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Event Summaries
March 20, 2018

Event Summary: South Korea at the Crossroads

Henry Jackson Society

By Mirko Giordani

On the 12th February 2018, The Henry Jackson Society was delighted to welcome Scott Snyder, Director of the U.S.-Korea policy programme at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers”. Also speaking at the event was Dr John Nillson-Wright, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia with the Asia Programme at Chatham House.

“South Korea at the Crossroads” is the product of Mr Snyder’s research efforts to understand and identify the factors behind South Korea’s strategic choices. In the first part of the book, Mr Snyder concentrates his research efforts to understand the evolution of South Korean foreign policy since the State’s foundation in 1948. For Mr Snyder, the central theme of South Korean foreign policy is an enduring tension between the desire for autonomy and the need for alliances. For Mr Snyder, South Korean foreign policy capacity evolved, because each South Korean president has taken a different approach in trying to manage the tension between autonomy and alliances.

The book, as Mr Snyder said, analyses three South Korean foreign policy debates.

  • The first debate consists in the analysis of South Korea’s diplomatic capacity as a middle power. For Mr Snyder, South Korea increasingly has been using the middle-power framework as a way to try to explore various options in foreign policy that will help to get out from its geostrategic and geographic conundrum.
  • The second debate consists of how to balance economic dependency on China and security dependence on United States.
  • The final debate is about South Korean long-standing desire for reunification, which was deeply discussed during the event for Mr Snyder, there are four main South Korean strategies to the long-standing objective of reunification, which emerge over the past decades. Two of them represent a more progressive view on reunification and the other two reflect a more conservative approach on reunification, which relies on the North Korean future economic collapse.

In Mr Snyder opinion, one critical moment where Koreans really thought that reunification might happen was at the end of the Cold War. At that time, then South Korean president Roh Tae-woo proposed the “nordpolitik” strategy, also known as “Korean National Community Reunification formula”. It was designed as gradual unification formula. This formula led to the “Basic Agreement”, which was never implemented due to North Korean nuclear activities in 1992. Mr Snyder claimed that there was a second moment when South Koreans thought that unification seemed close enough. At that time, the president was Kim Young-sam and North Korean economy was seemingly collapsing, leading for a process of reunification. Mr Snyder believed that under the progressive presidency of Kim Dae-jung, South Korea had a new and different approach towards North Korea, epitomized with the term “sunshine policy”. The idea behind the “sunshine policy” was to have a long-term view, a gradual process towards reunification, involving reconciliation, exchange, cooperation and eventually some kind of political union. Mr Snyder believed that the last attempt in the Korean reunification was characterized by conservative views. The previous South Korean president Park Geun-hye inaugurated the “unification jackpot” policy, evoking the idea that the power transition in North Korea make that country vulnerable.

Dr John Nilsson-Wright focused on the identity politics, asking what are the ingredients that could provide a workable unification module, as well as a sense of common future for the Koreans. Dr John Hemmings questioned if China surpasses U.S. in hard power terms, how South Korea will respond? Snyder, in relation to the first question, stated that North and South Korea are playing in a completely different play box. As a result, it makes very hard to imagine that in the future they will converge. In answering to John Hemmings’ question, Mr Snyder declared that the crucial issue is about who sets the global rules. According to Mr Snyder, South Korea is a great beneficiary of U.S.-led global order, especially in international trade. That is why it was argued that South Korea would be better off to remain tighter to America than to China.