Korea has a long, riveting history—it is also a divided nation. In Korea: A New History of South and North, Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo draw on decades of research to explore the history of modern Korea, from the late nineteenth century, Japanese occupation, and Cold War division to the present day. In this exchange, Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo explore South Korea’s entrance on the international stage, North Korea’s continued isolationism after COVID-19, and how 21st century assumptions about each country may not be accurate as we think.
VC: Korea has always been caught between the great powers of the region, a function of geography and internal weakness. But now on the heels of the State Visit by South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol to the United States and the G-7 Summit in Hiroshima, South Korea is displaying a confidence to play a larger role on the international stage than we have seen historically. The government talks about standing up for freedom and democracy, support for human rights, advancing the climate change cause, and countering economic coercion. While some of this has to do with the current administration, I think it also has to do with an external environment for South Korea that is deeply uncertain. The war in Europe, China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait, North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons campaign, and the uncertainty of a possible return to “America First” policies in the U.S. after the 2024 election are all putting new external pressures on Korea that we have not seen since the swirl of balance of power politics in East Asia circa late 1800s. But unlike over a century ago, Korea is stronger internally and more willing to take a stand.
RPP: Those are very good points. And I want to draw a comparison with North Korea. One of the themes of our book is the extent to which the two Koreas have taken divergent paths, especially from the 1970s onwards. So while we see South Korea rubbing shoulders with G-7 members, receiving the leaders of European and Southeast Asian powers, and being invited to NATO gatherings, North Korea is only just now reopening the borders following the COVID-19 pandemic—the last country in the world to do so. In my view, this is a sign of weakness. The Kim family has been afraid of the pandemic ravaging the country, given its subpar health infrastructure. And it has actually taken advantage of the pandemic to increase control over its own population, while not being particularly bothered with foreign diplomats and aid workers leaving the country, given its mistrust of foreigners. Contrast this with South Korea, which never fully closed its borders during the pandemic and is now seeking to attract as many foreign tourists as possible. The latter, by the way, is a point that we discuss in our book when we talk about the increasing international outlook of the South Korean people. Plus, the key question that we are now focusing on with regards to North Korea is whether it will conduct its seventh nuclear test. The Kim regime thinks that this is what makes its country strong, rather than pursuing the more successful and open path that South Korea is following.
VC: You are right about that. South Korea’s path towards liberal markets and democracy has made it more successful than anyone could ever have imagined. As we cover in Korea: A New History of South & North, there was a time when U.S. intelligence agencies predicted that South Korea would not advance economically beyond an agriculture-based economy with possibly at the high end, light manufactured goods. Boy, was that ever wrong. As U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimundo said on President Yoon’s State Visit to the White House in April, South Korea sits alongside the United States and others as a technology giant. High-tech personal devices, TVs, and household consumer goods made in South Korea sit in almost every household. Electric vehicle batteries, memory chips, green ships, and bioscience research in Korea are having global ramifications. We also write a great deal in the book about the other major export of South Korea—its cultural power. Blackpink, BTS, Squid Games, and Parasite among other cultural products are familiar to younger generations around continents, and defining fashion, music, and entertainment going forward.
RPP: Your last point raises an interesting argument about the way in which others relate to the Koreas today. To begin with, it is interesting when someone mentions “Korea”, we know that they are talking about the South. This underscores that the economy, technology, and culture of South Korea are much better known than they were in the past—and also that South Korea has “won” the battle for recognition between the two Koreas, which we discuss in the book. Conversely, North Korea is usually seen as poor, hermetic, backward, and even mysterious. In our book, we show that this is not an accurate picture. As a case in point, the people-led jangmadang or markets that have been spreading throughout the country for almost three decades now show that North Korea is changing. But if we look at its leadership, Kim Jong-un is the third generation of the Kim family to run the country. This is the only communist dynasty in the world. The contrast with South Korea and its vibrant democracy could not be more obvious. And ultimately, our book is about this contrast: how a unified country for centuries, Korea, today is divided between two countries that are almost the polar oppositions, South and North. It is a fascinating story, which we had great fun researching and writing and which we hope readers will enjoy.
Victor Cha is Distinguished University Professor at Georgetown University and Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a former director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is professor of international relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at Free University of Brussels.