The 'Know Your Region' series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It's important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
THE KOREAS – DIPLOMACY
On this page:
- The Two Koreas
- Republic of Korea (ROK)
- Politics and the ROK
- International Relationships, Forums, Treaties and Policies
- ROK and Australia
- ROK and the USA
- ROK and its Neighbours
- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
- DPRK and Republic of Korea
- DPRK and Australia
- DPRK and USA
- DPRK and China
- DPRK and Russia
THE TWO KOREAS
The relationship between the DPRK and ROK has not been without its challenges, particularly as each country has very different political, economic and social systems. After the Korean War, a peace agreement was never established so technically, the countries are still at war. In 2018, President Moon Je-in of the ROK introduced his Korea Peace Initiative and as the title suggests, is focused upon achieving peace in the Korean Peninsula. The two countries signed the Panmunjeom Declaration which was to work towards a common goal of de-nuclearisation of the peninsula. They also agreed to address the issues surrounding human rights in DPRK, and to work towards economic growth as well as promoting cultural exchange and cooperation.
The following videos provide some insight into the peace initiative:
During this initiative, President Kim Jong-Un was the first DPRK president to step into the ROK since the peninsula’s split. Since the agreement, no further progress has been made towards de-nuclearisation, although it should be noted that there was a 14-month period of non-communication between the two nations.
In July 2021, in an effort to improve their relationship, communication re-commenced on a significant historical date: the anniversary of the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953. The breakdown in communications is highlighted in this video:
Some sources suggest that de-nuclearisation is unlikely to happen and consequently, President Moon Jae-in’s peace initiative is unlikely to succeed.
For more information on the ROK’s relationship with the DPRK, see the following resources:
- Everything you need to know about North/South Korea relations
- North-South Korea relations get worse
- Pyongyang and Seoul restore cross-border hotline
- North Korea vs South Korea - Country Comparison
- Is there any chance for peace between North Korea and South Korea? | ABC News
- Kim Jong Un Crosses Border into South Korea for Historic Peace Talks (2018)
- History: Why the US and South Korea Don’t Attack North Korea
- Moon Jae-in’s Stalled Odyssey to Peace in Korea
- South Korea on North Korea: Keep on Keeping on
- Back to Square One for Inter-Korean Relations
- North and South Korea restore hotline after a year
- North Korea blows up joint liaison office with South in Kaesong
- Deterrence, Alliance and Peace-Keeping: An Ambivalent Peace Initiative
- North and South agreement - the written details
- Explained: North Korea-South Korea relations, two years after Pyongyang Joint Declaration
- 4 Things to Know about North and South Korea
- North And South Korea Restart Communication Channels After Near 14 Months Of Silence
DIPLOMACY – ROK
The ROK is located on the Korean Peninsula, which it shares with its neighbour, the DPRK. The division of the Korean Peninsula and the formation of separate governments in the North and South was explained in the first product of the Korean KYR series, which also explained how both have evolved with different political systems. The video below gives a good explanation of the establishment of a democratic system within the ROK:
The ROK was quick to form diplomatic relations between countries beyond its regional neighbours, including the USA, with whom it has maintained close political, military and economic relationship.
The ROK’s MOFA describes the national vision of, 'A nation of the people, a just Republic of Korea’ but what does this mean for diplomatic relations? This video from 2017 gives a good explanation of ROK diplomatic relations.
The ROK is a unitary presidential constitutional republic with a three-tiered government: the Legislative Branch in which the National Assembly of ROK sits; the Executive Branch of which the president is head; and The Judicial Branch, composed of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, regional appellate courts, and local district, branch, municipal, and specialised courts. This video, while a few years old, explains this in more detail:
Presidents are elected for a single five-year term and are supported by a Prime Minister. The current President, Moon Jae-in, was inaugurated in May 2017 and is now in his final year as President; the current Prime Minister is Kim Boo-kyum. Both the President and the Prime Minister focus their attention on peace and community for national growth and prosperity. President Moon’s philosophy is ‘sustainable national advancement is possible when ordinary people are happy in their everyday lives’ and his goal is to create an ‘innovative, inclusive nation’. Prime Minister Boo-Kyum’s goal is one of achieving a society and community built upon trust, working and growing together to achieve national harmony.
For further information on ROK’s politics, see the resources below:
- DFAT – Republic of Korea: Country Brief
- Office of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat
- Cabinet of South Korean Government
- South Korea Diplomatic White Papers 2020
- South Korea People Power Party Choice of Leader
- Does Korea’s Youngest Political Boss have the Chops to Lead?
