South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has just completed a six-day visit to Washington DC. The Prime Minister’s relatively long visit underscores both his nation’s international influence and the high priority of the alliance with the United States.
This visit marks the 70th anniversary of the vital alliance between South Korea and the United States.
This is the second summit, and fifth meeting overall, between President Joe Biden and President Park in less than a year. The packed itinerary included an address to a joint session of Congress, a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Center, a Pentagon milestone, an assembly of South Korean and American business representatives hosted by the United States Chamber of Commerce. States, and a state dinner at the White House.
The long-term rise in tensions with the surviving communist regime in North Korea, which includes Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear weapons program, adds significance to the visit and the relationship.
As recently as the early 1960s, South Korea was one of the poorest economies in the world. Still a peasant society, the entire Korean peninsula was terribly devastated by the Korean War of 1950-53. Yet today, the Republic of Korea ranks among the top twenty economies in the world, occupying leading roles in automotive, high-tech electronics, shipbuilding, and other industries.
Rapid industrialization and economic modernization were complemented by a striking transition from dictatorship to democracy. President and General Park Chung-hee, stifled fledgling democracy and imposed harsh military authoritarianism for nearly two decades. He was assassinated in 1979 by the head of the KCIA, the national intelligence agency. In Korean memory, it remains a respected symbol of strength and efficiency for many, even as progress and the passage of time fade.
General Park was replaced as general manager by two other generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roe Tae Woo, but the growing pressure for genuine democratic representation proved insurmountable.
The cornerstone of the transition to democracy was the election of Kim Dae-jung as president in 1998. He completed his five-year term without interruption and, in 2000, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
A public symbol of opposition to the Park dictatorship, he was imprisoned for several years. On another occasion, KCIA agents kidnapped him and planned to kill him. Only the intervention of senior US CIA official Don Gregg saved his life.
South Korea’s remarkable domestic achievements have unfolded as the country becomes increasingly influential in global arenas. In 2012, the Obama administration shrewdly nominated Seoul, Korea-born Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim as president of the World Bank.
The original vision of the United Nations combined competing goals of favoring the most powerful nations and inclusive global representation. Ban and Kim personify South Korea’s growing role as a bridge between developed and developing countries.
Market economies and reasonably representative governments now characterize a growing share of developing countries around the world. In short, South Korea is well positioned to lead developing countries to prosperity.
Today, the United Nations is strong. The decisions of the UN and the United States in 1950 to defend South Korea were essential to this success.
President Yoon has the opportunity to develop a prominent global leadership role, with boisterous North Korea tossed to the left of the stage. At the state dinner, President Yoon sang lines from Don McLean’s 1971 song “American Pie.”
— Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan; Korean edition by Oruem Publishing). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the Sturgis Journal: Arthur Cyr: President’s visit to Washington highlights importance of South Korea