South Korean Security Policies after the Civil War

By Yuan Zoey Zhao | November 19, 2015

South Korean Special Army soldiers salute during a ceremony to mark the 64th Korea Armed Forces Day at the military headquarters in Gyeryong, about 140 km south of Seoul, on September 25, 2012. The two Koreas remain technically at war since the Korean conflict was concluded with a truce rather than a peace treaty, and small border incidents in the past have been known to escalate swiftly. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE

The Korean War in the 1950s left a clear security agenda for South Korea ever since with two determining factors: the threat from North Korea, and the security alliance with the United States. One could certainly argue that the rise of China and the attempt of Japan to normalize its military are important security concerns as well (Roehrig). However, the threat from Pyongyang and the significance of enhancing the alliance with the United States have been more influential to South Korea’s security policy.

Scott A. Snyder believes that the “global Korea” emphasis of Lee Myung-bak’s security strategy marks a shift of South Korea’s focus from the security of only the peninsula to a broader involvement internationally; from following the United States under the alliance to initiate contributions to the international community “with the platform under the alliance” (Snyder). However, that the expansion of Korea’s contribution to international security is still related heavily to the two aforementioned factors, the concerns over North Korea and the goal to enhance the alliance with the United States, but with a slightly different frame which is more beneficial to Korea’s security interests and its international image. The following sections look at the moves South Korea took for international security before and after this “global Korea” idea and analyze the incentives behind these policies.

Before Lee Myung-bak’s policy of “global Korea”, South Korea’s international security role was framed primarily in the context of the U.S-Korea security alliance “involuntarily” (Snyder). The purposes of getting involved with the United States are to strengthen American assurance to tangible commitments or to join the U.S as a down payment as an extension of the U.S security presence on the Korean peninsula (Snyder). The first overseas deployment in support of American war was under the Park Chung-hee administration in Vietnam War in the 1980s (Snyder). Park’s calculation lies in South Korea’s security dependency on the United States and the concerns that the U.S may pay less attention to Korean Peninsula while fighting the Indochina war (Snyder). By deploying his troops, Park tried to share the U.S’s burden in Vietnam and preserve the U.S’s attention to the Korean Peninsula.

Furthermore, the 2003-2004 South Korea’s assistance of the United States in Iraq, as requested by the Bush administration, caused tensions between the U.S and Korea because Korea was against the U.S demands out-of-area contributions (Snyder). Roh Moo-hyun administration attempted to negotiate a more flexible U.S policy on North Korea by providing support in Iraq (Snyder). However, the public in South Korea did not support this move. Neither did the progressive officials, who felt entrapped by the alliance (Snyder). South Korea was also unsatisfied with the United States’ lack of acknowledgement of the contribution Korea made in Iraq (Snyder). Until this point, it was clear that South Korea’s involvement in international security was derived from the urge to retain of the alliance with the United States.

Lee Myung-bak administration is viewed having a different approach in Korea’s contribution to international security, although the fundamental calculations do not seem too different from that in the past. Lee’s policy was to “raise South Korea’s profile, capabilities, and willingness to contribute to international security, as a leader on the global stage” (Snyder). Lee believes that this policy helps Korea getting the acknowledgements and credits by contributing to the international security instead of being defined as a U.S-ROK alliance move (Snyder). There are two major steps South Korea took after this “shift”: to show leadership in multilateral global forums, and to actively take part in the UN peacekeeping operations. In the case of peacekeeping, South Korea made its first contribution in 1993 in Somalia, which is not new to today’s situation. Today, we could see there has been the increase in budget and number of personnel for the peacekeeping efforts. However, this does not stand alone as a new move under the policy of a “global Korea”. Moreover, the regions where South Korea sent peacekeepers, Haiti, Lebanon, the Gulf of Aden, and Afghanistan are where the U.S has interests in as well.  Snyder mentions South Korea is expanding its involvement in international security on the platform of the U.S-ROK alliance. Furthermore, the fact that Korea and the U.S had a joint vision, in which the languages suggest “strengthening the alliance and expanding the presence”, again shows the significance of the alliance to Korea (Office of the Press Secretary). If South Korea did not have the calculation of strengthening the alliance by making more contributions to what the U.S does, Korea could have made all the moves without having the U.S’ acknowledgement. In the case of Korea’s leadership in international security, a highlight after 2009 was joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) two days after the DPRK missile and nuclear tests, although Korea has been one of the biggest nuclear technology exporters (Bruce). The biggest driven factor of this move still looks like the concerns over DPRK. Lee’s “global Korea” may have increased South Korea’s level of involvement in international security, it does not seem to have made a shift of core focus away from the two factors: the threat of DPRK, and the alliance with the United States.

This article does not oppose the idea that South Korea has other incentives in increasing its involvement in international security. Certainly, South Korea has been benefiting from international trade, so that helping keep the stability of the regions outside of Korean Peninsula is beneficial to Korea. In addition, more involvement helps Korea practice and get ready for potential future instability in North Korea. It also helps gain international attention to the security of Korean Peninsula. There are all these broad incentives for South Korea to expand its presence in international security. However, the core focus was not necessarily shifting away from the concerns over DPRK and the alliance with the United States.

Yuan Zoey Zhao is a second year master's student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She spent years in Japan studying international relations. Her diverse cultural background helps her think critically about international politics.

Works Cited

Bruce, Scott. "Counterproliferation and South Korea: From Local to Global." Global Korea-South Korea's contributions to international security. Ed. Scott A Snyder. Chicago: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2012. 61-77.

Office of the Press Secretary. "Joint Vision for the alliance of the United States of America and the Republic of Korea." 16 6 2009. The White House. 20 10 2015.

Roehrig, Terence. Option 2: Strengthening the ROK-US Alliance. 11th June 2015. TheAsanForum. 20 10 2015.

Snyder, Scott A. "Overview." Global Korea-South Korea's contributions to International Security. Ed. Scott A Snyder. Chicago: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2012. 1-12.

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