Inter-Korean relations and the challenge of North-East Asian regional security

Authored by: John Swenson-Wright

East and South-East Asia

Print publication date:  March  2013
Online publication date:  July  2013

Print ISBN: 9781857436396
eBook ISBN: 9780203146026
Adobe ISBN:


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2012 was arguably a pivotal year for the diplomatic and strategic relations of the Korean Peninsula. With elections and/or leadership change taking place in each of the major states in North-East Asia, the political environment has been unusually fluid and unpredictable. As the Republic of Korea (South Korea) conservative administration of President Lee Myung-Bak came to the end of its five-year term, facing declining popularity at home, a sluggish economy, and the prospect of renewed tension with its northern neighbour—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), headed by the new, youthful 29 year old-leadership of Kim Jong Un—it has been tempting to view bilateral relations on the peninsula as unusually deadlocked and unconstructive. This rather pessimistic picture is at odds with the positive and ambitious commitment to a ‘Global Korea Strategy’ that President Lee outlined in early 2008 shortly after taking office (Lee 2010). Lee was elected on the basis of a campaign commitment that promised to revitalize the Korean economy, a more dynamic and engaged posture for South Korea in regional and global affairs, as well as an assertive (some would argue hardline) posture to North Korea involving the conditional provision of economic assistance in return for a comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of the North’s nuclear programme. In the face of Lee’s failure to realize this goal, it is instructive to ask two simple questions: first, why has it not been possible to deliver a more successful posture towards North Korea that would allow for a more constructive, less tension-fraught bilateral relationship; and second, looking ahead to the post-Lee era, what are the circumstances in which North-South relations might improve? In addressing both these issues, it is important to consider not only the historical context of North-South relations over the last five years, but also a changing strategic environment in North-East Asia offering opportunities and challenges for the governments of both North and South Korea.

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