Foreign policy and defense
The Cold War between the East and the West
and the Korean Peninsula have
characterized South Korea's foreign policy since the
state was founded in 1948. The Korean
Peninsula is one of the most militarized areas in the
world. Formally, war permits still exist between North
and South Korea, as the 1953 ceasefire agreement was not
followed by any peace agreement.
Both South Korea and North Korea aim to reunite the
Korean peninsula. However, the political and military
contradictions have been too great, and in South Korea
the enormous financial burden it would take to take
responsibility for the poor North Korea's development.
Overview of business holidays and various national observances in South Korea for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Attempts to dialogue between South and North Korea in
the 1970s and 1980s produced poor results. After the end
of the Cold War around 1990, a cautious approach began
and in 1991 North Korea gave up its opposition to UN
membership for both countries, and the two Koreas were
elected to the World Organization. The following year, a
broad cooperation agreement came into force.
Kim Dae-Jung, president of South Korea in 1998–2003,
worked purposefully for better relations with North
Korea despite a series of North Korean cross-border
intrusions. In 1999, however, North Korean and South
Korean naval vessels fired at each other for the first
time since the Korean War, with many casualties as a
result. Nevertheless, contacts between the two countries
were not interrupted. In June 2000, a summit was held
between Kim Dae-Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il
in Pyongyang. Among other things, they decided on
financial cooperation and meetings for families who
lived apart for half a century. At the Sydney Olympics
that same year, South and North Korea's participants
marched in together.
After the turn of the millennium, tension in the
Korean Peninsula increased. Many deaths were claimed in
2002 during a fire in the Yellow Sea. Following an
apology from North Korea for provocation, work began on
restoring road and rail links.
The international six-party talks on North Korea's
nuclear weapons program begun in 2003 between North
Korea and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the
United States broke down in 2006, and the same year
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Despite
tensions, the countries' economic cooperation projects
in North Korea continued: the Kaesong industrial zone
and the tourist resort on Kumgang Mountain.
The second Korea summit held in Pyongyang in 2007
paved the way for better relations, but promises of
peace talks ran out in the sand. Under the conservative
president Lee Myung-Bak, from 2007 a new hard line was
launched against North Korea. South Korea demanded that
the nuclear agreement be complied with in order to
provide assistance and support. North Korea responded by
closing the border between the countries, stopping
tourist travel and freight by rail and expelling South
Koreans from Kaesong.
North Korea lowers ships
North Korea's second nuclear test in 2009 escalated
war rhetoric between the countries. The situation
worsened the following year when the South Korean
warship Cheonan dropped after an explosion and 46 people
were killed. After an international investigation, South
Korea declared that a North Korean torpedo attack was
behind. Trade with North Korea was frozen, and North
Korean merchant vessels were banned in South Korean
waters. President Lee declared that future attacks would
be met directly with military response. Later in the
year, North Korea shot down the South Korean island of
Yeonpyeong, near the disputed sea border between the
countries. Two South Korean soldiers and two civilians
were reported to have been killed in the attack. North
Korea accused South Korea of starting the fire. South
Korea denied this but admitted that missiles had been
tested in the area.
Following North Korea's rocket launch in December
2012 and the third nuclear test in February 2013,
relations between Seoul and Pyongyang deteriorated
again. In connection with North Korea being punished at
the beginning of March of the same year with new harsh
UN sanctions, Pyongyang threatened with a nuclear attack
on South Korea (and the US). The South Korean Defense
Ministry responded by promising immediate merciless
retaliation to North Korea's highest military
leadership. In the following years, the grim climate
between the Korean states persisted as North Korea
stepped up its missile and nuclear test (see Calendar).
Approaching the Olympics in South Korea
However, in January 2018, for the first time since
Kim Jong-Un's accession as North Korean leader,
countries held high-level bilateral talks. The official
reason for the talks was to discuss North Korea's
possible participation in the Winter Olympics in South
Korean Pyeongchang in February of the same year. During
the meeting, North Korea announced that it intended to
send a delegation to the sporting event.
During the inaugural ceremony, North and South Korean
competitors competed together and later met with
President Moon Jae-In North Korea's Former Head of State
Kim Yong-Nam and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's
sister Kim Yo-Jong. It was the first time since the end
of the Korean War that so high-ranking North Koreans
visited South Korea.
In April, a historic meeting was then held in the
border village of Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone
along the 38th latitude, between North Korea's leader
Kim Jong-Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-In. At
the summit, the two leaders agreed to work to reach a
peace agreement in 2018 and for total nuclear
disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. However, the
process has stalled towards the end of the 2010s.
Relationship with the United States
South Korea has been heavily dependent on the United
States since the Korean War. In 1954, Seoul and
Washington signed an agreement to defend common security
interests, and throughout the post-war era, the United
States has had major troops in South Korea. At the same
time, South Korea has been an important ally for the
United States in Asia and the only country there that
had major alliances in the Vietnam War.
Following the US-led alliance invasion of Iraq in
2003, South Korea sent troops to Iraq for five years.
The operation was wound up after a South Korean
interpreter was kidnapped and murdered. The last
soldiers were taken home in 2008.
