The Georgetown Journal's Guide to South Korea's Growing Prominence by Michelle Kwon

On March 23, President Barack Obama nominated Dartmouth President Jim Young Kim to lead the World Bank. Later that night, President Obama boarded Air Force 1 to attend the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, hosted in Seoul, South Korea. Though these events seem unrelated, March 23rd is just one symbolic moment that encapsulates the growing prominence of Korea and Koreans, whilst highlighting the strength of the US-South Korea relationship. Serving as a stark contrast to its northern counterpart, South Korea has successfully transformed itself from an underdeveloped state to a regional power with a thriving modern economy. The “Korean Model” has come to be seen as the quintessential model demonstrating the success and potential for an export-oriented economy. Korea has weathered the financial crisis very successfully, and has remained a leader in the technology industry.  Korean companies such as Hyundai and Samsung have achieved global prominence, and Korea became a member of the influential G20 at its foundation in 1999. Korea’s economic success has also resulted in an increasingly outsized role in international politics.

US-Korea relations have never been stronger. President Barack Obama recently described President Lee Myung-Bak as one of his closest partners among world leaders. This relationship between the two leaders has played a central part in catalyzing the deepening of US–Korean relations, especially in the midst of events that have transpired over the past year. The death of Kim Jong-Il reminded the world of the unpredictable and unstable environment in North Korea. While, the North Korean threat jeopardizes international stability, for South Korea it is a critical element in defense policy, fiscal stability, and foreign relations with countries such as the United States. However, the constant volatility of the North and South Korean relationship has only brought the United States and South Korea closer together as allies and economic partners. In this light, the successful conclusion of the Republic of Korea – United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) has not only guaranteed continual growth for Korea’s economy, but according to the Federation of Korean Industries, “will upgrade the traditional alliance with the U.S. to a higher level, and greatly help [Korea’s] enterprises advance into the US.” It is clear that the two countries, especially in the persons of their leaders, share a special relationship, and the passage of Korus indicates the economic ties between the two countries will continue to grow.

The State Dinner that President Obama hosted for President Lee Myung-bak in October of 2011 symbolized the prominence of Korea amongst other global actors. President Lee Myung-bak and Korean First Lady Kim Yoon-ok were invited to the White House before even Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom.

Though South Korea has been an important global actor for the past several decades, recent years have seen it accumulate even greater economic and soft power. While Japan used to dominate American perceptions of Asia and China now occupies the preeminent position for American policy makers, perhaps, the relationship between the United States and South Korea will become the most central to Asia in the future..


Michelle Kwon is an Editorial Assistant for the Law & Ethics section of the Georgetown Journal and a junior in the College majoring in Government.