Scott Snyder

Council on Foreign Relations/Pacific Forum
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Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). His program examines South Korea’s efforts to contribute on the international stage, its potential influence and contributions as a middle power, and the implications of North Korean instability. He is also a contributor for the blog, “Asia Unbound” and previously served as the project director for the CFR’s Independent Task Force on policy toward the Korean Peninsula. Previously, Snyder was a senior associate at The Asia Foundation, where he founded and directed the Center for US-Korea Policy and served as The Asia Foundation’s representative in Korea. He was also a senior associate at Pacific Forum. Snyder has worked in the research and studies program of the US Institute of Peace and as acting director of Asia Society’s contemporary affairs program. He has authored numerous books including The U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Meeting New Security Challenges (editor, forthcoming, Lynne Rienner Publishers), China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security (2009), Paved with Good Intentions: The NGO Experience in North Korea (co-editor, 2003), and Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior (1999). He serves on the advisory council of the National Committee on North Korea and Global Resource Services. Snyder received a B.A. from Rice University and an M.A. from the regional studies East Asia program at Harvard University. He was a Thomas G. Watson fellow at Yonsei University in South Korea, a Pantech visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center during 2005-06, and received an Abe fellowship, administered by the Social Sciences Research Council, in 1998-99.

Articles by Scott Snyder
A Subdued Environment and Missed Opportunities

Chinese diplomacy toward the Korean Peninsula in late 2023 sputtered forward, driven more by a calendar of bilateral anniversaries with North Korea and multilateral gatherings involving South Korea than any sense of strategic purpose. Both relationships seemed preoccupied with off-stage developments such as the September summit between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin and the momentum of US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations, rather than any inherent dynamism of their own. Still, regular Sino-North Korean bilateral exchanges ahead of the 75th anniversary of the bilateral relationship and Sino-South Korean bilateral economic dialogues provide opportunities to overcome resistance and sustain progress in the face of deepening major power rivalries. Senior-level dialogues between China and North Korea occurred on North Korea’s 75th founding anniversary in September, with the visit of Chinese Vice Premier Liu Guozhong to Pyongyang, a visit that occurred against the backdrop of the second US-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group meeting, North Korea’s first successful indigenous satellite launch, and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Pak Myong Ho’s visit to Beijing. 

Economic Security Dilemmas

PRC Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming’s public statement in June sharpened Beijing-Seoul frictions following President Yoon Suk Yeol’s Taiwan remarks in an April interview, sparking mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. Multilateral engagements offered opportunities to reaffirm China-ROK relations through bilateral talks between China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and South Korea’s Trade Minister Ahn Duk-geun (May), Defense Ministers Li Shangfu and Lee Jong-sup (June), Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Park Jin (July), Finance Ministers Liu Kun and Choo Kyung-ho (July), and Trade Ministers Wang Shouwen and Ahn (August). The revival of high-level exchanges, Beijing’s lifting of travel restrictions on South Korea in August, and North Korea’s border reopening that same month are sources of optimism in China-Korea relations despite overarching tensions. Discord remains on regional security priorities, South Korea’s overt alignment with the United States under the Yoon administration, and the escalating US-China technology war. Meanwhile, Chinese and Russian delegations joined Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, reflecting the shape of North Korea’s first post-COVID diplomatic activity.

Deepening Suspicions and Limited Diplomacy

China and South Korea began 2023 with the temporary imposition of tit-for-tat restrictions by both governments on travel to the other country after China lifted its zero-COVID policy. Although the restrictions proved temporary, they pointed to the reality of a sustained downward spiral in China-South Korea relations accompanied by increasingly strident public objections in Chinese media to the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s steps to redouble South Korean alignment with the United States regarding Indo-Pacific strategy, supply chain resiliency, and shared values. South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Park Jin’s congratulatory call to newly appointed Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang on Jan. 9 was one of the few positive senior-level interaction between the two countries in early 2023; by the end of April, the main diplomatic interactions between China and South Korea had devolved into a dueling exchange of private demarches and public assertions that the other side had committed a “diplomatic gaffe.”

Kim Jong Un Tests Xi-Yoon Diplomacy

Regional and global summits presented high-level platforms for China-South Korea engagement in November. The summitry showed that the relationship had returned with solidity with the resumption of international meetings and in-person exchanges. Although the Xi Jinping and Yoon Suk Yeol leaderships advanced diplomatic exchange, concerns emerged over enduring political and security constraints and growing linkages with the economic relationship. Kim Jong Un’s escalation of military threats, through an unprecedented number of missile tests this year, challenged Xi-Yoon bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. China-North Korea bilateral interactions, while brisk, primarily relied on Xi and Kim’s exchange of congratulatory letters around significant founding anniversaries, China’s 20th Party Congress, and expressions of condolences after the death of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. The UN Security Council’s failure to take unified action on DPRK threats prompted South Korea to voice frustration with China and expand cooperation with US and Japanese partners. Such responses only reinforced concerns raised in recent leadership exchanges, and Korean domestic division over Yoon’s diplomatic strategies.

