Urban planning and life in Korea and France / l\’Urbanisme et la vie en Corée et France

Neigbors of Korea

Posted by urbanara on March 21, 2006

All the countries in the world were classified in six categories according to their relations to Korea.

Special neighbor: North Korea
First neighbors: US, Japan and China
Second neighbors: Russia, Taiwan, Mongolia and ASEAN countries
Third neighbors: Australia, New Zealand and Canada
Fourth neighbors: European Union, Middle East and Indian subcontinent
Fifth neighbors: Latin America, Eastern European countries and Africa


North and South Korea have complicated relations. North Korea is a de jure part of South Korea according to the Constitution but it is a de facto neighbor country. Reunification of Korea has been the first priority in any regime in South Korea. Thus North Korea occupies the most important position in foreign policy of South Korea. The country has an independent ministry for North Korean affairs: Ministry of Unification.

Two countries got closer under the Sunshine Policy of ex-President Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Now South Korean tourists can visit Mountain Geumgang in North and Gaesong industrial district was opened for South Korean companies. Despite of such progresses, there remains concern for human right in North Korea. North Koreans are still under the most oppressive rule in the world. However, South Korean government has been preoccupied to appease the oppressive regime for the stability of the peninsular.

First neighbors are the countries which are most important to Korea. All of these countries also had profound impact on Korean society. Most Korean government websites are also serviced in the languages of these countries.

1. USA

USA is an ocean away from Korea and she doesn’t have much cultural bonding with the nation. Despite of such distance, Korea has indispensable relationship with the country. Historically US liberated Korea twice (from Japan and from North Korea during Korean War) and she still supports the defense of the nation. For many people the country is the first ally though the youth began to think differently recently. US also had an important role in the development of Korean economy. The country has been long time the first market for Korean exporters before the rise of Chinese economy. Now FTA between two countries is in negotiation.


Human exchange is an essential part of the relationship though the tide goes mainly to USA not to Korea. US west coast has sizable Korean community and US is the most preferred refuge place for wealthy and prominent Koreans. Most importantly, US now provide superior education to Korean elites. (Seoul National University is the university which produced most American doctorates outside the US.) Korean universities and research institutes are filled with people with American doctorates. This means American thought and ways will always be the leading force in Korean education, economy and society.

2. Japan

Korea had most difficult relationship with Japan than with any other country because of repeated invasions from the country. Japanese colonization is remembered as the most humiliating moment of Korean history.

In spite of the grudge, Japan has been an ally rather than an enemy since the restoration of diplomatic relationship in 1965. Japan helped Korean economic development by providing technical assistance. In turn Korea has become one of largest markets for Japanese companies resulting in ever worsening trade deficit in Korean side. Cultural exchange is also remarkable. Even before the lifting of ban on Japanese cultural products, Japanese popular culture such as video games, fashion and animations were popular among Koreans. Recently Japanese novels gained a strong foothold among young Korean readers. With the hit of Korean soap drama, Winter Sonata, Japan became the first buyer of Korean dramas. Co-hosting of World Cup games and airing of Korean dramas in Japan helped to balance the cultural exchange between two countries.  

Japan is the country which has most Koreans residing overseas. It is estimated that 600 000 ethnic Koreans live in Japan. Koreans and Japanese are also the most likely partners in international marriage in respective countries and Seoul-Tokyo flight is one of busiest international flights in the region.

Despite of geographical proximity and much exchange, the relationship of two countries has been marred regularly by political issues such as Dokdo (Takeshima), Yaskuni temple and history text book.

3. China

China has been almost the only foreign country for Korea before Japanese colonization. China was the source of higher culture and she was also a protector. In short China had the similar role which US have now for Korea.

Nonetheless Sino-Korean relationship was almost non-existent after the intervention of People’s liberation army in Korean War. China was an ideological enemy during the Cold War. The big turning point came in 1992. Korea normalized relationship with China while abandoning Taiwan because of evident economic benefit. Economic exchange exploded since. Today China became the first overseas market for Korea pushing the long time market US to second.

* Important export partners of Korea * (CIA Factbook 2004)
China 19.7%, US 17%, Japan 8.6%

Human exchange is also ever increasing. Korean tourists rush to China and many ethic Koreans in China are coming to Korea as workers. Most notable phenomenon is studying in China boom. Koreans have studied in Western countries and Japan before but now China has become a major destination for Korean students. There is even concern for blind boom to study in China.
Sino-Korean relationship has the most potential because of ever growing Chinese economic might and continued exchange all along Korean history. Korea doesn’t have many uneasy issues with China unlike versus Japan and US. The only obstacle may be North Korea which is between two countries geographically and politically. Korea becomes wary of Chinese influence on North and China may not want to lose her buffer zone.

It is rather difficult to classify countries from the second neighbor level. The classification can be varied according to criteria. Human exchange was employed as the most important criterion here.
Second neighbors have considerable economic and human exchange with Korea though it is much limited than that of first neighbors. Second neighbors share common being the major recipient of Korean wave (Korean pop culture) except Russia.

