2007 Encyclopedia Britannica
By: Peter M. Beck, International Crisis Group

South Korea (825 words)

South Korea lived up to its reputation as being one of the most dynamic countries in the world, but with a growing degree of political, economic and diplomatic uncertainty, given North Korea’s nuclear test in October (see “North Korea”), a presidential election on 19 December 2007, and growing anxieties about the economy.  The four-character Chinese expression chosen by Korean scholars to characterize 2006 said it all, “Heavy clouds, but no rain.”

With a president continually setting new records for unpopularity and presidential elections known for their unpredictability less than a year away, all eyes are on who will become the next occupant of the Blue House.  Given an approval rating in the single digits (and falling!) and his political party fractured and in revolt, President Roh Moo-hyun may be a lame duck, but he has decided to quack as loudly as possible by offering a series unvarnished criticisms of institutions (such as the Korean military) and individuals around him, including presidential hopefuls from his own party.  

The presidential candidate to beat has been former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak.  While widely seen as highly capable, his greatest vulnerability appears to be possible skeletons in his closet from his days as a Hyundai Construction executive.  His closest competitor has been Park Kun-hye, the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, a name that elicits memories in most Koreans of both dictatorship and rapid development.  Park bounced back amazingly quickly from a knife attack at a campaign rally for local elections held in May which her party swept, but questions linger about her overall leadership abilities.  A second former Seoul mayor, Goh Kun, has been running third and is viewed as a highly competent administrator, but somewhat lacking in charisma and a political party to support his campaign.  Though a conservative, he is seen my many liberals as their only hope for clinging to power given that the leading liberal candidates are collectively less popular than President Roh.  While it seems unlikely that a liberal will become the next president, even casual observers of Korean politics know that almost anything is possible, especially if two or more conservative candidates run.  

Despite solid economic growth of 5 percent and an unemployment rate of 4 percent, an economic malaise has settled over Korea, led by fears of an overheated housing market (prices in some areas of Seoul rose by 20 percent in 2006) and frustrations with an education system that has led a growing number of the more affluent to send their children abroad for their education.  No person or policy seems capable of curing Korean parents’ education fever.  Nevertheless, Koreans overall pessimism is difficult to fathom given that exports broke the $300 billion mark in 2006, which represents a doubling of exports in five years and places Korea 11th in the world.  A strengthening local currency could make further rapid gains more difficult.

On the diplomatic front, the trend was more clearly negative, with all of South Korea’s key bilateral relationships deteriorating, with some critics worrying that Seoul would become an “international orphan.”  North-South relations almost collapsed after the North’s missile launch in July.  Relations with the United States continued the plunge which began in 2001 when President George W. Bush took office.  The chief sources of friction have been divergent policies toward North Korea and the future role the U.S. will play in defending South Korea.  Operational control of Korean forces during wartime (currently jointly held) and the role of U.S. forces have been especially divisive.  Relations were already bad with Japan, but a territorial dispute over two minor rocks (Dok-do/Takeshima) nearly turned into a military clash in the spring.  President Roh did finally meet with his Japanese counterpart on 9 October, the day the North conducted its military test, which did not stop Roh from raising the history issue with the unrepentant grandson of a suspected war criminal, but after their summit, the two leaders held separate press conferences on opposite ends of Seoul.  Relations with China also deteriorated with disputes over whether an early kingdom was Korean or Chinese and a reef that can only be seen at low tide.

These diplomatic setbacks made the selection of Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon to be the new secretary-general of the United Nations all the more improbable.  Ban is widely seen as clean and capable, but also cautious, usually operating in the shadows of an out-spoken president, quietly trying to soften his boss’s words. Korea also saw its first female prime minister, Han Myung-sook, assume office in April.  The post is largely ceremonial and she serves at the pleasure of the president, but this represents a milestone for a traditionally male-dominant society. A report by the World Economic Form offered a reminder that Korea still has a long way to go:  Korea placed 92nd out of 110 countries in terms of gender equality, coming in last in sex ratio at birth, 99th in female parliamentarians and 95th in wage equality.