- South Korea’s Political Pendulum Swings Again
- The ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- South Korea’s Imperfect but Maturing Diplomacy
International Relationships, forums, treaties and policies
The ROK maintains diplomatic relations with over 190 countries world-wide. Through these relations and memberships of various alliances, ROK is maintaining and growing its efforts for peace, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, including economic and security development and strengthening its relationships through cooperation with its neighbours. The MOFA established the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Platform in 2020 with five other regional neighbours: China, Japan, US, Russia and Mongolia with the aim of promoting peace. Its New Southern Policy and New Northern Policy extends beyond the region and is a forum for building prosperity between nations including Indonesia. For a detailed brief on the ROK’s New Southern Policy, read this article from the Asian Institute for Policy Studies:
Korea’s New Southern Policy: Motivations of ‘Peace Cooperation’ and Implications for the Korean Peninsula
Through assertive diplomacy the ROK’s intent is to build peaceful alliances with its regional neighbours and the international community. Its closest diplomatic relationship is with the USA with whom it has maintained the Mutual Defense Treaty since 1953. ROK’s MOFA prioritises strengthening diplomatic relationships with its closest nations: China, Japan and Russia, but to achieve this it needs the support of the USA, particularly to address the issue of the DPRK’s de-nuclearisation.
The ROK is a member of UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),to name but a few. It is also a founding member of APEC and the East Asia Summit.
An example of ROK’s recent engagements with ASEAN to discuss the COVID-19 issue is given in the following video:
ROK and Australia
The ROK and Australia have shared a diplomatic relationship for 60 years, built upon similar belief-systems, economic and diplomatic interests, including a mutual commitment to security, stability, and peace within the region. Both share alliances with the US, and Australia is supportive of the call for de-nuclearisation of the DPRK.
The ROK and Australia also share a unique bilateral relationship through the Australia-Korea Foundation (AKF) established by the Australian Government in 1992 to promote bilateral relations between the ROK and Australia. The Foundation has enabled the two countries to develop mutual partnerships within the region, and, for example, provides grants to support a range of individual and organisational opportunities for example in industry, science and technology, media and sport. In recent years, Australia and the ROK commenced a free-trade agreement, discussed further in the economics section of the Korean KYR series.
For more information on the ROK and Australia, see the resources below:
ROK and the USA:
The ROK and the USA have had a long-standing alliance since World War II. Through the 1953 Mutual Defence Treaty, the US is committed to supporting the defence of ROK; and the US considers ROK an important strategic and economic partner. Through the ROK, the US has a footprint in the East-Asia / Indo Pacific region; and the US has 15 permanent military bases in the ROK with approx. 28,000 troops stationed in various locations. The partnership is thus regarded as mutually supportive and the defence of ROK includes protection from its closest neighbour, the DPRK.
The outcomes of the recent ROK-US summit, identifies a strengthening bi-lateral relationship whereby the two allies could expand their alliance beyond the Korean Peninsula and have a greater pro-active role in the Indo-Pacific region. The USA is already a member of the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), and sees ROK joining QUAD as beneficial, although the ROK is yet to be convinced as some of the articles below highlight.
For more information on US-ROK relations, see the resources below:
- South Korea-U.S. summit: looking toward strengthening the alliance
- Can BIDEN repair the US relationship with South Korea?
- South Korea's foreign minister on US role in de-nuclearising North Korea
- ABC News: US turns focus on South Korea
- Re-ordering Priorities: ROK – US Alliance in the Indo-Pacific Century – CSIS SME Discussion
- South Korea Refused to Join US Quad
- South Korea: Background and US Relations
- Is South Korea Going Global? New Possibilities Together With the Biden Administration
- A New Look at the Korea-US Alliance
- As the Dust Settles, How Healthy is the ROK-US Alliance?
- The US- South Korea Summit – A Relationship Restored?
