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Fact Sheet: South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s Visit to the United States

President Park Geun-hye, the first woman to be elected president of the Republic of Korea (ROK), is meeting with President Obama on October 16th. She recently visited the United States to attend the 70th United Nations General Assembly and delivered a keynote speech emphasizing the ROK’s further engagement in global development cooperation. Security was at the top of the agenda when Presidents Park and Obama met in 2013, which also marked the 60-year anniversary of the U.S.-ROK Alliance. She also previously met with President Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March 2014, as well as at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing in November 2014.

The Obama administration is hosting the leaders of three major Northeast Asian countries this year, which reflects the geopolitical significance of the region. In addition to President Park, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan visited in April and President Xi Jinping in September. President Park’s visit represents recognition of the geopolitical importance of the ROK for the United States by reaffirming the alliance between the two countries, strengthening cooperation on regional peace and security in Northeast Asia, and acknowledging the ROK as a future partner in the global arena.

The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) offers the following backgrounder on three areas that policymakers, media, and others should watch during Park’s visit.


As with President Park’s first state visit in 2013, the U.S.-ROK security alliance will again be a key area of focus. North Korea’s nuclear program is at the center of security cooperation between the United States and the ROK. At the 8th Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) in September 2015, the two allies touched upon diverse global security issues and initiated a discussion on a ROK-U.S. combined alliance database to support defense operations. At the 7th KIDD in April 2015, the two allies launched the Deterrence Strategy Committee, which sought to improve the response to potential nuclear threats from North Korea by considering not only each threat’s nuclear capability but also the missile delivery system. The committee focuses on developing the 4D concept (detect, defense, disrupt, and destroy) and preparing for possible North Korean provocation.

U.S. officials now assess that Pyongyang has the ability to mount nuclear warheads atop a KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), while Chinese experts have reportedly informed the United States that North Korea may possess 40 warheads by next year. Over the course of three successful nuclear tests since 2006, North Korea seems to have demonstrated its ability to weaponize its plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Pyongyang will likely be able to launch a nuclear attack against U.S. territory once it acquires more advanced technology for the miniaturization of nuclear warheads. The implications for the U.S.-ROK alliance of North Korea successfully mating a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop a reliable ICBM could be significant.

Then defense secretary Chuck Hagel and South Korean defense minister Han Min-koo agreed at the 2014 Security Consultative Meeting to push back the timeline for negotiation of an agreement on the transfer of wartime operational control to at least 2020. The long-postponed agreement between Washington and Seoul would involve the ROK military assuming a greater leadership role during a conflict. Vague wording on the exact time frame, however, has created concern on the South Korean side over when the actual transfer would occur.

Finally, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in Korea may be discussed at the upcoming summit. THAAD is a defensive system capable of intercepting potential ballistic missile attacks by North Korea. Both the United States and ROK are carefully approaching this issue, although President Park’s conservative Saenuri Party strongly supports the system’s deployment. Secretary of State John Kerry also brought up the subject during his visit to South Korea in May. The deployment of THAAD was one of the hot topics in South Korean media earlier this year, even though the Ministry of Defense and Blue House have remained outside of the discussion as of yet. China has publicly objected to the AN/TPY-2 radar embedded in the system, arguing that it will be used for surveillance of Chinese military activities. There are indeed many questions to be answered, including how costs will be shared between the allies as well as how effective the system will be when deployed in the ROK to deter a potential North Korean attack.

NBR Resources

Audio Interview: Objectives and Outcomes of Xi Jinping’s Visit (September 2015)

U.S.-ROK Dialogue on Korean Unification and Regional Security (June 2015)

The North Korean Nuclear Problem: Twenty Years of Crisis (January 2015)

The U.S.-ROK Alliance and the U.S. Rebalance to Asia (December 2014)

Nuclear Ambition and Tension on the Korean Peninsula (October 2013)


In March 2015, South Korea confirmed its intention to seek membership in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), seen as an alternative and potential competitor to the U.S.-favored World Bank and Japan-led Asian Development Bank. In addition, after lengthy negotiations, South Korea and China signed in June a long-negotiated free trade agreement that will go into effect by year’s end and should eventually remove tariffs on 90% of goods traded between the two nations. China remains South Korea’s largest trade partner, with bilateral trade totaling over $228 billion per year. This amount is greater than the ROK’s total trade with its second- and third-largest trading partners—the United States and Japan. While South Korea remains a steadfast ally of the United States, it continues to balance between China economically and the United States strategically and will likely continue to do so in the future.

The relationship between South Korea and its other neighbor, Japan, is complicated by deeply rooted historical issues and a major territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese). The last year, however, has seen some cooperation between the United States’ two Northeast Asian allies. In December 2014, Washington brought Japan and South Korea together to sign a tri-national intelligence-sharing accord. While the agreement remains limited to information on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, previous attempts at such accords were often dropped by Seoul before their conclusion. The success of this agreement has created a modicum of trust between the two nations. The three states have continued to work on their relationship, with the U.S. secretary of state and Japanese and Korean foreign ministers recently meeting on the sidelines of the September 2015 U.N. General Assembly.

Seoul nonetheless remains worried about Tokyo’s changing defense policies. In April 2015, Washington and Tokyo agreed to an update to the bilateral U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines that would allow Japan to pursue “proactive pacifism” in assisting the United States in operations beyond the Japanese archipelago. This September, Japanese prime minister Abe successfully pushed domestic security legislation through the Japanese Diet that revises the nation’s right to collective self-defense and allows Japan to become a more active strategic partner. These new agreements and laws stoke fears in South Korea that Japan—as an alliance partner of the United States—may once again project military power into Korean territory. Some analysts have called into question whether the ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty conflicts with the United States’ new agreement with Japan.

