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International Politics

Foreign policy 1

Joining the U.S.-Led World Order: 1948 to 1960
 
The Republic of Korea from its birth in 1948 into the late 1960s actively supported and endorsed, mainly for security reasons, the postwar international order created and led by the United States. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that ensued in the aftermath of World War II made it impossible for newly decolonized and impoverished states like Korea to adopt and maintain a neutral position. The dearth of economic resources in the country that had been devastated by a major internecine war also meant that Korea would not be able to achieve economic self-sufficiency for decades to come. Joining and actively supporting the U.S.-led world order was thus an inevitable choice the Korean government was compelled to make.
 
(1) Domestic and International Conditions
The birth of the Korean Republic was a result of multiple and complex patterns of competition between two world powers—the United States and the Soviet Union—during and after World War II. After winning the war, the Allies appeared intent on ushering in a new international order based on cooperation and alliance. Such a vision of friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union, however, floundered, giving way to express hostility and tension beginning in 1947. The Cold War, first unfolding across Europe, eventually affected the process in which the new Korean government came into being. Leaders from the United States and the Soviet Union who had reached a consensus on establishing a joint trusteeship on the Korean peninsula in the Moscow Agreement in December 1945 abandoned the trusteeship in 1947, deciding instead to partition the peninsula in half, with each nation’s government setting up in their half. In October 1947, the United States referred the Korea problem to the United Nations. The UN recommended that general elections, proportionate to populations, be held in both North and South Korea, but the United States did not expect Moscow to accept this recommendation. Washington thus set out to use the UN’s recommendation rather as an instrument for supporting its move to establish a separate government in South Korea. The general elections of May 10, 1948, and the resulting republican government in South Korea thus became inseparable features of the Cold War that had been expanding worldwide at that time.

The Cold War was characterized by escalating tensions between the two ideologically and politically opposing camps, and the formation of ever-growing alliances among nations within each camp. The United States and the Soviet Union continued to expand their respective spheres of influence around the globe, perpetuating and elongating bloodless wars and proxy wars in an infinite zero-sum game. The authority of the UN, ostensibly set up as an organization for fostering friendship among all nations, thus remained in a doubtful state during the Cold War period, while international relations and friendships developed within each camp. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact are two main representatives of the organized, intra-camp cooperation and alliances that were formed at that time, both of which evolved into systematic and permanent organizations of partnership.

South Korea continued to struggle with the devastating effects of the Korean War into the 1960s, remaining unable to develop and maintain the adequate production infrastructure required to support a self-sufficient economy. The Korean government thus remained hopelessly dependent on foreign aid and grants, especially from the United States.[1] During this period, South Korea was poorer and weaker than North Korea. As shown in Figure 2-1, South Korean military spending barely managed to exceed half of North Korea’s spending until the mid-1970s or so. Whereas North Korea was able to expedite its reconstruction process after the Korean War, South Korea lacked the resources and political leadership to support such speedy reconstruction. As a result, South Korea seriously lacked self-defense capacity.

Source: Correlates of War 2005
 
[Figure 2-1] Gap in Military Spending: South Korea vs. North Korea

Source: Bayer, 2006
[Figure 2-2] Resident Diplomatic Delegations Sent and Received by Korea


 

 
[1] Throughout the 1950s, foreign aid and grants made up over 10 percent of the gross national product, reaching as high as 22.9 percent in 1957. They also represented between 17.1 percent (1953) and 54.1 percent (1957) of the national revenue (Committee on the Compilation of the History of the Four Decades of Korean Finance, 1991, 157).


Source: Korea Institute of Public Administration. 2008. Korean Public Administration, 1948-2008, Edited by Korea Institute of Public Administration. Pajubookcity: Bobmunsa.