- Recommendations for the Future U.S.-South Korea Alliance Command Structure
- Joe Biden’s Summit with South Korea’s Moon Jae-In Poses a Question Of Shared Values
- 'Deeply concerned': The US and South Korea are willing to engage with North Korea to reduce nuclear tensions
- South Korea Would Benefit from Joining a Quad+
- Korea faces growing calls to join Quad plus
- Why South Korea is balking at the Quad
ROK and China
China and the ROK have maintained diplomatic relations since the 1980s and China is one of the ROK’s closest geographic neighbours and its biggest trading partner. Since 2016, there has been a diplomatic dispute between the two countries over ROK’s decision to deploy US-built Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile systems. The intent of THAAD is to protect ROK-based US military personnel and their families, as well as providing defence to the ROK. China sees the deployment of THAAD as a risk to its security and, unable to influence the decision on THAAD deployment, China implemented trade restrictions on ROK which have significantly impacted the ROK economy in areas of trade and tourism.
More recently, China has supported de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and appears to support ROK’s intent for peaceful cooperation with the DPRK, even to the extent that China endorsed UN sanctions against the DPRK; however, some sources suggest that this may be only to maintain a geopolitical balance.
This video provides further insight:
For further information on China’s relationship with the ROK, see the resources below:
- What the Next South Korean President Can Learn From Moon’s Diplomatic Challenge
- South Korea and China seek progress on de-nuclearisation
- Costs of Chinese boycotts cut both ways
- China and South Korea’s simmering THAAD dispute may return to the boil
- Seoul draws wrong THAAD lessons
- China-Korea Relations Poised for Recovery Despite Intensified Conflict on Social Media
- Collateral Damage: What U.S.-China Competition Means for Korea
ROK and Japan
The ROK and Japan continue to have a complex relationship as these two podcasts discuss:
- CSIS: Living History Series: Ambassador Shin Kak-soo - complexities of South Korea Relations with Japan
- South Korean Politics and Japan
Other long-standing issues between the two countries are highlighted in the KYR Japan series.
DIPLOMACY – DPRK
Since its formation, the DPRK has been ruled by three generations of the Kim family dynasty: Eternal Leader Kim II Sung until 1994, Eternal General Secretary Kim Jong II until 2011 and the current president, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. The DPRK political roots grew from the Soviet Union’s socialist dictatorship, but the ‘juche’ (self-reliance) ideology is the driving force of decision making within the government. The DPRK held diplomatic relations with several of the former Easter block communist countries after World War II and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it formed relationships with the US, Japan and Europe. Since 2015, DPRK has had diplomatic relations with over 160 countries.
The DPRK is a one-party state, run by the Worker’s Party of Korea which was established by the first leader, Kim II Sung. Its Government uses a centralised, or command, economic system and it has three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Since the 1980s, the political system has been described as ‘Suryong’ or leader system, meaning the succession to leadership from a single family. All political and economic activities are directed by the party. The ‘Juche’ ideology of self-reliance and “Songun Chongch'i” meaning ‘military first’ is prevalent in government management and control of the country. Further, there are ten principles of The Workers Party adjusted for each president that the population must memorise to show their loyalty to their leader.
This video explains how the Kim dynasty became the DPRK’s ruling dynasty:
The ongoing nuclear weapons program of the DPRK has impacted upon diplomatic relations in the Indo-Pacific. In the early 2000s, the Six Party Talks called for the disablement of the nuclear program. A series of events, including DPRK nuclear testing in 2006, has thus far prevented any form of diplomatic agreement.
For more information on DPRK politics, see the resources below:
The DPRK and Australia
Australia established diplomatic relations with the DPRK in 1974 and both countries established embassies in each other’s countries shortly after. Since then, there have been a number of interruptions in diplomatic communications, particularly in 1993/1994 when all communications between the two countries ceased as a result of the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The history of DPRK-Australia bilateral relations is explained in this DFAT article and a timeline is provided in this SBS article: A short history of Aust-North Korea ties.
Australia currently enforces UN and autonomous sanctions against the DPRK as a result of the country’s nuclear weapons programme.
Stability in the Indo-Pacific region is vital to Australia. It has diplomatic relations with DPRK’s closest neighbours, the ROK and China, as well as Japan and the USA. This paper, Political Change in North Korea, from the Australian Government’s Foreign Affairs Defence and Security Section of 2008, while old, provides political, historical, economic and security considerations relevant to Australia.
Contemporary resources regarding the DPRK-Australia relationship are limited, but the resources below give good insight into the relationship in recent years:
- North Korea accuses Australian ‘riff raff’ of destabilising peace deal
- North Korea shows up shortcomings of Australia’s diplomacy
- Australia and the Korean crisis: Confronting the limits of influence?
