Thanks to its comprehensive democratization and its “Miracle on the Han,” which transformed the Republic of Korea into a developed country, South Korea has realized its aspirations to become a major international player. Nonetheless, the persistent threat from a perennially belligerent North Korea, along with the challenge of having three of the world’s most powerful countries as neighbors, continues to constrain South Korea’s global opportunities.
Although South Korean foreign policy cannot ignore its northern neighbor, the absence of any real movement in bilateral ties has meant that Seoul’s relations with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo have seen the most activity in recent years. In general, South Korea has succeeded in sustaining good ties with the United States and Russia, improved its relations somewhat with China and managed to halt the deterioration in its ties with Japan—though hoped-for breakthroughs in the latter two relationships have yet to occur.
North Korea. Since her inauguration in February 2013, President Park Geun-hye’s foreign and defense policies have differed little from those of her predecessor, President Lee Myung-bak, though this might end should South Korea’s external environment, especially its relations with North Korea or China, change. As expected, North Korea tested Park during her first few months in office with various provocations, mostly rhetorical threats, but also including its third test of a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang’s militant rhetoric intensified in March 2013 after the U.N. Security Council tightened sanctions on North Korea following the tests and after the annual U.S.-South Korean military drill in South Korea known as Foal Eagle was conducted. The North’s angry pronouncements were driven in part because the United States carried out shows of strength during the exercise that included, for the first time, nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 stealth fighters, the most sophisticated warplanes in the world.