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South Korea Looks for New Role

Prepared by: Esther Pan
February 8, 2006

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After fifty years of strong security and economic cooperation, the relationship between the United States and South Korea is starting to fray (LATimes). Tensions have risen over how to deal with North Korea's nuclear ambitions and China's increasing importance in the region. The Bush administration has focused lately on other Asian countries, including Japan and India, and only recently moved to bolster ties with South Korea. In a meeting January 19, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon to emphasize the importance of the alliance. This new CFR Background Q&A examines South Korea's regional relationships.

At the same time, South Korea is on a quest to define its new role in Asia. Seoul is drawing closer to China, while still wary of Japan. The organization PINR examines South Korea's search for a strategic focus as a small country among behemoths. A U.S. Institute of Peace report says North Korea's decline has increased Seoul's political and economic clout in the region, particularly with China. Scholar Chung Jae-Ho says Seoul's increasing orientation toward China is not without risks, and concludes it will be hard for South Korea to choose a clear foreign-policy strategy for the future. One complicating factor: South Korea's difficult relationship with another important neighbor, Japan. This CFR Background Q&A examines South Korea's grievances with Japan.

And then there is the wild card of Pyongyang. South Korea's policy of engagement with the north is at odds with U.S. efforts to isolate Kim Jung-Il to prevent him from producing nuclear weapons. A recent CFR meeting on North Korean nuclear brinksmanship sought to explain Kim's policy choices, while a CFR Task Force Report on the North Korean nuclear challenge called for the United States to improve relations with South Korea, as well as engage actively with both North Korea and its neighbors to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Additional Resources: A Congressional Research Service report lays out U.S. security obligations to South Korea under the terms of the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty.

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