In addition, Japan’s revised defense export capabilities may bite into South Korean business. Japan held its first international defense trade show during May 13–15, and Japanese businesses are moving quickly to capitalize on Prime Minister Abe’s 2014 removal of the ban on defense exports. Defense exports have become a large part of Seoul’s export policy, increasing from $144 million in 2002 to $3.6 billion in 2014. The new competition from Japan may heighten the rivalry between the two states, while stoking overall South Korean fears of Japanese militarization.

On the domestic front, President Park has weathered a slew of problems during her term. The South Korean public condemned the president’s handling of the Sewol ferry tragedy, believing that such a disaster stems from a widespread lack of governmental oversight. On April 27, South Korean prime minister Lee Wan-koo and many of his and Park’s aides were implicated in a massive bribery scandal that has further caused the country’s population to mistrust the government. The Park administration also drew heavy flak for its initial response to the summer 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak. South Korean presidents serve a single five-year term—of which Park is in her third year—and public mistrust could severely halt the president’s ability to carry out initiatives as rival parties continue to exploit the situation to their advantage.

NBR Resources

North Korea’s New Diplomacy (April 2015)

Reshaping the Rebalance: How the 114th Congress Can Advance U.S. Asia Strategy (March 2015)

The 7th Trilateral Ministers' Meeting: Implications for Regional Cooperation in Northeast Asia (March, 2015)

The Rise and Persistence of Strategic Hedging across Asia: A System-Level Analysis (December 2014)

Japan-Korea Relations: Time for U.S. Intervention? (January 2014)


During his visit to Seoul on May 18, Secretary Kerry pledged a commitment to “deepening cooperation on a range of new frontiers that will help define the 21st century, including science and technology, space exploration, cyber issues.” These areas will become a major focus of U.S.-South Korea collaboration and are among the foremost issues that President Park will address during her visit to the United States.

A major focus of the visit will be both countries’ keen and growing interest in cybersecurity. The hacking of Sony Pictures in December 2014 was a high-profile attack on a U.S. target, but both the United States and South Korea are facing increased cyberattacks from North Korea, China, and other states seeking to both disrupt these nations and steal military and business secrets. In March, North Korean cyberattacks on South Korea’s nuclear power industry seemingly attempted to cause malfunctions to Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co.’s nuclear reactors.

The Obama administration continues to search for international partners that can help create international norms, regulations, and defenses against malicious cyberspace actors. With South Korea facing similar threats, President Park is seen as a major potential ally in these fields. A second area for cooperation centers on South Korea’s revived interest in becoming a space power, underscored by the successful March 26 launch of the Korea Multipurpose Satellite-3A. South Korea announced in February its intention to increase the nation’s abilities with space technologies by seeking to advance launch vehicle, space payload, and satellite capabilities. The United States can benefit from working with South Korea on space-related technology and assisting an ally that shares U.S. views on the rights in space. Such collaboration will dovetail well with mutual missile defense initiatives and intelligence sharing.

The United States would like to see more support from South Korea on cooperation against China’s South China Sea expansion. The ROK remains wary of China’s plans in the region but has resisted siding outright with the United States on the issue—likely because of Seoul’s strategy of hedging between the two powers. That being said, South Korea has not ignored China’s power plays. In December 2014, after China introduced an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that overlapped with South Korean territory, the ROK extended its own ADIZ to conflict with the new Chinese zone. In addition, Seoul donated a 1,200-ton Pohang-class corvette to the Philippines as a quiet show of where it stands on territorial encroachments.

The United States would like to see more support from South Korea on cooperation against China’s South China Sea expansion. The ROK remains wary of China’s plans in the region but has resisted siding outright with the United States on the issue—likely because of Seoul’s strategy of hedging between the two powers. That being said, South Korea has not ignored China’s power plays. In December 2014, after China introduced an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that overlapped with South Korean territory, the ROK extended its own ADIZ to conflict with the new Chinese zone. In addition, Seoul donated a 1,200-ton Pohang-class corvette to the Philippines as a quiet show of where it stands on territorial encroachments.

In June 2015, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Daniel Russel, pushed Seoul to “speak out” against China’s aggressive behavior as a “major stakeholder” in the international system. The United States would like to see Seoul take a more active part in challenging Chinese regional aspirations, and this topic will be an important focus of Presidents Obama and Park’s dialogue.

In the realm of global health, South Korea and the United States are also finding many areas for cooperation. Both states—their governments and their medical sectors—share an interest in addressing threats to global health security and increasing global health cooperation, as well as assisting underdeveloped countries that are suffering from major infectious diseases. The United States’ and South Korea’s recent battles with Ebola and MERS, respectively, highlight the importance of such interactions. During high-level meetings for the Global Health Security Agenda in South Korea this past September, South Korea reinforced its stance on global health security as a shared, multistate responsibility and committed $100 million to international programs for international health security collaboration. Park’s visit to the United States is seen as an opportunity to further move forward on world health collaboration.

NBR Resources

The Impact of Low Oil Prices on South Korea (May 2015)

Healthcare and Life Sciences Industry as a Strategic Focus for South Korea (April 2015)

Cyber Cooperation in Northeast Asia (March 2015)

South Korea's Search for Nuclear Sovereignty (January 2015)

2014 Pacific Energy Summit Report: Charting the Course to a Secure and Cleaner Energy Future (December 2014)

South Korea’s Interests in the Arctic (July 2014)

Julia Oh, an Atlas Corps Fellow with the Political and Security Affairs group, and Craig Scanlan, a Project Manager at NBR, contributed to this publication.

NBR experts comment on President Park's upcoming visit to the United States in "NBR Voices: What You Should Know about South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s Visit to the United States." See a detailed schedule of President Park's October 13-16 visit to Washington, D.C.