Enigma of the Land of Morning Calm: Korean Shrimp or Roaring Tiger?

* This paper is excerpted from the author’s forthcoming textbook on Korean foreign policy and foreign relations. The book consists of two parts. Part One covers Korea’s major bilateral relations with such great powers as China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, including both historical overview and discussion of current issues. Part Two, based on both theoretical and policy-oriented perspectives, analyzes such issue-areas as 1) foreign policy decision-making in Korea, 2) military security, war, and peace in Korea, 3) Korea in international organizations, 4) foreign economic policy and economic development of Korean states, 5) humanitarian issues, and the 6) unification question. This book is based on the lecture/seminar courses on Korean Foreign Policy and Foreign Relations the author taught at Columbia University and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, and on research conducted at the Brookings Institution in 1999-2000.


Korea’s history is hardly one of peace and stability. In fact, Korea’s geography, geo-political situation, and its endowment of natural resources all suggest that Korea is likely to find itself in a constant struggle to remain united, stable and secure. This hypothesis is borne out by the turbulence and conflict endemic in modern Korean history.

This paper first considers some of the key natural and political factors that shape Korea’s economic, political, diplomatic and security environments. It then summarizes some key developments in modern Korean history and concludes by drawing a number of lessons derived from Korean history relevant for its contemporary security orientation and outlook.

Korean Topography

While the western and southern slopes of the Korean peninsula are gentle with various types of plains, low hills, and basins, almost seventy percent of the peninsula is covered with hills and mountains, especially in the northern and eastern parts of Korea. These major mountain ranges have facilitated regionalism in Korea, served as a natural barrier to would-be invading armies, and helped create a powerful incentive for an isolationist foreign policy.

Climate and Natural Resources

Due to its mountainous terrain and dependence on unreliable hydroelectric power, northern Korea has traditionally faced difficulties in agricultural production. The North’s current concerns with food procurement is thus just one example of a recurring problem. In addition, both the North and the South lack natural energy resources. This has given rise to the indigenous nuclear programs in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Korea’s pervasive fuel dependency on the outside world.

Fuel dependency has served as an enduring structural constraint pre-built into the operations of any Korean economy of any size under any political regime. The Korean economy, both in the North and in the South, has to generate enough export earnings to be able to pay at least for its energy bill. Alternatively, any time Korea attempted to fulfil its imported energy needs at below the market or “friendship” prices, it had to sacrifice some of its policymaking autonomy in favor of its energy benefactors. For example, by controlling the DPRK’s energy supply during the Cold War, when China and the Soviet Union annually exported to the DPRK approximately one million and 800,000 tons of petroleum respectively, Beijing and Moscow had enormous leverage on the development of DPRK economy and its foreign policy priorities.

Korean Geography

The Koreans like to say that their peninsula is like “a small shrimp surrounded by big whales.” Indeed, the Korean peninsula is 102 times smaller than the territory of Russia and 44 times smaller than that of China. Even Japan’s total land area is 1.7 times larger than that of Korea. The combined population of North and South Korea, 68 million people, is still significantly smaller than the populations of neighboring China (1.3 billion people), the Russian Federation (148 million people), or Japan (128 million people).

These powerful neighbors are all located extremely close to Korea. In addition to its land border with China and Russia, China’s Shandong peninsula is located only 190 kilometers from Korea, while Japan’s island of Honshu is only 180 kilometers away.

Korean Geopolitical Situation

The basic geography of Korea forms the foundation of the geopolitics on and around the Korean peninsula. Traditionally, Korea has been viewed both as a “menace” and an “opportunity” by all regional great powers in Northeast Asia.

China tends to view the Korean peninsula as a mountain-rigged “natural buffer” protecting its northeastern hinterland from possible invasions by maritime powers. The Chinese often describe this geo-strategic relationship with a friendly Korea to be as close as “lips and teeth.” A hostile Korea is viewed as a “hammer” hanging over the head of the Chinese dragon. For various Korean states the relationship with China was pivotal throughout Korean history. China served as a source of political legitimacy, military protection, and economic assistance, as well as a developmental model.

