Can South Korea be a Nuclear Middle Power?

Recent debates on South Korea securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity have addressed several issues, including strategic relevance and operational utility, its impact on the U.S. alliance, how it will affect the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula, and its contribution to the regional arms competition. Less discussed has been the question of South Korea as a “nuclear middle power” – an oxymoron to many scholars of middle power diplomacy.

The modern conceptualization of the middle power was born in the heyday of liberal internationalism with the formation of the United Nations in the 1940s. Up until the late 1960s, individual middle powers toyed with the idea of securing nuclear weapons. Australia and Canada at certain stages sought nuclear armament. However, their renunciation of that aim soon became associated with the wider aura of “do-goodism” or “good international citizenship” which from that point onwards, marked the concept.


During the 1970s, middle powers were instrumental in establishing a number of highly important international conventions against nuclear weapons. Australia and Canada led the fight for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to control the spread of nuclear weapons and played important roles in review conferences. They played roles in the establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which sought to establish controls on precursor materials, and the Canberra Commission, which sought to reduce the spread and eliminate nuclear weapons. Through the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), middle powers fought against the testing and unrestrained expansion of nuclear arsenals.


One of the most characteristic middle power campaigns of the 1980s was the Australian and New Zealand effort to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific. This brought together all the characteristics of middle power diplomacy – middle powers building a coalition of smaller states in the Pacific acting across multiple multilateral forums in coordination with NGOs to constrain the actions of a major power while addressing good international citizen issues of arms control and the environment. Middle powers, almost by definition, have been against the spread of nuclear weapons.


How then, have we arrived at a situation in which a leading middle power is in the midst of a debate to secure an independent nuclear weapons capacity?


There are three potential academic answers to this question – and none of them give an adequate answer.


First, South Korea may not be a middle power. I’ve said it before, there are certain characteristics that distinguish South Korea from other middle powers: it was a late entrant; has never espoused the same consistency in values; is not inherently a status quo power; and to a degree lacks institutional capacity and depth. South Korea holds different positions from ‘ideal type’ middle powers, such as Canada and Australia on topics including the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Russia/Ukraine. As noted by other scholars, for South Korea, being a middle power is as much about status as it is about identity.


Second, middle powers as conceptualized in the 1980s, may no longer exist. Middle powers could be synchronic classification – a typology that cannot exist outside its specific timeframe of the post-war, Cold War, and post-Cold War era. Remove the liberal-internationalist context of the time period, and the structures that supported their existence also disappear. We no longer have Occidental Powers, have largely forgotten Non-Aligned Powers, and rarely use the term Superpowers. Why do we still use the term Middle Power? This could explain the gradual dissociation of traditional middle powers, such as Canada and Australia, from the concept.


In the same vein, an early middle power scholar noted that during periods of decreased security tension, middle powers balance major powers, and during periods of heightened security tension bandwagon with major powers. As South Korea has consistently been in an intermittent state of heightened security tension, its path as a middle power is distinct. Now, as China-U.S. tension increases, bandwagoning could be misconstrued as taking a greater burden by securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity.


Third, perhaps the scholars pushing middle power diplomacy were simply wrong all along. The entire concept was a chicken dressed up as a turkey. Created by diplomats and pushed by politicians, academics just ran with the concept without bothering to check whether it made sense within the discipline and the broader social sciences. There’s assumptions that were only ever true for a select few countries; no meaningful definitions; chocked-full of nuanced relationships to account for this or that case; and outright confusion as to which units should be measured. It’s a theoretical mess. As one scholar put it, everyone is a middle power now.


In the same vein, there’s a strong argument to be made that middle powers were always a product of U.S.-led liberal-internationalism. The characteristic diplomatic behaviors of niche diplomacy were never ascribed to Saudi Arabia’s support for the spread of Wahhabi Islam, nor was good international citizenship ascribed to Iran’s support for Palestine. From this point of view, the middle power project was merely a five-decade effort to distinguish a small number of U.S. Western allies from other states which they at the time, viewed as less important – with all the inherent racism that such an approach entails. Reflecting this, middle powers were anti-nuclear because they were already protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This potentially explains non-Western states, which are rarely called middle powers, such as India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, pursuing nuclear weapon programs.


There’s a lot to unpack in the above three academic answers. While how we use language and how we identify and label ourselves is important, whether South Korea’s calls itself a middle power or not, will do nothing to stop it securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity. Ultimately, it’s all just academic waffling. In the end, stopping South Korea from heading down the nuclear path requires less academic waffling, and more diplomacy.


As published on The Peninsula 28 October 2022.