HomeTop StoriesThe president's visit to Washington underlines the importance of South Korea

The president’s visit to Washington underlines the importance of South Korea

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has just completed a six-day visit to Washington DC. The relatively lengthy visit of the head of government underlines both the international influence of his country and the high priority of the alliance with the United States.

The visit marks the 70th anniversary of the vital alliance between South Korea and the United States.

This is the second summit, and fifth in total, between President Joe Biden and President Park in less than a year. The busy itinerary included a speech to a joint session of Congress, a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Center, a major stop at the Pentagon, a meeting of South Korean and US business representatives hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce , and dinner at the White House.

Arthur I. Cyr

The long-standing rise in tensions with North Korea’s surviving communist regime, including Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear weapons program, adds significance to the visit and relationship.

As late as the early 1960s, South Korea was one of the poorest economies in the world. Still a farming society, the entire Korean Peninsula was horribly devastated by the Korean War of 1950-53. But today, the Republic of Korea ranks among the top twenty economies in the world, with leading roles in automotive, advanced electronics, shipbuilding and other industries.

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Rapid industrialization and economic modernization were complemented by a striking transition from dictatorship to democracy. President and General Park Chung-hee suppressed the nascent democracy and imposed extremely 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, he remains a revered symbol of strength and effectiveness for many, though progress and the passage of time fade.

General Park was succeeded as chief executive by two more generals, Chun Doo Hwan and Roe Tae Woo, but mounting pressure for genuine democratic representation proved insurmountable.

The culmination 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 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

He was a public symbol of resistance to Park’s dictatorship and was imprisoned for several years. On another occasion, KCIA agents kidnapped and planned to kill him. Only the intervention of senior American CIA official Don Gregg saved his life.

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South Korea’s remarkable domestic achievements have unfolded as the country continues to grow in influence in global arenas. In 2012, the Obama administration shrewdly nominated Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim, who was born in Seoul, Korea, as president of the World Bank.

The United Nations’ original vision combined competitive goals to favor the most powerful nations and inclusive global representation. Ban and Kim personify South Korea’s significant growing role as a bridge between developed and developing countries.

Market economies and fairly representative governments now characterize a steadily growing share of the world’s developing countries. In short, South Korea is in a position to lead developing countries to prosperity.

The United Nations is strong today. The decisions of the UN and the US in 1950 to defend South Korea were essential to this success.

President Yoon has a chance to develop a leading role as a world leader as vociferous North Korea is shunted to the left of the podium. At the state dinner, President Yoon sang lines from Don McLean’s 1971 song “American Pie.”

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— Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan; published in Korean by Oruem Publishing). He can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in Sturgis Journal: Arthur Cyr: President’s Washington visit underscores South Korea’s importance

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