South Korea takes growing role as middle power

This week will see the Korean Association of International Studies and the Korea Foundation host an international conference on the role of middle powers in the 21st century. The significance of the conference being held in South Korea is twofold ― it marks Korea’s prominence as a source of innovative and influential scholarship on middlepowerism, and it marks Korea’s growing acceptance of middlepowerism as a national role.

Korea is a late entrant into the middle-power category. At the end of World War II, when Australia, Canada and a host of other states sought to actively establish a specific middle-power category based on the functions they undertook in World War II and their relative economic, physical and military strengths, Korea was still in the throes of development. In the post-Cold War world, when these same middle powers promoted a more active role for themselves in international society based upon their characteristic diplomatic behavior, Korea remained focused on political and security questions concerning its problematic neighbor to the north.

It is only in recent years that Korea has emerged as a prominent source of innovative and influential scholarship on middlepowerism and has fully taken on its role as a middle power with global interests. This is significant for both students and practitioners of international relations.

Korea is distinct from Australia and Canada. Korea’s path to middlepowerism; its attitude towards middlepowerism; and its public debate on middlepowerism are fundamentally different. Quite simply, Australians and Canadians conceptualize the middle-power role differently from South Koreans. This is evidenced by the research undertaken on the subject. There are three main streams of middle-power research in Korea.

The first stream of research mimics the agenda of Australian and Canadian research during the 1990s, with a focus on middle-power leadership in areas such as humanitarian intervention, nuclear non-proliferation, conflict mediation and multilateral disarmament. Several prominent researchers in Korea continue along this path, establishing important links between Korea and more traditional sources of middle-power scholarship in Canada and Australia.

The second stream demonstrates an interest in the role of middle powers vis-a-vis major powers, conceptualizing middle powers as “pivots” or “balancers” between major powers. The idea of South Korea acting as a pivot or balance between the United States and China was an early theme of the foreign policy of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Yoon Suk-joon from the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy captures this view succinctly when he states that “South Korea, as a middle power, should be neutral over the rivalry between the U.S. and China” in a recent op-ed. Being a middle power never implied neutrality for Australia or Canada. While such research borrows from Australian and Canadian middle-power research during the 1990s, it emphasizes aspects, which were understandably much less critical to Australian and Canadian researchers, geographically positioned a safe distance from where major-power interests converge.

The third stream is the most interesting. It departs substantially from the agenda of Australian and Canadian research, focusing on practical, policy-oriented results. It explores new approaches to understanding middle-power diplomacy, such as through network theory and cluster analysis, and applies these ideas to contemporary problems, including East Asian regionalism, soft power and public diplomacy. This approach, epitomized by the work of Seoul National University’s Kim Sang-bae, links traditional international relations theory with cutting-edge research in information technology and related fields. Little recognized in the increasingly stale approach to middlepowerism in Canada and Australia, such refreshing approaches point towards the future of middle-power research.

Most importantly, Korean research on middlepowerism now enjoys strong public support. With the November 2010 Seoul G20 Summit, the December 2011 Busan Aid Effectiveness Forum, and the March 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, use of the term “middle power” or “middlepowerism” with “Korea” in media and academic articles grew substantially. Middlepowerism has also started to enter higher political-level dialogue. First mentioned during the Roh Tae-woo administration and touched upon during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, middlepowerism received a prominent airing during the Lee Myung-bak administration. This was recently epitomized by a Feb. 23 article on the Council on Foreign Relations website by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Sung-han, entitled “Global Governance and Middle Powers: South Korea’s Role in the G20.” This growth in public support and high-level political dialogue is unlikely to change.

This week’s international conference on the role of middle powers in the 21st century hosted by the Korean Association of International Studies and the Korea Foundation attests to the fact that much like in Canada and Australia, middlepowerism has become a permanent feature of Korea’s approach to the outside world.

Photo by serena_tang

"South Korea takes growing role as middle power", Korea Herald, 17 April 2013.