By Troy Stangarone
While 2011 will ultimately be remembered for the passing of Kim Jong-il, it was also a year of significant change and new milestones for both South Korea and the U.S.-Korea alliance.
In many ways, 2011 really began in the waning days of 2010 for South Korea. On November 23 last year, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two members of the South Korean military. The attack sealed a chill in relations between North and South Korea that would set the tone for the first half of 2011. By the time both sides began to make progress towards the end of the year that could have led to the resumption of the Six Party Talks, Kim Jong-il had passed away.
At the same time, barely two weeks after the shelling of Yeonpyong Island, the United States and South Korea reached a supplementary agreement on the KORUS FTA that paved the way for the agreement to be passed four years after originally being concluded. Despite political delays over remaining political issues in Washington and in Seoul, the long stalled agreement was passed by Congress on October 12 during President Lee Myung-bak’s summit visit and the National Assembly during a surprise session on November 22.
Having resolved long-standing concerns over the FTA, it is now set to coming into effect early next year. Representing a significant deepening of U.S.-Korea relations, the FTA signifies an important milestone for both sides in remaking the alliance into a broad based 21st century partnership that extends beyond mutual concerns about North Korea. However, despite the importance of the agreement politically and economically, the politics surrounding it may seep into 2012 as the opposition in South Korea has continued to call for the agreement’s renegotiation.
Korea also saw success on the Olympic front in 2011. After bidding previously for the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games, Pyeongchang easily beat out Munich and Annecy for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. With the International Olympic Committee awarding Korea the 2018 Winter Games, Korea will join the United States, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, and Russia as the only nations to host both Winter and Summer Olympic Games.
Despite lingering concerns regarding the KORUS FTA, 2011 was an important year for South Korea when it comes to trade. On July 1, the EU FTA came into force, making it the world’s largest bilateral free trade agreement and in early December South Korea overcame the headwinds of uncertainty from the euro zone crisis to pass the $1 trillion threshold in total trade for the first time. South Korea reached the $1 trillion mark in total trade in a short six years after first crossing the $500 billion threshold and during some of the worst economic times since the Second World War. Barring a meltdown in the euro zone, which remains a real possibility, the EU FTA and newly implemented KORUS FTA will likely help South Korea to continue to expand its trade volume in the coming year.
On the diplomatic front, there were a series of milestones. The summit meeting between Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barak Obama in October was universally seen as a high water mark in U.S.-Korea relations and representative of a strengthening of ties in recent years. South Korea continued its efforts to become more of a global player as it hosted the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan and is set to host the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. On a bilateral level, Ambassador Sung Kim became the first Korean-American to be posted to Seoul, capping a year of deepening ties between Washington and Seoul.
At the same time, the future holds uncertainty for the relationship. Like much of the world, South Korea is beginning to feel the effects of political change. In the November Seoul mayoral election, the Grand National Party (GNP) was unable to hold on to the mayor’s office, but the Democratic Party (DP) was unable to capitalize on the GNP’s difficulties. Instead, social networking and a desire for change from politics as usual led to the surprise victory of the independent Park Won-soon in the mayor’s race and the failure of the DP to gain any traction in the election. The aftershocks have already seen the DP merge with a party of supporters of former President Roh Moo-hyun to form the new Democratic Unity Party and a push for greater change in the GNP.
Despite the prospect for political change in South Korea, the most sweeping changes of 2011 have occurred in North Korea. With the surprise death of Kim Jong-il, the succession process put in place during the September, 2010 Workers Party Conference was unexpectedly pushed forward. In recent days the regime has worked to choreograph a smooth transition to Kim Jong-un as the military has publically referred to Kim-Jong-un as its “supreme commander” and he has been promoted to top post in the Korean Workers Party Central Committee. However, it is still unclear if Kim Jong-un will govern with complete authority as his father did, or North Korea will move towards a collective leadership structure where Kim Jong-un serves as a figure head. What does seem clear, despite uncertainty about the future ability of the regime and Kim Jong-un to maintain its hold on power, is that the passing of Kim Jong-il will presage a change in how North Korea is governed.
On a lighter note, South Korea saw the debut of Saturday Night Live Korea (SNLK), a spinoff of the popular U.S. satire. While early indications are that SNLK will be as irreverent as its American counterpart, that might not be a bad thing. Given the uncertainty that lies ahead in North Korea with the death of Kim Jong-il, many Koreans might just need a good laugh in 2012 as many of the events of 2011 linger into next year and they ponder their own future.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from David Hepworth’s photostream in flickr Creative Commons.