Japan tends to perceive the Korean peninsula either as a “dagger aimed at her heart” or as a convenient proximate “invasion route” and “key” to resource-rich mainland Asia. In general, Korean-Japanese relations appear to be like a roller-coaster ride, characterized by both mutual superiority and inferiority complexes.

It is a love-hate relationship between two very different peoples who might have shared a common ancestor. They enriched and made use of one another. They bitterly fought wars against each other and together against a common enemy. Korea and Japan have developed a very complex and intricate relationship, which is shaped by intense contradictory passions and clashes of mutual perceptions and interests on both sides.

Russian perceptions of Korea tend to be mixed as well. A friendly Korea offers an “umbrella” protecting Russian Far Eastern outposts from unwelcome storms in Northeast Asia and providing readily available access to warm, ice-free ports along its northeastern littoral. However, a hostile Korea is perceived as a potential “springboard” for all manner of forces deemed hostile to Russian power in the Far East. In general, Russia-Korea relations tend to be of secondary significance in the foreign policies of both countries. They are subordinated to broader security goals and dependent on the dynamics of the Russia-China-Japan-U.S. quadrangle. Bilateral relations tend to be passive, mutually reactive and cautious, with a few glaring exceptions like the Korean War (1950 to 1953).

U.S. perceptions of Korea are more or less benign and neutral. Washington believes that Korea can never pose any sustained, direct threat to the U.S. mainland or its global interests, but it can upset the regional balance of power. Korea’s role is seen as acting as a regional check and balance on ambitious aspirations of adjacent giants. There has always been a fundamental asymmetry between Korean expectations and American interests, which led to recurring fears of abandonment and entrapment in the bilateral relationship.

In sum, the crucial geo-strategic position of the Korean peninsula creates persistent ambivalence about Korea’s role in the regional system of international relations. It poses threats and presents opportunities to both ascending and descending great powers. Hence, it has made Korea a constant object of contention among its more powerful neighbors who have been jockeying for influence, if not for outright control and domination in Korea, for centuries.

Brief Historical Overview

Before its unification in 668 in the Christian era, Korea was divided by warring tribes, with the Northern tribes tending to be more developed than their southern neighbors because of their proximity to the more advanced societies in China. Alliances with Chinese dynasties often proved to be decisive for various tribes in gaining suzerainty over their competitors.

Due largely to its military alliance with Tang China, the Silla kingdom was able to finally unify Korea in the 7th century. The subsequent stability and centralized administration of Silla facilitated the rise of a national consciousness in Korea for the first time. The Silla kingdom began to decline at the turn of the 9th century, giving way to the state of Koryôô, founded in 936 and lasting until 1392. The Koryô monarchs established a powerful state system, one closely modeled on the Chinese imperial system.

During the Koryô times, the centralized bureaucratic structure was strengthened at the expense of local aristocracies. A civil examination system modeled after its Chinese prototype was introduced in 958. Buddhism and Confucianism were imported from China and flourished throughout the country. The Koryô dynasty lasted for 475 years through strict military rule; it survived numerous palace coups and devastating foreign invasions by the Mongols in the 1270s and the Khitans in the 1130s and 1140s.

However, the Koryô monarchs’ close ties with the Yuan dynasty enabled a rival, General Yi Song-gye, to gain support from the incoming Chinese Ming dynasty to oust the last Koryô ruler. In 1432, General Yi founded a new Korean state of Chosôn with a new capital in Hanyang (later known as Seoul).

During Chosôn times, Korea was known as the “hermit kingdom.” It was secluded from the outside world, although it remained part and parcel of the Sino-centric international order. Through limited trade, China provided Korea with necessary material resources. Also, it offered military protection to Korea from foreign invasions. Chinese military assistance was indispensable for Korea’s successful rebuff of the devastating Japanese Hideyoshi-led invasions in 1592-1598, otherwise known as the Imjin Wars. In cultural terms, Korea was “Little China” indeed: China endowed Koreans with their cultural norms, institutions, and values, and bestowed a sense of political legitimacy and purpose on Korean rulers.

