North Korea’s recent demolition of the South Korean liaison office in Kaesong is a sharp reminder that tension remains the norm on the Korean Peninsula. More recently, Prime Minister Abe of Japan came out against the idea of including South Korea in an expanded G-7 meeting. These events are reminders that tension remains the norm in relations between South Korea and Japan. China has been quiet recently but attempts in 2017 to bully South Korea into rejecting the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, show that a rising China is willing to push South Korea around.
South Korea thus finds itself in increasingly tense relationships with all its neighbors. This may appear to be new, but it is really a reversion to the norm. From the founding of the country in 1948 to the normalization of relations with Japan in 1965, South Korea had no diplomatic relations with any of its neighbors. Relations warmed with Japan after 1965, but relations with China remained tense until the late 1980s when South Korea began to reach out to the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. Relations with China warmed rapidly after diplomatic relations were established in 1992.
In the wake of the economic crisis in late 1997, President Kim Dae-jung reached out to North Korea and, in 2000, became the first South Korean president to hold a summit with a North Korean leader. To revive the economy, Kim reached out to Japan and relations improved considerably. The two nations hosted the World Cup in 2002. The positive turn led to the Hallyu boom in Japan in the mid-2000s. Trade and relations with China continued to expand during this time.
Roh Moo-hyun, Kim’s successor, continued the outreach to North Korea, but it ended abruptly when Lee Myung-bak was elected president in 2007. Ten years of tension followed. Relations with Japan began to sour at the end of Lee Myung-bak’s term and have continued to deteriorate.
President Moon Jae-in used the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics to revive the outreach and held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018. A lack of progress on denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea brought a chill in 2019 that has continued to deepen.
This brief history shows that South Korea had the best relations with North Korea, China, and Japan during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun years from 1998 to 2008. This period followed a severe economic crisis, and Kim Dae-jung was eager to revive the economy by attracting investment and reducing tension with North Korea. The other nations responded because they were also interested in possible economic benefits from improved relations.
As a protege of Roh Moo-hyun, President Moon can look at those 10 years for inspiration. Kim Dae-jung entered the Blue House in a time of crisis and adopted openness as his guiding principle. He moved quickly to break down barriers that had kept the South Korean economy and society isolated and, as the crisis showed, vulnerable. As the World Cup approached, he removed the long-standing ban on Japanese pop culture. He created the F-4 visa that allowed persons of Korean descent overseas to return to South Korea, and he liberalized other visa categories. Roh Moo-hyun continued the move toward openness.
To navigate an increasingly unpredictable world, South Korea needs friends next door and far away. The country has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic well, but the economy has weakened. Tensions with North Korea and frayed relations with China and Japan can hurt the economy. President Moon needs to focus more clearly on improving relations to create a more predictable environment for economic growth.
At the same time, President Moon should work with other leaders to build a network of nations that have prospered from openness and free trade. The European Union is a natural partner in this regard because it grew out of a commitment to cooperation and openness among nations that fought each other in two world wars in the 20th century. Major growing economies in Asia, such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, which rely on free trade are important partners for South Korea, as are nations in Africa and Latin America.
The rise narrow-minded populism around the world has put openness and cooperation on the defensive, but it will expire in time. South Korean leadership committed to openness will help hasten the end of this retrograde politics.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.