South Korea: Government

Principal Government Officials

Chief of State: President Park Geun-hye
Head of Government: Prime Minister Jung Hong-Won (resigned)

The Republic of Korea (commonly known as "South Korea") is a republic with powers nominally shared among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, but traditionally dominated by the president. The president is chief of state and is elected for a single term of 5 years. The 299 members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms; elections for the assembly were held on April 11, 2012. South Korea's judicial system comprises a Supreme Court, appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court. The judiciary is independent under the constitution. The country has nine provinces and seven administratively separate cities--the capital of Seoul, along with Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan. Political parties include New Frontier Party (NFP), Democratic United Party (DUP), Liberty Forward Party (LFP), Unified Progressive Party (UPP), Renewal Korea Party (RKP) and K Party (KP). Suffrage is universal at age 19.

South Korea joined the United Nations in August 1991 along with North Korea and is active in most UN specialized agencies and many international forums. South Korea has hosted major international events such as the 1988 Summer Olympics, the 2002 World Cup Soccer Tournament (co-hosted with Japan), and the 2002 Second Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies. In 2010, the country hosted the R.O.K.-Japan-China Trilateral Summit as well as the G-20 Seoul Summit. It will host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Economic considerations have a high priority in Korean foreign policy. The R.O.K. seeks to build on its economic accomplishments to increase its regional and global role. It is a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and chaired the organization in 2005.

The Republic of Korea maintains diplomatic relations with more than 170 countries and a broad network of trading relationships. The United States and Korea are allied by the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty. Korea and Japan coordinate closely on numerous issues. This includes consultations with the United States on North Korea policy.

Korean Peninsula: Reunification Efforts
For almost 20 years after the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between North and South Korea were minimal and very strained. Official contact did not occur until 1971, beginning with Red Cross contacts and family reunification projects. In the early 1990s, relations between the two countries improved with the 1991 “Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North,” since known as the “Basic Agreement,” which acknowledged that reunification was the goal of both governments, and the 1992 “Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” However, divergent positions on the process of reunification and North Korean weapons programs, compounded by South Korea's tumultuous domestic politics and the 1994 death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, contributed to a cycle of warming and cooling of relations.

Relations improved again following the 1997 election of Kim Dae-jung. His "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the D.P.R.K. set the stage for the historic June 2000 inter-Korean summit between President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the policy, but the prize was somewhat tarnished by revelations of a $500 million dollar "payoff" to North Korea that immediately preceded the summit. Engagement continued during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency, but declined following the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak in February 2008.

Korean Peninsula: Nuclear Tensions and Recent Developments
Relations worsened following North Korea’s acknowledgement in October 2002 of a covert program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Following this acknowledgement, the United States, along with the People's Republic of China, proposed multilateral talks among the concerned parties to deal with this issue. At the urging of China and its neighbors, the D.P.R.K. agreed to meet with China and the United States in April 2003. In August of that year, the D.P.R.K. agreed to attend Six-Party Talks aimed at ending the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons that added the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Russia to the table. Two more rounds of Six-Party Talks between the United States, the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and the D.P.R.K. were held in February and June of 2004. At the third round, the United States put forward a comprehensive proposal aimed at completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. A fourth round of talks was held in two sessions between July and September 2005.

A breakthrough for the Six-Party Talks came with the Joint Statement of Principles on September 19, 2005, in which, among other things, the D.P.R.K. committed to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards." The Joint Statement also committed the United States and other parties to certain actions as the D.P.R.K. denuclearized. In addition, the United States offered security assurances to North Korea, specifying that it had no nuclear weapons on R.O.K. territory and no intention to attack or invade the D.P.R.K. with nuclear or other weapons. Finally, the United States and the D.P.R.K., as well as the D.P.R.K. and Japan, agreed to undertake steps to normalize relations, subject to their respective bilateral policies.

However, following D.P.R.K. protests against U.S. Government money-laundering sanctions on D.P.R.K. funds held at Macao’s Banco Delta Asia, the D.P.R.K. boycotted the Six-Party Talks during late 2005 and most of 2006. On October 9, 2006, North Korea announced a successful nuclear test, verified by the United States on October 11. In response, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), citing Chapter VII of the UN Charter, unanimously adopted Resolution 1718, condemning North Korea's action and imposing sanctions on certain luxury goods and trade of military items, weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related parts, and technology transfers.

The Six-Party Talks resumed in December 2006. Following a bilateral meeting between the United States and D.P.R.K. in Berlin in January 2007, yet another round of Six-Party Talks was held in February 2007. On February 13, 2007, the parties reached an agreement on "Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement" in which North Korea agreed to shut down and seal its Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility, and to invite back International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verification of these actions. The other five parties agreed to provide emergency energy assistance to North Korea in the amount of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the initial phase (within 60 days) and the equivalent of up to 950,000 tons of HFO in the next phase of North Korea's denuclearization. The six parties also established five working groups to form specific plans for implementing the Joint Statement in the following areas: denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, normalization of D.P.R.K.-U.S. relations, normalization of D.P.R.K.-Japan relations, economic and energy cooperation, and a Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism. All parties agreed that the working groups would meet within 30 days of the agreement, which they did. The agreement also envisioned the directly-related parties negotiating a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum. As part of the initial actions, North Korea invited then-IAEA Director General ElBaradei to Pyongyang in early March for preliminary discussions on the return of the IAEA to the D.P.R.K. A sixth round of Six-Party Talks took place on March 19-23, 2007, in which the parties reported on the first meetings of the five working groups.

