Instead, it must await more favorable conditions, especially a decisive change in China’s Korean policies, or a new regime in Pyongyang, which could occur at any time and is fraught with risks as well as opportunities.
The author would like to thank Justin Blaszczyk, Zach Cooper, Yejin Jin, Alfred Tovall, Lee Wickman and Leon Whyte for their research assistance.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.