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South Korean Diplomacy and Security Politics in the Early 1990s: Perspectives from UK National Archives

Unlike the US, the United Kingdom has been actively declassifying its archives relating to South Korea’s diplomacy and security politics through the mid-1990s.

Historians of the diplomatic history of South Korea’s relationship with the United States, and the impact of that relationship on inter-Korean relations, continue to wait for the declassification of the Foreign Relation of the United States volumes. 

At present writing, that series’ Korea volumes are stuck at the Gerald Ford administration. The volumes for the Carter and Reagan administrations (1977-1980, and 1981-1988, respectively) are still under the prying eyes of myriad stakeholders (“equities”), like the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of Defense, as they move through the “declassification” review process. The volumes for the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are even further away from publication, with the former still “being researched and prepared” and the latter still only on the preliminary planning stages. 

Across the Atlantic, the UK National Archives has been far more agile with its declassification of files relating to South Korea’s diplomacy and security politics. Documents from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office archives have even been declassified through the mid-1990s. 

In the following selection of documents from a single folder (FCO 21/5233) at The National Archives, we look for some insights into East Asian active diplomatic history in the early 1990s. 

Michael Reilly (First Political Secretary, UK Embassy in Seoul) to Ian Bond (FCO Security Policy Department), '1992 US Burden Sharing Report', 10 December 1992

The National Archives, United Kingdom, FCO 21/5233, ROK/USA Bilateral Relations. Contributed by Luke Thrumble.

The UK embassy in Seoul was a regular provider of political and security intelligence to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This document is a report from 10 December 1992 from Michael Reilly, the First Political Secretary at the UK Embassy in Seoul, to Ian Bond at the FCO Security Policy Department, titled “1992 US Burden Sharing Report.” 

This document dates from the “lame duck” period of the George H.W. Bush administration, and centers on the renegotiating of the US defense position on the peninsula. Amid potential changes being telegraphed by the incoming Clinton administration to burden sharing, the British were trying to pin down on what basis estimates of cost were being made on US Forces in Korea. 

Conversations with Jim Pierce, the First Secretary for Political and Military at the US Embassy in Seoul, provide detail and critique on this issue. Disagreement over ROK defense contributions elicited complaints from Pierce, who called a Korean assessment of host nation support costs “junk,” and estimates of US spending by the Koreans “baloney.”[1] British diplomats could thus easily discern the existence of a gap between South Korea and the US on these issues, and more would be publicly aired when Clinton visited Seoul as president in July 1993.[2]

The document also opens the question of a new Congress and its possible effect on US appropriations. Pat Schroeder, a formidable figure on the Hill and on defense appropriations subcommittee, was of particular interest. 

Letter, Pak Dong Tchoun, the DPRK Representative in Paris, to Davies, Head of East Asia in FCO in London, 2 November 1992

The National Archives, United Kingdom, FCO 21/5233, ROK/USA Bilateral Relations. Contributed by Luke Thrumble.

This letter, written in French, is from Pak Dong Tehoun, the DPRK representative in Paris, to H. Davies, the head of the Far Eastern section of the FCO. The British dutifully gathered in these North Korean official statements, but took little note of their claims, even appending indications of derision to the more overt lies. Davies is likely the person who has put an exclamation point over the North Korean ambassador’s opening flourish “for the cause of world peace” – as well as an annotation which indicates “no reply needed” to the North Koreans.

Whereas the minutiae of US-ROK relations and security politics were clearly of considerable interest to the FCO, North Korean statements were considered the antithesis of subtle overtures; there is no foreshadowing here of the rapprochement later in the decade which lead to mutual diplomatic recognition. An exchange of ambassadors is not yet in the cards here for the British in 1992. 

Ewan Buchanan to Warwick Morris (UK Embassy Seoul), ‘U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting’, 9 October 1992

The National Archives, United Kingdom, FCO 21/5233, ROK/USA Bilateral Relations. Contributed by Luke Thrumble.

This is a telegram from Ewen Buchanan, an arms control specialist with the FCO, to Warrick Morris, the UK Ambassador to Seoul. 

Buchanan went on to join the United Nations Special Commission intended to oversee Iraqi arms control endeavors in 1995 and subsequently wrote the inspectors' reports on Iraq for the Security Council. His appearance in the Korea portfolio shows an interesting degree of interagency cross-pollination that places the history of North Korea’s troubled history with arms control into a wider disarmament framework in the 1990s.[3] 

Warwick Morris, a Korea hand in the middle of his term as Deputy Head of the Far Eastern Department and having served in Seoul in various capacities for about six years between 1977 and 1991, and was thus well placed to listen to Buchanan’s detailed report on the twists and turns of inter-Korean relations and the imminent normalization of relations between South Korea and China. 

Buchanan takes less interest in the specific Korean participants of the talks, which took place with key US figures including Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The memo covers the visit of Lee Pil Sup, a general who would be sacked in May 1993 by president Kim Young Sam, along with 3 others who had participated in the Chun Doo Hwan coup of 1980 which renewed military rule in South Korea.[4] The sacking of the generals was seen as alarming to the US and possibly conciliatory toward North Korea. 

David Wright (UK Ambassador in Seoul) to FCO, 'Los Angeles Riots: Korean Reaction', 6 May 1992

The National Archives, United Kingdom, FCO 21/5233, ROK/USA Bilateral Relations. Contributed by Luke Thrumble.

While geopolitical reconfigurations in the region and issues like arms control and defense posture were of key concern to British observers, American domestic events also fed into British analysis. One of the most fascinating items in the folder, Document 4, is a report describing South Korean responses to violence against Korean-Americans during the riots in Los Angeles in the summer of 1992. 


[1] Pierce appears to have retired in 1993 or 1994; he was given awards by the US Army and US Ambassador Donald Gregg. The note followed analysis from Adam Thomson, then the first secretary for politico-military at the UK Embassy in Washington, D.C.

[2] Awanohara, Susumu, & Shim Jae-hoon, “Defence: Win, hold, confuse,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 156(28), July 1993, 12.

[3] Rebecca McQuillan, ‘They were thorough, impartial and right. So why lose their skills?’, The Scotland Herald, 8 December 2007, See also ‘Interview with Ewen Buchanan’, 18 July 2001, United Nations Digital Library,

[4] Leslie Helm, ‘S. Korea Generals Ousted Over ’79 Coup: Asia: President is conciliatory on inspection of north’s nuclear facilities. Move is seen as a break with U.S.’, Los Angeles Times, 25 May 1993.

About the Authors

Luke Thrumble

University of Nottingham

Adam Cathcart

Associate Professor of East Asian History, University of Leeds.

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

North Korea International Documentation Project

The North Korea International Documentation Project serves as an informational clearinghouse on North Korea for the scholarly and policymaking communities, disseminating documents on the DPRK from its former communist allies that provide valuable insight into the actions and nature of the North Korean state. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more