A Muted 30-Year Anniversary

Beijing and Seoul marked 30 years of diplomatic ties on Aug. 24 as South Korea transitioned to a new administration under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May. Although early high-level exchanges reaffirmed partnership, the two leaderships confront growing pressures from US-China competition, economic uncertainty, and public hostility. Domestic priorities in China in light of the 20th Party Congress and South Korea’s shift to conservative rule amplify these concerns. The impact of US-China rivalry on the China-South Korea relationship extends from security to economic coordination, including approaches to THAAD and global supply chains, and export competition, especially in semiconductors, challenges new Xi Jinping-Yoon economic agreements. Moreover, public hostility is strongest among South Korea’s younger generation, raising pessimistic prospects for future China-South Korea ties.

Despite mixed signals, false starts, and the continued absence of leader-level meetings marking the recovery of economic ties between China and North Korea, geopolitical developments have pushed the two countries closer together. Such engagement features mutual reinforcement of each other’s positions on issues of vital interest and solidarity in response to US policies.

Beijing Olympic Tensions, North Korea’s Testing Spree, and South Korea’s New Conservative Leadership

The first four months of 2022 marked a turn toward difficult terrain in the China-South Korea relationship, including the challenge of managing conflicting expressions of patriotism during the Beijing Olympics. The Olympics opening ceremonies were attended by National Assembly Speaker Park Byung-seug, South Korea’s second-highest-ranking official by protocol, despite the US imposition of a “diplomatic boycott.” North Korea’s dozen missile tests since January 2022 included a “new” ICBM launch in March ahead of the 110thanniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential inauguration. The latest tests drove China-South Korea dialogue, new US sanctions, and reassertions from Beijing that US actions remain the decisive factor in resolving the peninsula problem. Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics and Pyongyang’s commemorations of Kim anniversaries presented opportunities for jointly reaffirming China-North Korea friendship. Despite signs of rebounding economic activity after the resumption of cross-border freight train operations in January, China’s COVID-19 lockdowns remain a source of uncertainty.

South Korea’s election of pro-US opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol generated a mixture of anxiety and veiled warnings from Chinese commentators. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to Yoon two weeks following the election was hailed as an unprecedented gesture of respect from a Chinese leader to an incoming South Korean president. But Yoon’s first congratulatory calls after his electoral victory were from Quad members as well as the United Kingdom, reflecting a distinct South Korean tilt toward the United States amid the China-US strategic rivalry. Yoon’s campaign platform posited a positive-sum relationship between his pledges to restore a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States and to establish relations with China built on “mutual respect.” But it remains to be seen how Beijing will respond to the Yoon administration’s shift toward an unambiguous alignment with the US.

South Korea’s Presidential Election


February 23, 2022

South Korea’s Presidential Election

On Feb. 23, 2022, Pacific Forum organized a Comparative Connections Roundtable that discussed South Korea’s presidential race, the results of which may cause a shift in Seoul’s relations with the US, China, and Japan. The session was moderated by Ralph Cossa (Pacific Forum), and featured Dr. Mason Richey (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul), Mr. Scott A. Snyder (Council…
Economic Stabilization, End-of-War Declaration, and the Ongoing “Joint Struggle”

During the waning months of 2021, China and South Korea worked together to stabilize and strengthen their economic relationship and the Moon administration reached out to China as part of its full-court press to achieve an end-of-war declaration prior to the end of Moon’s term in May of 2022. Through several foreign minister-level meetings between Chung Eui-young and Wang Yi, including Wang’s visit to Seoul for a meeting with President Moon, an exchange held in Tianjin between national security advisors, and regular bilateral economic consultations, the two countries improved economic cooperation and sustained close consultation on peninsula-related issues. The most significant outcomes of these discussions included the first release of a major Korean movie in Chinese theaters since 2015 and ongoing efforts to bilaterally support the digital, technological, and climate change dimensions of Sino-South Korean economic cooperation. China offered support for Moon administration efforts to end the Korean War through pursuit of phased and synchronized actions and discouraged relevant countries from taking destabilizing unilateral moves.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s missile tests in September-October frustrated hope for regional diplomacy as Beijing and Pyongyang jointly commemorated their 72-year-old “joint struggle to defend and glorify socialism” by marking national and bilateral anniversaries. Their official statements, however, lacked substantive outcomes in China-DPRK diplomatic exchanges. Post-pandemic trade remained stalled as both leaderships turned to self-reliance in their national development strategy.

Alliance Restoration and Summit Commemorations

South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition-building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.

The China-North Korea relationship turned to commemorative diplomacy regarding summit meetings between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in 2018 and 2019 in the absence of new meetings in 2021. Kim offered hearty congratulations to Xi on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and both sides affirmed the value and historic contributions of the Sino-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty in 1961. Political messages underscoring China-North Korean strategic alignment included a North Korean statement affirming shared strategic priorities regarding both the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Chinese statements criticizing the continuation of annual US-South Korean military exercises in the context of rising China-US strategic rivalry.

China-Korea Relations Poised for Recovery Despite Intensified Conflict on Social Media

China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.