Nearing its 65th birthday, how does the southern half of the Korean peninsula fare? The prognosis is mixed.
North Korea is very much in the news these days, thanks to its puzzlingly weird dictator. South Korea, quieter and eminently more normal, is less visible, destined in the eyes of many observers to be “a weak victim with little space for strategic maneuver in a world shaped by great-power politics.” So writes Council of Foreign Relations senior fellow Snyder (Middle-Power Korea: Contributions to the Global Agenda, 2015, etc.), with a sure sense of realpolitik. South Korea faces difficulties, even as a comparatively major economy in its sphere, in making the case for its importance as a nation, which seems less the product of any inferiority complex than China’s emergence as an overshadowing regional leader—and potential partner for the noncommunist south, perhaps even replacing the U.S. Pressures are also mounting for unification, as fewer and fewer Koreans remember why there should be two Koreas in the first place. There are, of course, two Koreas, and there is likely to be little interest in economically, much less politically, liberalizing the North, particularly since North Korean elites are likely to consider such a scenario “most threatening to their own interests”—i.e., remaining in power as elites. Snyder closes with a gimlet-eyed view of the Trump administration’s apparent lack of interest in maintaining the status quo, to which, he writes, South Korea is likely to respond by intensely lobbying American groups perceived to be true allies for support, “including American veterans of the Korean War and members of the U.S. military who have served in Korea since that time.” How much influence those groups can bring to an indifferent American government remains to be seen, but events may require South Korea to become a nuclear power to deter North Korean designs.
Students of geopolitics will appreciate Snyder’s thoughtful analysis of a troubled region.