At the invitation of the D.P.R.K., Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill visited Pyongyang in June 2007 as part of ongoing consultations with the six parties on implementation of the Initial Actions agreement. After the Banco Delta Asia funds were released in July 2007, the D.P.R.K. shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility as well as an uncompleted reactor at Taechon, and IAEA personnel returned to the D.P.R.K. to monitor and verify the shutdown and to seal the facility. Concurrently, the R.O.K., China, United States, and Russia initiated deliveries of HFO and other energy-related assistance per the agreement. These four parties continued to provide shipments of HFO and other energy assistance as the D.P.R.K. implemented disablement steps during 2007 and 2008. All five working groups met in August and September 2007 to discuss detailed plans for implementation of the next phase of the Initial Actions agreement, and the D.P.R.K. invited a team of experts from the United States, China, and Russia to visit the Yongbyon nuclear facility in September 2007 to discuss specific steps that could be taken to disable the facility. The subsequent September 27-30 Six-Party plenary meeting resulted in the October 3, 2007 agreement on "Second-Phase Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement."

Under the terms of the October 3 agreement, the D.P.R.K. agreed to disable all existing nuclear facilities subject to abandonment under the September 2005 Joint Statement and the February 2007 agreement. The parties agreed to complete by December 31, 2007 a set of disablement actions for the three core facilities at Yongbyon: the 5-MW(e) Experimental Reactor, the Radiochemical Laboratory (Reprocessing Plant), and the Fresh Fuel Fabrication Plant. The D.P.R.K. also agreed to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs in accordance with the February 2007 agreement by December 31, 2007 and reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how.

In November 2007, the D.P.R.K. began to disable the three core facilities at Yongbyon and completed many of the agreed disablement actions by the end of the year. Assistant Secretary of State Hill visited Pyongyang again in December 2007 as part of ongoing consultations on the implementation of Second-Phase actions and carried with him a letter from President George W. Bush to Kim Jong-il. While the D.P.R.K. missed the December 31 deadline to provide a complete and correct declaration, it belatedly delivered its declaration to the Chinese on June 26, 2008. The D.P.R.K. also imploded the cooling tower at the Yongbyon facility in late June 2008 in the presence of international media and U.S. Government officials. Following the D.P.R.K.'s progress on disablement and provision of a declaration, President Bush announced the lifting of the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) with respect to the D.P.R.K. and notified Congress of his administration's intent to rescind North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, a step which the Secretary of State followed through on in October 2008. However, efforts to move forward on verification steps soon met with D.P.R.K. resistance.

In April 2009, the D.P.R.K. launched a missile over the Sea of Japan, in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718. The UNSC issued a statement condemning the launch and demanding that the D.P.R.K. refrain from further launches. The D.P.R.K. responded by withdrawing its active participation from the Six-Party Talks and demanding the expulsion of IAEA inspectors and U.S. technical experts who had been monitoring the Yongbyon nuclear site. From May to November 2009, the D.P.R.K. announced a number of nuclear tests and short-range ballistic missile launches, announcing in September 2009 that “experimental uranium enrichment has been successfully conducted to enter into completion phase.” In June 2009, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1874, which expanded UNSCR 1718 to include a ban on arms transfers to and from the D.P.R.K., to call on states to inspect vessels in their territory when there are “reasonable grounds” that banned cargo is on a ship. The United States appointed Ambassador Philip Goldberg as the U.S. Coordinator for Implementation of UNSCR 1874. In June, July, and August 2009, Ambassador Goldberg led delegations to China, the R.O.K., Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Russia, the U.A.E., and Egypt to encourage these states to implement sanctions in a way that would shed light on North Korean proliferation-related activities.

In December 2009, Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth led an interagency delegation to Pyongyang for extensive talks that focused on the way to achieve verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The United States and North Korea agreed on the importance of the Six-Party Talks and the need to implement the 2005 Joint Statement, but did not agree on when and how the D.P.R.K. would return to denuclearization talks. Prospects for talks dimmed following the D.P.R.K.’s sinking of the R.O.K. warship Cheonan on March 26, 2010, which killed 46 R.O.K. sailors. In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that the warship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine, the D.P.R.K. has continued to deny responsibility for the attack. On November 23, 2010, North Korea attacked Yeonpyeong Island with artillery, killing two civilians and wounding 13. This incident has increased complications and tensions between the North and South.

In July 2011 and October 2011, an interagency delegation led by Special Representative Bosworth met with North Korean officials in New York and Geneva, respectively, to explore the willingness of North Korea to take concrete steps toward denuclearization. The United States reiterated that the path was open to North Korea for the resumption of talks, improved relations with the United States, and greater regional stability if it demonstrated through concrete actions its support for the Six-Party process as a committed and constructive partner.

Following a third round of U.S.-D.P.R.K. bilateral talks in Beijing in February 2012, the D.P.R.K. announced moratoria on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and its uranium enrichment activity at Yongbyon, and agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment. Nevertheless, in March 2012, the D.P.R.K. announced plans to launch a satellite using ballistic missile technology in mid-April to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. The launch took place but was unsuccessful.

Peaceful resolution of the issues on the Korean Peninsula will only be possible if North Korea fundamentally changes its behavior. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on North Korea to take concrete, irreversible denuclearization steps toward fulfillment of the 2005 Joint Statement, comply with international law including UNSCRs 1718 and 1874, cease provocative behaviors, and take steps to improve relations with its neighbors.


CIA World Factbook (April 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( April 2012)