1. Russia
Russia’s border reached Korea in 1858 (Treaty of Aigun) making Korea surrounded by three powers of the world. Russia has become a major player in the destiny of Korea since the treaty. Russia’s southward advancement met resistance of Japan (Russo-Japanese War) and US (Korean War). Today Russia’s influence is much limited for both Koreas. Russia is considered as an alternative energy provider because Korea depends heavily her energy need on Middle East. The relationship between two countries would reach first neighbor level when two Koreas will be united, thus South Korean border meets Russia.

2. Taiwan
Taiwan may be the most similar country to Korea in the world. Two countries are culturally close and they have had similar political and economic developments since the late 19th century. The country was a close ideological ally for Korea before 1992 when communist China was recognized as the sole authority in China instead of Taiwan. Strong economic and cultural exchanges continue today but they are politically in uneasy term. Most Chinese residents (about 20 000) in Korea have Taiwanese nationality.

3. ASEAN countries and Mongolia
Korea has important economic, cultural and human exchanges with these countries in proximity. ASEAN countries such as Thailand are popular tourist destinations and recently some retired Koreans began to settle there seeking favorable climate and low living cost. ASEAN countries and Mongolia are also major foreign investment outlets for Korea. Workers from ASEAN and Mongolia comprise majority of foreign workers in Korea with Korean-Chinese workers. The ongoing international marriages with women from this region imply an important change in Korean society which has had very homogeneous population. (One tenth of total marriages are international in today’s Korea.)

Third neighbors are so called Anglo-Saxon countries around the Pacific except US. They have much economic and human tie with Korea but they were classified as the third neighbors because of one way human exchange and geographical distance.

Australia, New Zealand and Canada
They are former British colonies speaking English, maintaining high standard of living and accepting large immigrants. Such traits lure many Koreans to these countries as students and immigrants. In terms of economy, these countries export minerals and agricultural products to Korea while Korea exports manufactured products. All three countries assisted South in Korean War.
Countries belonging to fourth neighbor group are widely recognized in Korea but actual exchange is below expectation.
1. European Union

Names like Britain, France and Germany are well known in Korea but exchange with these countries is small compared to that of US and Japan. Many European companies are doing their business in Korea and large Korean companies are interested in running factories in Europe. However, Euro-Korean relation is absolutely crucial neither in Europe nor in Korea. Recently small but significant changes were observed. Korean government began to see Europe as their social model alongside US and Japan. National pension fund saw its birth and Dutch employer-employee relationship was seriously discussed as an alternative model.

Europe is considered to be high cultured in Korea. European cosmetic and fashion brands dominate Korean market and many young Koreans go to Europe with a backpack to feel “the culture”. There are also Korean students learning arts, literature and social science in Europe. The students comprise most of Koreans living in Europe because there is not sizable Korean community except Germany (The country accepted nurses and miners from Korea in seventies). Korean culture was almost non-existent in Europe for a long time but Korean films began to gain recognition being awarded in European film festivals. Many of such films are artistic films not much welcomed in the domestic market.

2. Middle East

OPEC countries in Middle East have the essential role in Korean economy meeting much of energy need. (Korea is the 8th largest consumer of energy on the earth.) So called ‘Middle East boom’ in seventies is still remembered in Korea. Tehran Street in Seoul is a notable souvenir of this period. (It is very rare to name a street with foreign name in Korea.)


Tehran Street got its name in 1977 commemorating the visit of Tehran mayor to Seoul. 

Oil crisis gave OPEC countries unprecedented wealth and they used the money to upgrade infrastructure. Korean companies such as Hyundai took part in various construction projects in Middle East. So many Korean workers went to Middle East that it almost became a social phenomenon. But the boom didn’t do enough for exchange between Korea and these countries. The large cultural gap between two regions prohibited settlement of Korean workers in Middle East and cultural exchange. There were few Korean men who converted to Islam or married local women. Middle Eastern culture was seldom introduced to Korea, either.
Like anywhere else, the image of Middle East countries were tarnished in Korea recently due to continuing terrorist attacks. Korea sent a non combat unit to Iraq after the call of the US.

3. Indian subcontinent

Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese became familiar words in Korea since the nation accepted workers from these countries. In other hands, India began to get attention from Korean companies recently though the major attraction for investment is still China. India is also the new tourist attraction for Korean youths.

The following countries have low recognition and limited exchange with Korea.

1. Latin America

Buenos Aires is at the very opposite side of the globe from Seoul. As much as the distance, relationship between Korea and Latin America is distant. Though there are large numbers of Korean ex-pats in Brazil and Argentina, these ex-pats are rather forgotten in Korea unlike high profile ex-pats in the US. Korean companies export much to this region but there’s not even a direct flight between Seoul and South American countries.
Korea had her first FTA with Chile in 2003.

No Korean Air service on South America and Africa (Route map of Korean Air)

2. Africa, Non-EU Eastern European countries and Afghanistan
Korea and these countries share little common interest to overcome the geographical distance. Korean communities are almost non-existent in these countries. 


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