South Korea Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

South Korea is a nation in Eastern Asia. Its capital city is Seoul. 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.

south korea military spending and defense budget

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.

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.

New tensions

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 History).

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 (2019-09-23)

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)


Army: 495 000 men (2017)

The air Force: 65,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 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)