North Korea (795 Words)

North Korea captured the world’s attention with a series of missile tests on 5 July and a nuclear test on 9 October.  While condemnation was nearly universal with the unanimous passage of two UN Security Council resolutions within days of each provocative act (1695 and 1718, respectively), the tests underscored the fact that the world had failed to stop one of the most oppressive and unpredictable regimes from joining the exclusive club of nuclear powers.  The nuclear test not only seriously undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it also calls into question the viability of the multilateral nuclear talks designed to halt the North’s nuclear ambitions.  In the meantime, economic conditions are worsening, yet the regime appears to be as stable as ever.

Neither North Korea’s missile nor nuclear tests were particularly impressive.  The one long-range missile being launched exploded within seconds and the nuclear test was deemed by most scientists to be a “fizzle,” but the two acts demonstrated that North Korea poses the single greatest threat to peace in the Asia-Pacific region.  The six-party nuclear talks involving North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia (the latter three are little more than observers) reconvened after a 13-month hiatus from 18-22 December.  However, the talks failed to make any progress due to the North’s insistence that a financial crackdown imposed by the United States in September 2005 be lifted before it would even begin negotiations.  The six parties could not even agree on a date to resume the talks.  Given that Washington finally began to show the kind of flexibility that will be needed to make progress by meeting with the North bilaterally and addressing the North’s concerns, the North’s inflexibility raises fears that Pyongyang is not interested in a deal under any conditions. 

Finding an effective strategy for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear breakout is likely to prove elusive until the five parties can pursue a much more unified approach toward the North.  At present, polices range from Japan’s full-on sanctions to South Korea’s virtually unconditional engagement and economic support for the North.  China is toward the South Korean end of the spectrum, but has at least gone through the motions of getting tough with the North and was likely responsible for bringing the North back to the negotiating table, but seems unwilling to cut off or seriously curtail its fuel and feeding tubes to the North.  The Bush Administration tends to be more toward the Japanese end of the spectrum but remains internally divided as to whether to pursue confrontation or engagement with the North.  However, even hardliners concede that there is no viable military option and sanctions will most likely fail without the support of Beijing and Seoul.  Doing nothing runs the risk that the North will sell nuclear bombs or material to the highest bidder.  The North is believed to have enough plutonium to produce at least seven nuclear devices.   

North Korea’s provocative acts, coupled with floods in July and a series of failed economic policies, virtually ensure that the North Korean people will experience greater isolation, hardship, and possibly famine.  The World Food Program announced in late December that it is only able to feed 700,000 out of the 1.9 million people in need of food aid due to a combination of donor fatigue and increased restrictions placed on the WFP’s activities by the North Korean regime.  The WFP estimates that roughly one-third of the North’s 23 million people never have enough food to eat.  An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are believed to be hiding in China and a record 2,000 reached South Korea in 2006.

Despite the difficult economic conditions, the North Korean regime appears to be stable thanks to a pervasive security apparatus.  Succession appears to be the regime’s greatest vulnerability, given that Chairman Kim Jong-il will turn 65 on 16 February and no successor has been named.  His eldest son is only 35 and is believed to be out of favor after trying to sneak into Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland several years ago.  His second son is only 25 and is best known for chasing rock star Eric Clapton around Europe in the summer of 2006.  Kim’s brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek and/or a military junta are most likely to take over should Kim die before a son can be properly groomed to succeed him.  However, Chang has not been seen in public since he was rumored to have been in one of those all-too-common traffic accidents (given the North’s paucity of cars) last October, and Chang does not have any ties to the military.  Both the nuclear crisis and hardships faced by the North Korean people are likely to get much worse before they get better, leaving policymakers with a difficult set of choices.

By Peter M. Beck, International Crisis Group