Aparticular saying is often used to describe South Korea’s foreign policy position, which is that “when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.” In fact, while the relative geographical isolation of the peninsula has sometimes offered protection to its people, over the centuries Korea has often found itself involved, against its will, in a tumultuous dispute between powers, a situation that has repeatedly caused massive devastation. In the 16th century Japanese determination to replace Ming China as a regional superpower led to the Imjin River War, with Korea as a theater of battle. In the following century it was the turn of the Manchus, who dragged Korea into a bloody conflict in their attempt to subvert the rule of the Ming dynasty. In the 19th century, Korea was caught up in the Sino-Japanese conflict and in the next, control of Korea led to a dispute between Russia and Japan, which resulted in brutal colonization by the latter. At the end of the World War II, when liberation from the colonial yoke might have marked the beginning of a period of tranquility and independence, the peninsula suffered the bloody Korean War from 1950 to 1953, which led to a division imposed by the two blocs that emerged from the Cold War.
The fate of Korea does not seem to have changed during this century: the country appears to be caught between its historic ally, the United States, and the rising power of the People’s Republic of China, which, after reopening formal diplomatic channels in 1992, has become Seoul’s main economic partner. However, its relationship with the United States has also evolved and extends beyond security alone: trade between Seoul and Washington, for example, is currently worth more than 70 billion dollars. Growing tensions between the United States and China, however, are likely to place South Korea in a dangerous crossfire, as already demonstrated on several occasions, such as in the summer of 2015, when South Koreans began discussing the possibility of joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese creation strongly opposed by the United States. And above all, there were tensions the following summer due to the age-old dispute over American deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system on South Korean soil.