Korea Briefing: Korea and Its Neighbors

Asia Society's Korea Briefing provides background and context on sociopolitical issues currently facing the Korean peninsula. It is accessible to readers with a cursory understanding of the challenges facing Seoul and Pyongyang, but also pertinent to seasoned Korea watchers and policy makers. The four chapters take a serious look at conditions on the Korean peninsula and in the region, addressing economics, domestic politics, intra‑Asian relations, and Washington's relationship with North and South Korea. As the peninsula is home to both one of the most (South Korea) and least (North Korea) global countries in the world, special attention is paid to Korea and its neighbors as they work together, and sometimes at odds, at this critical time.

South Korea, like many nations, has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, but there is reason for hope. The government responded aggressively to the crisis, and although the value of the won has depreciated dramatically, this bodes well for Korean exporters. At the same time, interest rates are down and Korean banks largely have escaped the troubles of their American counterparts. But the turnaround of the Korean economy will depend on the major players in the international system, including the United States and China. While Korea may have weathered the worst of this financial crisis, it still needs to move forward with further reform, eschewing its dependence on exports to focus on growth at home. More than a decade removed from the Asian financial crisis, Korea seems to have learned its lessons well.

Equally positive, Seoul and Washington have made great strides in strengthening their security alliance, transforming it into a comprehensive, strategic partnership. The Joint Vision for the Alliance signed by Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama in 2009 set the course for a more comprehensive relationship going forward. Although the uncertain status of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement remains a headache, the two nations continue to agree on strategies toward Pyongyang and the North's denuclearization, as well as most international security challenges. Seoul will continue to contribute to the war in Afghanistan and to the anti-piracy mission off the Somali Coast, in return for the full protection of the U.S. military, including nuclear deterrence.

Across the demilitarized zone, Pyongyang remains isolated and poses a challenge for all international players, not just Washington and her allies. Even for Beijing—traditionally Pyongyang's closest friend-unavoidable and vexing decisions loom large. Although Chinese leaders have prioritized Pyongyang's stability and have refrained from pushing their neighbor too hard, Beijing recognizes that it must appease Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo—or at least give the appearance of doing so. China would prefer a non-nuclear peninsula, but many in Beijing believe that it is impossible for Pyongyang to denuclearize. One thing is certain—Beijing will continue to demonstrate and promote the importance of its economic engagement with its socialist neighbor to the world as transforming force and the sole stimulus for peaceful transformation of North Korea.

Equally unclear—and certainly more problematic—is Japan's relationship with North Korea. Tokyo's refusal to drop the so-called abduction issue continues to impede progress in the Six-Party Talks and remains the single greatest obstacle to improving ties with Pyongyang. Should the administration of Yukio Hatoyama seek to break from this stalemate, the battle needs to be won at home by first addressing his low public approval rating, which could provide room for policy maneuvering and the space to pursue a realistic path toward normalization.

The discussions initiated in this Korea Briefing bring to mind larger questions about Korea's role on the international stage and how these issues affect the rest of the world. Getting it right, while addressing the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities, will be crucial.

The Asia Society would like to thank the Korea Foundation for its support of this project.

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Asia Society Korea Center

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