The Chosôn policy of “seclusion” slowly came to an end in the 1870s and 1880s, when Korea was forcibly opened up by Japan and Western powers. Against its will, the kingdom of Chosôn became an “independent” buffer state. The Kanghwa Treaty, concluded between Korea and Japan on February 27, 1876, formally detached Korea from the Sino-centric world. It declared Korea to be an “independent state,” opened three Korean ports to foreign trade, allowed free commerce between Korea and Japan, stipulated an exchange of envoys, and provided Japan with certain ex-territorial rights.

The process of “opening” Korea went through three distinct phases and resulted in the ultimate loss of Korean independence and the dismantling of the Korean state. The first period (1881-1895) was characterized by rising Sino-Japanese tensions in Korea, which ultimately led to China’s defeat and departure from the peninsula. After armed clashes in Seoul between China and Japan, in 1885 the two sided agreed to accept equal rights of influence over Korea and to withdraw their troops. Then in 1894-1895, Japanese victory initially forced China to finally acknowledge the “full independence” of Korea in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The “Triple Intervention” later that year by Russia, France and Germany forced Japan to honor Korean independence and established Russia as a protector of Korea.

The second period (1896-1898) can be best described as bipolar accommodation. Russia and Japan were engaged in a series of talks aimed at stabilizing their respective spheres of influence in the wake of China’s withdrawal from the peninsula. St. Petersburg and Tokyo reached a number of compromises, agreeing that Korea was “incapable of being independent” and establishing a “joint co-protectorate over Korea.”

They also agreed that Korea would be a “buffer state,” with Russian aims in Korea “purely strategic” whereas Japan’s aims in Korea were “both strategic and economic.”

The third period (1899-1910) saw Japanese ascendancy in Korea. This period began when Japan demanded that Russia accept its “paramount rights” in Korea. Russian refusal to accommodate the Japanese demands led to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War over Korea in 1904-1905 and subsequent Russian defeat.

The defeat of China (1895) and Russia (1905), resulted in a new configuration of power in Northeast Asia. Japan emerged as the putative successor to China in organizing the international order in Northeast Asia. Japan’s claim over Korea was consolidated via several secret agreements regarding the division of imperial spheres of influence between Japan and Western great powers.

These agreements cleared the way for the outright Japanese takeover of Korea and establishment of colonial administration in the peninsula.

During its colonial rule (1910-1945), Japan dismantled the centuries-old Korean state and abolished the Korean monarchy, thus halting all independent action by Korea. Instead Japan used Korea as a raw materials and industrial production base for its northwestern expansion into Manchuria.

The Korean peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule on August 15, 1945, by Soviet and American troops. In 1948, two sovereign Korean states were formed. From 1950 to 1953, the two Korean states fought a merciless fratricidal war, ending in a stalemate, with the 38th parallel dividing the peninsula.

After the Korean War, the ROK and DPRK became embroiled in the global ideological Cold War between East and West. Two hardened military security triangles confronted one another throughout the Cold War on the peninsula: the USSR-DPRK-PRC on one side and the USA-ROK-Japan on the other. Perennial arms racing and military tensions were occasionally dotted with brief periods of détente between two Koreas. At present, both Korean states pursue three similar foreign policy ends, albeit at cross purposes: political legitimacy, national security, and economic development.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, a new security situation emerged on the Korean peninsula. In the North, Cold War alliance structures appear to be dead. The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China fully normalized relations with their old Cold War foe, the Republic of Korea. U.S. supremacy in the region emerged virtually unchallenged. The DPRK is partly isolated from the international community and strives to find ways to favorably engage in normalization talks with Washington and Tokyo. Prospects for North Korea’s collapse and eventual reunification with the South are better than ever. In the meantime, a situation of “cold peace” continues to prevail on the peninsula.

Some generalizations and lessons from history

Korean history lends itself to several generalizations and offers a number of lessons for scholars and policymakers. Eleven key points should be considered. First, traditionally, agrarian Korean societies tended to be defensive, passive, reactive, and isolationist in their external behavior, which tended to limit conflict with their giant neighbors. In contrast, rapidly industrializing Korean societies appear to be more ambitious, pro-active (if not aggressive), and outward-looking, which expands the possibilities for conflict with neighboring great powers.

