South Korea at the Crossroads

South Korea at the Crossroads

Against the backdrop of China’s mounting influence and North Korea’s growing nuclear capability and expanding missile arsenal, South Korea faces a set of strategic choices that will shape its economic prospects and national security. In South Korea at the Crossroads, Scott A. Snyder examines the trajectory of fifty years of South Korean foreign policy and offers predictions―and a prescription―for the future. Pairing a historical perspective with a shrewd understanding of today’s political landscape, Snyder contends that South Korea’s best strategy remains investing in a robust alliance with the United States.

May 7, 2018 4:07 pm (EST)

Teaching Notes


The Korean Peninsula has historically been a victim of the tragedy of great-power politics given its geographic location at the vortex of great-power rivalry in Northeast Asia, yet South Korean leaders have had little ability to determine their country’s fate. With no option other than to rely on the United States as an effective protector in the decades since the Korean War, South Korea faces an uncertain strategic environment generated by China’s rise and questions surrounding its security alliance with the United States. In this context, South Korea’s choice that will determine its future and influence the direction of the regional order in Northeast Asia.  

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Despite South Korea’s rise as a significant middle power today, the prospect of renewed inter-Korean conflict hold its security and prosperity at risk. South Korea’s foreign policy is a product of factors that have shaped its strategic environment and Koreans’ choices before the country’s establishment. First, the establishment and survival of South Korea as an independent state following the end of World War II depended on security guarantees provided by a distant great power, the United States. Second, the evolution of South Korean foreign policy has been accompanied by an ongoing struggle between the impulse toward inward-centered parochial nationalism and the demands of internationalism that have accompanied the country’s economic growth. Third, South Korean leaders have continuously pursued unification as a national objective.

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Nuclear Weapons


For the first time in decades, South Korea faces an active debate over alternative strategies to safeguard its security and prosperity. China’s rise has uncovered latent tensions and rivalries that are gradually reshaping the regional context and reopening domestic debates over South Korea’s choices, including questioning the durability of its alliance with the United States. If China successfully challenges U.S. global leadership or if South Korea comes to regard U.S. security guarantees as unreliable, South Korea will have to pursue an alternative, which will generate friction and stress in U.S.-South Korean relations.

As South Korea’s domestic debates over its future and the competition among great powers intensify, South Korea will face greater pressures as it weighs alignment alternatives versus achieving greater autonomy. Even with South Korea’s improved capabilities, the country is unlikely to be able to assure its security absent the credible assurances and commitments of a dependable alliance partner. China’s rise has enabled it to assert growing economic and political influence on Seoul, but China does not yet have sufficient power, influence, or commitment to become an alternative security guarantor for South Korea. To better understand South Korea’s predicament, this book sets out to examine the major factors that influence South Korean strategic choices. Despite sharper debates and increasing friction over South Korea’s future, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will remain an essential instrument for assuring the country’s security given its relative weakness compared to its neighbors.

Read an excerpt from South Korea at the Crossroads.

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This book is suitable for the following disciplines in undergraduate and graduate courses:

  • International Relations
  • East Asian Studies and History
  • Contemporary East Asian Foreign Relations
  • History of U.S. Foreign Policy

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South Korea

North Korea

Nuclear Weapons


Discussion and Essay Questions

Courses on International Relations

  1. What does the history of South Korean foreign relations say about the leverage, instruments, and role of a relatively weaker power in the context of rising great power competition?
  2. What are some lessons about alliance dynamics based on the history of South Korea’s foreign relations?
  3. What strategic choices does a relatively weaker power face as an emerging power challenges an established power?
  4. How did the 1987 democratization affect U.S.-ROK relations? What does it say about the role of domestic politics and system types in international relations?


Courses on East Asian Studies and History

  1. What were the important events that affected the course of South Korea’s foreign policy?
  2. Historically, what are the predominant patterns that have characterized South Korea’s foreign policy?
  3. What have been the major factors affecting South Korea’s foreign policy historically?
  4. How has the deep and longstanding ideological polarization between progressive and conservative camps affected South Korea’s North Korea policy and U.S. involvement on the Peninsula?


Courses on Contemporary East Asian Foreign Relations

  1. What are the lessons that South Korean leaders today can learn by studying the history of their foreign policy?
  2. What can be expected of South Korea’s foreign policy in light of the Donald Trump administration’s outlook on Korean affairs?
  3. What lessons can be drawn about South Korea’s recent missile defense spat with China and China’s future approach to issues in the U.S.-ROK security alliance, based on the history of South Korea’s foreign relations?


Courses on History of U.S. Foreign Policy

  1. What are some possible policy prescriptions for the United States based on the book’s understanding about how South Korea has responded to U.S. policies?
  2. How has the alliance dynamics with South Korea changed and why?
  3. What can be expected of the alliance dynamics in light of the current U.S.-North Korea nuclear confrontation?
  4. How has each South Korean president attempted to pursue more autonomy vis-à-vis the United States? What were the results?


Further Projects


Write a 700-word opinion piece on what the United States’ alliance policy toward South Korea should be based on lessons learned from the history of South Korea’s foreign policy.

Analytical Essay

Write a 2,000 word essay on one of the following topics:

  1. What were the important events that affected the course of South Korea’s foreign policy?
  2. What have been the major factors affecting South Korea’s foreign policy historically? And how?
  3. How has each South Korean president attempted to pursue more autonomy vis-à-vis the United States? What were the results?


Imagine that it is year 2022, and another South Korean president has been elected. You are his speechwriter and will be writing his first major foreign policy speech. The president would like to talk about the importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, relations with Japan, balancing relations with China, becoming a more autonomous power, and lastly engaging but also deterring and denuclearizing North Korea. Based on lessons and themes learned from the book, how might the speech come out? How would a progressive or conservative president frame and balance different priorities in a single speech?


Divide the students into two teams, one representing the United States and one representing South Korea. Ask them to negotiate the terms of the following topics: free trade, nuclear technology, military technology transfer, burden-sharing in the alliance, and the operational control (OpCon) transfer.

Supplementary Materials

Brazinsky, Gregg A. Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Cha, Victor D. Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Chung, Jae-ho. Between Ally and Partner: Korea-China Relations and the United States: Jae Ho Chung. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Cumings, Bruce. Koreas Place in the Sun: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Hong, Yong-pyo. State Security and Regime Security: President Syngman Rhee and the Insecurity Dilemma in South Korea, 1953-60. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Izumikawa, Yasuhiro. “South Korea’s Nordpolitik and the Efficacy of Asymmetric Positive Sanctions*.” Korea Observer 37.4 (Winter 2006): 605-41.

Jager, Sheila Miyoshi. Brothers at War the Unending Conflict in Korea. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Kang, David C. American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Kim, Byung-kook, and Ezra F. Vogel, eds. The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Kim, Samuel S. The Two Koreas and the Great Powers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Lee, Chae-Jin. A Troubled Peace: U.S. Policy and the Two Koreas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Moon, Katharine H. S. Protesting America: Democracy and the U.S.-Korea Alliance. Global, Area, and International Archive, University of California Press, 2013.

Oberdorfer, Don, and Robert Carlin. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. [New York]: Basic, 2013.

Rozman, Gilbert, In-taek Hyun, and Shin-hwa Lee, eds. South Korean Strategic Thought toward Asia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Shin, Gi-Wook. One Alliance, Two Lenses: U.S.-Korea Relations in a New Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Snyder, Scott A. China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009.

Straub, David. Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea. Stanford: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2015.

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