- North Korea threatens nuclear strike against Australia if it doesn’t stop ‘blindly toeing US line’
- North Korea accuses Australian student of ‘spying’
The DPRK and the USA
The diplomatic relationship between the DPRK and the USA has varied in its intensity and challenges, depending upon political administrations at any given time. During the Trump Administration, a summit was attempted but failed; however, until President Trump, no US president had ever met a DPRK leader. In 2019, President Trump crossed the Demilitarisation Zone from the ROK side to meet with President Kim Jong Un. Negotiations to stop short range missile tests began but conditions were such that the tests went ahead, largely linked to the strained US- DPRK diplomatic relationship. In January this year, as President Biden commenced his administration, the DPRK fired two short-range cruise missiles into the sea to its East. Since then, President Biden has built upon the bi-lateral relationship with ROK and other nations in the region with de-nuclearisation still a primary goal for the USA and its allies within the QUAD.
For further information on the relationship between the DPRK and the USA, see the resources below:
- Chronology of US – North Korea Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy
- Trump says Kim will stop short-range missile tests when US-South Korean drills end
- Timeline: Threats and stalemate one year after Trump last met North Korea's Kim
- Did Donald Trump Ease Tensions with North Korea?
- Quad to focus on de-nuclearisation of North Korea, not entire Korean Peninsula
- US President Joe Biden says he is willing to meet with Kim Jong Un about nuclear weapons
The DPRK and China
China’s relationship with the DPRK began when it provided critical support to DPRK troops in the Korean War. Both countries share ideological values as single-party communist states and China is the DPRK’s only ally. In 1961, the two countries signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty which would see China support DPRK if it were attacked first, but not if the DPRK started a War. Each treaty lasts for 20 years and was recently renewed this year.
China has stated it is committed to de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and in the past has supported UN sanctions against its ally as a result of its nuclear programme. While sanctions have taken effect and slowed trade between the two nations in recent years, China remains the DPRK’s largest trading partner.
China’s intent is to ensure a peaceful peninsula and an economically capable economic structure for the DPRK although, according to some, China also wants to discourage unification of the Korean Peninsula. This and other issues are further addressed in this lengthy, but interesting discussion:
Bitter Allies: China and North Korea
For more information on the relationship between the DPRK and China, see the resources below:
- The China–North Korea Relationship
- How China sees North Korea
- What’s China’s relationship with North Korea really like?
- Why China and North Korea decided to renew a 60-year-old treaty Lowy institute
- China, North Korea, and the Origins of the Korean War
- What to Make of China’s New Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs
- Chinese Open Source Assessments Of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities
- North Korea defies sanctions with China's help
- 'Lips and teeth' no more as China's ties with North Korea fray
- China’s Approach to North Korean Sanctions
The DPRK and Russia
The DPRK and Russia commenced their first bi-lateral relationship in 1948. Their economic relationship has had its ups and downs over the decades, notably in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their relationship has made progress since Russian president Putin’s administration. A Summit between the two countries in 2019 strengthened bi-lateral economic ties, including modernisation of transport links and other building projects. Russia also disagrees with the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missile testing policies, although it has yet to enforce UN Security Council sanctions on the DPRK.
For further information on the relationship between the DPRK and Russia, see the resources below:
- In recent years, both the ROK and DPRK have made efforts to allow families that were separated during the Korean War to reunite. Is this a sign of easing tensions between the two neighbours? Is reunification a feasible dream? What are the pros and cons and broader effects of reunification?
- Despite living in one of the tensest geographical areas on the planet, the ROK has managed to live in relative peace and with prosperity since the armistice of 1953. What significant factors have enabled this? With changing dynamics across the region, particularly within the South China Sea, what must the ROK do to maintain this level of calm?
- China has often expressed dismay with the political actions of the DPRK, particularly its nuclear activities, and frequently closes off the border to citizens seeking to escape internal turmoil. What effects will this have on the regional stability, specifically regarding the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions if China removes diplomatic pathways?
- The ROK and China maintain diplomatic and trading ties. However, the US presence in the ROK, ostensibly to enhance the ROK’s protection from DPRK aggression, is a source of tension for China, particularly in relation to missile defence. Does the US presence in the ROK actually enable peaceful relationships in the region, or is it an unnecessary source of potential conflict?
- With increasing exposure to the outside world through underground Internet services, combined with crippling sanctions and an ongoing famine, will the DPRK eventually be forced to improve relations with its neighbours and the outside world? What conditions internal and external to the DPRK are likely to be placed on such a move?