South Korea also contributed up to 2007 with a few
hundred engineer soldiers and doctors to the NATO led
Isaf force in Afghanistan.
The relationship between the United States and South
Korea has been subject to both political and economic
strain, including through large student demonstrations
against the US military presence in South Korea. In
2007, both countries signed a free trade agreement,
which in South Korea was seen as the most important
event between them after the 1954 military agreement.
South Korea's dependence on military strategic
cooperation with the US declined over a period of time.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program forced Seoul to
turn to China in 2002 to ask Beijing for help to
influence Pyongyang, as US policy was considered too
harsh. Since then, however, South Korea has sharpened
its own line and once again approached the United
States. North Korea has reacted sharply to South Korea's
annual military exercises with the US and the decision
to set up the US missile defense system THAAD in South
Korea (see below).
China and Japan
Relations with China have developed strongly,
primarily through growing trade and investment. However,
the relationship became colder after the 2016 joint
decision by Seoul and Washington to deploy a US missile
defense system THAAD in South Korea (see below). Beijing
vigorously protested the decision, which is believed to
disrupt the security balance in the region. South Korean
commodity chain Lotte had to close almost all its
stores, while sales of South Korean Hyundai were also
reported to have hit sharply declining sales in 2017.
When THAAD began to set up in South Korea in the spring
of 2017, Beijing demanded that it be removed
immediately. Chinese tourist trips to South Korea were
suspended and Chinese authorities also imposed
restrictions on South Korean group trips to China, which
hit South Korean airlines and tour operators.
South Korea's relationship with neighboring Japan has
been complicated. The harsh colonial rule and subsequent
occupation during the Second World War (see Older
History) caused deep and long-lasting wounds in Koreans,
who are still alive today. It was not until 1993 that
the Japanese government acknowledged that many Korean
women and girls were exploited as prostitutes on
Japanese field brothels. Later, reports of continued
discrimination against Koreans in Japan have rioted in
South Korea. In 2015, an agreement was reached with
Japan on financial compensation for the exploited women
and the Japanese Prime Minister apologized for what had
happened. Thus, the problem would be solved, one hoped
not least from the Japanese side.
But after conducting an evaluation of the agreement,
the new president Moon Jae-In decided three years later
that it would be demolished because it had "major
flaws". The South Korean government would replace the
fund set up with financial support from Japan to provide
compensation to affected women and their families for
their own funding. The decision helped to re-establish
relations between the two countries.
In 2001, South Korea called home its ambassador from
Japan in protest at the Japanese schools' new history
books smoothing over Japanese abuse during the
occupation. Japan's Prime Minister visited South Korea
the same year and apologized for "the pain and sorrow"
that Japan inflicted on the Korean people during the
Japanese colonial empire.
An unresolved dispute over the sea border and the
right to an uninhabited small archipelago (Dokdo; in
Japanese Takeshima) flares up now and then. The area has
rich fishing waters and in the depths of the sea there
are large deposits of methane hydrates that are expected
to be an important future energy source. As the first
South Korean president, Lee visited Dokdo in August
2012. The visit led to a diplomatic protest from Japan
as well as tensions between the two countries. South
Korea's critical attitude to Japan continued during the
2010s, but despite this line, South Korea and Japan's
cooperation has been strengthened in several areas,
especially in the North Korea issue.
After the Korean War, South Korea was equipped with
US assistance. The military was then ordained under UN
command, and for a quarter of a century the UN command
in South Korea was responsible for the country's
defense. The armed forces have since been subordinated
to American control in the event of war.
In 2003 it was decided that the US ground alliance
would be pulled south and that the South Korean army
would take over at the front line to the north. By the
end of the 2010, the United States had more than 30,000
people in South Korea. In the demilitarized zone there
is a small base for neutral Swedish and Swiss officers
who monitor the 1953 standstill agreement (see Modern
The defense was modernized in the 1980s and became
one of Asia's best-equipped military forces. North Korea
has more soldiers and more weapons, but South Korea has
just over 650,000 men under arms and a qualitatively
stronger defense than its neighbor in the north.
However, concern is high over North Korea's nuclear
weapons program, missile holdings and suspected
stockpiles of biochemical weapons.
South Korea's previous plans to develop a nuclear
weapons program were abandoned following pressure from
the United States.
In July 2016, South Korea and the United States
signed an agreement to place the US missile defense
system THAAD in South Korea. It could shoot down short
and medium-range missiles from North Korea, which by the
mid-2010s significantly increased its missile and
nuclear weapons tests. The system began to be deployed
in the spring of 2017 on a former golf course, owned by
the Lotte department store, in the Seongj district south
of the capital.
READ TIP - read more about South
Korea in UI's web magazine Foreign Magazine
The shadows of history rest heavily on South Korea
DEEP on South Korea also available
in World Politics Day Issues Korean
Reunification: An Impossible Dream (No 9 2019) South
Korea and the Presidential Crisis: Opening for Reform
(No 6 2017)
FACTS - DEFENSE
495 000 men (2017)
The air Force
65,000 men (2017)
70,000 men (2017)
Military expenditure's share of GDP
2.6 percent (2017)
Military spending's share of the state budget
12.1 percent (2017)