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The Year Ahead 2019

Korea’s Year of Living Diplomatically

In a stark departure from the saber rattling of 2017, the United States, South Korea, and North Korea have spent the better part of a year engaged in serious diplomacy to forge a lasting peace. Though no one should harbor any illusions about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s intentions, he may be serious about reform.

SEOUL – South Korea probably endured more political turbulence than almost any other country in 2018. On the domestic front, the new liberal government of President Moon Jae-in forged ahead with measures to address entrenched corruption, and implemented progressive (and hotly debated) economic policies to help low-income people. But these important changes were dwarfed by the wave of disruption from abroad.

Few South Koreans had expected that US President Donald Trump would show such determination in undermining the post-war liberal international order. That order has served as a foundation for Korea’s economic growth and democratic development since the 1960s. Now that it is under threat, South Koreans are anxiously wondering whether Trump will be a one-term outlier or an agent of permanent change.

After Trump’s April 2017 threat to “terminate” the “horrible” free-trade agreement which for a decade has backstopped a strategic alliance with the United States that has lasted for more than half a century, South Koreans were relieved to see Trump and Moon sign a revised deal in September. Still, the Trump administration’s trade war with China is certain to strike a severe economic blow to South Korea.

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