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Reform Locally, Act Globally? Crisis Management Trends in Korea
Region: Asia
Location: Korea, South
Published April 25, 2008
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The unique restriction of a one-time, five-year presidential term in the Republic of Korea (ROK) has often resulted in short-lived changes to the way the nation’s chief executive has staffed and managed his national security and crisis management apparatus at the highest levels. Previous policy offices or special assistants are frequently swept aside to make room for new campaign friends and advisory committees, and if the bureaucracy resists certain policies then new layers can be added within the Blue House to centralize policymaking and work around seconded personnel from the Ministry of National Defense (MND) or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) who might not be fully committed to the president’s vision. The recent presidential transition in Seoul appears to be a prime example, as the new Lee Myung-bak administration quickly made signifi cant changes to a variety of national security, crisis management, and foreign policy advisory bodies—including wholesale revision of the National Security Council (NSC) structure—that were created or shaped by his predecessor.

What is perhaps different this time, however, is that President Lee inherits a crisis management apparatus that was reformed fundamentally under the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration in ways that could transcend political or personal preferences. So, while some Blue House positions have been eliminated and an anything-but-Roh atmosphere pervades the new administration, Lee should also be tempted to leave many of these more basic reforms in place and build on them. This is because the catalyst for Roh’s reforms was not political but instead was a combination of factors, including certain failures of the government’s past responses to crises, a less intense threat perception of North Korea, and a growing awareness and integration of the ROK’s crisis management and national security communities with those of other advanced nations. Moreover, the Korean military services and Korean nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are becoming increasingly involved in multilateral activities overseas, such as peacekeeping operations or disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions, a situation that is prompting the ROK government to adopt many international standards.
This is a trend that President Lee seems keen to promote as part of his emphasis on “global diplomacy,” and it could also be a component of “strengthening [its] strategic alliance with the United States.” Yet, the roots of crisis management reform are largely domestic, and they were crafted at a time when ROK leaders were promoting greater political and military independence from the United States, including the reduction and realignment of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the reform and modernization of South Korea’s own armed forces, and preparation for the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of ROK troops to a Korean general. On all of these issues the ROK government is being pulled simultaneously in two directions; one is still intensely peninsula focused, while the other is more regional and global.
Until now, ROK offi cials have usually been careful to separate international security and crisis management contributions from their discussions about national reforms, and they have not made a similar specifi c connection between international missions and the country’s own security (as was the case in Japan). This might be changing, as South Korea’s involvement in multilateral operations will certainly infl uence the crisis management reform debate in Seoul, and it could lead to a more prominent role in the future for Korean diplomats, soldiers, and NGOs when it comes to international missions. This paper examines the recent history of Korea’s crisis management reforms and explores how the new Lee administration might strike a productive balance between its global aspirations and local demands.

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