mars 2, 2024

Korea: A conversation with Ramon Pacheco Pardo and Victor Cha

5 min read
Korea A conversation with Ramon Pacheco Pardo and Victor Cha | StirlingPhilosophy

Korea has a long and exciting 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 19th century, Japanese occupation and Cold War division to the present day. In this exchange, Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo explore South Korea’s entry into the international arena, North Korea’s continued isolationism after COVID-19, and how 21st the century’s guesses about each country may not be as accurate as we think.


CV: South Korea has always been squeezed between the great powers of the region, depending on its geography and internal weakness. But now, in the wake of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the United States and the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, South Korea is showing the confidence to play a bigger role on the international stage than previously historically seen. The government talks about defending freedom and democracy, upholding human rights, advancing the cause of climate change, and opposing 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 growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait, North Korea’s nuclear and missile campaign, and the uncertainty of a possible return to « America First » policies in the United States after the election of 2024 are placing new external pressures on Korea that we have not seen since the maelstrom of balance-of-power politics in East Asia in the late 1800s. But unlike more than a century ago, Korea is stronger internally and more willing to take a stand.

PR: These are very good points. And I want to make a comparison with North Korea. One of the themes of our book is the extent to which the two Koreas have diverged, especially since the 1970s. So while we see South Korea rub shoulders with G-7 members, receiving leaders of European and Southeast Asian powers and being invited to NATO meetings, North Korea is only now reopening its borders in 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 fearful of the pandemic ravaging the country, given its poor health infrastructure. And it has in fact taken advantage of the pandemic to increase control over its own population, although it is not particularly annoyed by the exit of foreign diplomats and aid workers from the country, given its distrust of foreigners. Contrast that with South Korea, which has never closed its borders completely during the pandemic and is now trying to attract as many foreign tourists as possible. The latter, by the way, is a point we discuss in our book when we talk about the growing international outlook of the South Korean people. Furthermore, the key question we are now focusing on regarding North Korea is whether it will carry out its seventh nuclear test. The Kim regime thinks this is what makes his country strong, rather than pursuing the more open and successful path that South Korea is following.

CV: You are right about this. South Korea’s path to liberal markets and democracy has made it more successful than anyone could have ever imagined. While we cover Korea: A New History of South and NorthThere was a time when US intelligence agencies predicted that South Korea would not progress economically beyond an agriculture-based economy with perhaps high-end light manufacturing. Boy, was it ever wrong. As US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo said during President Yoon’s state visit to the White House in April, South Korea stands alongside the US and others as a tech giant. High-tech personal devices, televisions and household consumer goods made in South Korea are found in almost every household. Electric vehicle batteries, memory chips, green ships and bioscience research in Korea are having global consequences. We also write a lot in the book about South Korea’s other major export: its cultural power. Blackpink, BTS extension, Squid GamesAND Parasite among other cultural products are familiar to younger generations on all continents and define fashion, music and entertainment in the future.

PR: Your last point raises an interesting topic about how others relate to Koreas today. To begin with, it is interesting that someone mentions « Korea », we know they are talking about the south. This underlines that South Korea’s economy, technology and culture are much better known than they used to be, and also that South Korea has « won » the recognition battle between the two Koreas, of which we discuss in the book. In contrast, North Korea is usually seen as poor, hermetic, backward, and even mysterious. In our book, we show that this is not an accurate picture. For example, led people Suddenly or the markets that have spread across the country for nearly three decades now show that North Korea is changing. But if we look at his leadership, Kim Jong-un is the third generation of the Kim family to rule the country. This is the only communist dynasty in the world. The contrast with South Korea and its vibrant democracy couldn’t be more stark. And ultimately, our book is about this contrast: as a unified country for centuries, Korea today is divided between two countries that are almost polar oppositions, South and North. It’s a fascinating story, one that we’ve had a lot of fun researching and writing, and one that 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, DC. He was 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 KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Free University of Brussels.