Second, Korean domestic economic weakness or political turmoil tended to invite foreign aggression. In particular, the demise of the kingdoms of Koryô (1390s) and Chosôn (1900s) was conducive to foreign invasion and loss of state sovereignty. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, the DPRK, faced with deep economic depression and gripped with policy paralysis, is also subject to heavy hostile international pressures aimed at eliminating the North Korean state.

Third, Korea’s relative backwardness constantly put it at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis its neighboring rivals, jeopardized its national security, and made it economically dependent on more advanced nations. However, being a late developer also allowed it to develop rapidly through speedy emulation.

Fourth, chronologically, the rise and fall of Korean states tend to parallel the experiences of the Chinese State. The parallel experiences of Korean and Chinese states can be explained in part by the fact that for centuries Korea was part of the Sino-centric civilization, including its economy, culture, and political order. The relationship was hardly one of equals, however. Chinese leaders have repeatedly pursued their own power interests by dominating, or at least altering, Korea’s domestic politics.

Fifth, unified Korean nationhood has more than 1,300 years of history. Koreans share a keen sense of national identity. The Korean peninsula is their homeland. Foreign invasions and foreign domination have the effect of stimulating, not eradicating, Korean national identity. This may explain the deep roots of Korean nationalism. The North-South summit in June 2000 uncovered the powerful roots of Korean nationalism and highlighted its potential force and ambitions in future.

Sixth, historically, division is an aberration for the Korean nation. History knows only one occasion of disintegrative process from national unity to division, namely the breakdown of political order in the kingdom of Silla in the late 10th century. As a whole, history favors Korean reunification.

Seventh, despite peaceful unification declarations signed by the DPRK and ROK in July 1972, December 1991, and June 2000, historical experience suggests that military conquest has been the only means of achieving unification in the Korean peninsula so far. For example, one can cite the unification wars led and won by the Kingdom of Silla in the 7th century, reunification wars led by the Kingdom of Koryô in the 10th century, and the Korean War (1950-1953). Great powers are aware of this historical record of belligerency and are prudent to prepare themselves for military contingencies on the Korean peninsula.

Eighth, history teaches that in order to achieve success, a unifying power must have some sort of an alliance with China (like Silla’s association with Tang in the 660s), because of China’s huge military, economic, and political potential, as well as a high degree of involvement in and sensitivity toward the Korean peninsula. On the other hand, the only way to survive for a losing power in Korean rapprochement is through broadening the scope of inter-Korean conflict by bringing other great powers on its side to counterbalance China’s influence and Beijing’s alliance with its rival Korean state. As in the 1950s, the problem of Korean reunification could become a source of conflict between great powers once again.

Ninth, Korea often served not as an ultimate prize for invaders but as a passage en route to a final destination or as a proxy in the confrontation among the neighboring great powers. For example, one can cite the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, the Japanese invasions in the 16th century, as well as the U.S.-Soviet “limited war” in Korea (1950-1953) during the Cold War.

Tenth, when the Korean peninsula did become an object of confrontation among neighboring great powers, it was mainly due to expansionist aspirations of an ascending great power, aimed at establishing her unconditional domination in Korea (preferably in the form of a protectorate). Usually, such ambitions were thwarted by other great powers seeking to maintain the status-quo in Northeast Asia. They always tended to fall back on the idea of either dividing the peninsula into spheres of influence to secure their respective national interests or neutralizing it as a buffer zone against outside rivals, in order to preserve their own security.

Eleventh, independent Korean states have tried to protect their territorial integrity, national sovereignty, and promote long-term national security by pursuing one of the following foreign policy strategies: a) seclusion, or traditional isolation; or b) various forms and degrees of alignment with one or two major land and/or maritime powers; or c) neutralization, or equidistant balancing.

Bearing in mind the structural conditions and historical background that shape the Korean security position vis-à-vis regional great powers, security has always been and will always be scarce in the Korean peninsula. No matter what transformations may occur in the geopolitical equation in Northeast Asia, Korea will always be a contentious hot spot for China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Prudent analysts and statesmen will need to constantly and carefully manage stability on the peninsula.