South Korea is Center Stage

By Arthur I. Cyr

Nuclear threats and rocket rattling by North Korea make news as well as noise, but peaceful, positive developments associated with South Korea are more significant for the Korean Peninsula, Asia and the world at large.

Soon after the inauguration of young Kim Jong-un as leader of North Korea, Pyongyang announced jointly with the United States that nuclear weapons development and testing would be stopped and nuclear sites opened to international inspection.

Now, the North has reversed course and announced a missile test next month in violation of current agreements. Washington reacted by suspending food aid. This rapid shift from accommodation to provocation is startling even for erratic North Korea, and indicates Kim is apparently too young and inexperienced to rein in competing factions in his kingdom.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has been showing effective leadership regarding Korean nukes and the wider global context. First, at the global Nuclear Security Summit, which just concluded in Seoul, he emphasized the importance of defending South Korea.

Appropriately, he visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. The 1950-53 Korean War made the Cold War a global conflict, and there is still no formal peace treaty between the two sides.

Second, the White House has nominated Jim Yong Kim, who was born in Seoul and is president of Dartmouth College, to succeed Robert Zoellick as president of the World Bank. This effectively addresses widespread and growing international pressure to nominate a representative from the developing world for the top job, which by established custom has always gone to an American.

Kim will lead a principal global economic development organization, which operates under the umbrella of the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon, current secretary general of the U.N., is a career South Korean diplomat. Despite substantial challenges, the U.N. has not only maintained but strengthened international economic, peacekeeping and related cooperation.

Ban and Kim personify South Korea’s important expanding role as a bridge between developed and developing nations. The original vision of the United Nations combined competing goals of favoring the most powerful nations and inclusive global representation. The Security Council still is defined mainly by the nations that led the Allied victory in World War II. The General Assembly has remained inclusive even as the total number of nations has expanded greatly since the 1950s.

During that decade, Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden provided even-handed leadership that respected Western interests. After his death in 1961, diplomats from the developing world generally served in the post, and often frustrated Western policy initiatives.

South Korea emerged from the Korean War as one of the poorest nations in the world. Per capita income was below even destitute Myanmar. Today, South Korea ranks as one of the largest economies in the world, with a stunning record of rapidly expanding industrial and commercial strength. South Korea also has successfully developed representative government, with a turbulent but functioning political democracy.

Market economies and reasonably representative governments now characterize a steadily increasing share of the world’s developing nations. In short, South Korea is ideally positioned to lead populations in poverty toward prosperity.

The United Nations has become stronger. The remarkable vision of the U.N., which helped define the Allied leadership of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt from an early point in World War II, has been confirmed.

South Korea is stage center.


Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Wisconsin’s Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He is also a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (




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