Watching South Korea: Beware assumptions

Given South Korea’s prominence as a strategic pivot, we should watch for foreign policy upheaval in Seoul.

Over the past year, long-suppressed strategic debates re-emerged in South Korea: accepting a less-involved United States, strengthening relations with China, securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity, or combining all of these and steering a path towards a unified Korea that could sustain some form of armed neutrality. Yet many analysts outside South Korea either fail to recognise or are unwilling to accept the gravity of these debates. Exploring the reasons why provides insights into emerging analytical challenges that will become more prominent as South Korea explores its foreign-policy options.

First, and most obvious, the policy community that focuses on South Korea is small and weighted heavily in favour of analysts who focus on North Korea. Despite its position as the world’s 12th largest economy, South Korea is dwarfed by the amount of reporting on its northern neighbour. Further, English-language reporting on North Korea is skewed. It focuses overwhelmingly on a narrow range of topics, such as missiles, nuclear weapons and Kim Jong-un, whereas Korean-language discourse has a much wider array of topics, such as economic cooperation, unification, literature, lifestyles, and more. It’s a sad fact that there are more analysts speculating on the indicators of opaque decisions made in Pyongyang than on verified decisions made in Seoul.

Second, analysts are overly accustomed to the predictable pattern of South Korea’s foreign policy. For more than 50 years, Seoul’s foreign policy approach has followed a well-worn path: firm resolve, restraint and close coordination with the US. Despite incredible provocations, including armed infiltrations, assassination attempts, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, artillery exchanges, naval skirmishes, and nuclear weapon and missile tests, the same path was ultimately trodden. South Korea’s high degree of path dependence reduces the capacity of analysts to entertain the possibility of radical foreign policy change.

South Korea’s adoption of the middle-power moniker since the early 2000s reinforces expectations of foreign policy stagnation. Despite clear indications of change in the foreign policy behaviour of contemporary middle powers, there remain expectations that they should maintain fundamental characteristics of middle powers in the 1990s, such as seeking multilateral solutions to foreign policy problems, adherence to the rule of law, support for market-based, social-democratic values, and demonstration of ‘good international citizenship’. If South Korea is a middle power, how can it be a nuclear proliferator? Such expectations blind analysts to the possibility of South Korea seeking a nuclear weapons capacity.

Third, interaction between Seoul’s policy community and outside analysts is limited, and often happens in a structured fashion that impedes transparency. Interaction occurs through linguistic and cultural ‘gatekeepers’—cosmopolitan individuals who aren’t necessarily specialists in a particular field, but hold senior positions in university, think-tank or government hierarchies. On any subject that requires a South Korean partner—diplomatic negotiation, nuclear weapons, Japan, Europe, East Timor, the Antarctic, sustainable development, middle powers, maritime borders—the gatekeeper will accept interaction, and have a graduate student work on the project. Gatekeepers maintain, and entertain, outside expectations regarding foreign policy. They know what’s expected and play the role. In many cases, the resulting interaction will be shallow, and outside analysts will leave with the belief that interlocutors share similar views.

A classic recent example is the academic or researcher who visits South Korea to discuss the General Security of Military Information Agreement and South Korea’s threat to withdraw from the intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. A gatekeeper will unhesitatingly affirm the logic of the need for closer cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, leaving an interlocutor satisfied. Yet, in practice, questions of Korea–Japan relations in South Korea are not decided through logic, but rather at a deeply ingrained, near unchanging, emotional level, which encompasses and stains political decisions on the issue.

Finally, South Korea’s foreign policy decision-making structure is highly distinct and difficult to analyse from the outside. The relative weight given to policy input from local leaders, advisers, political parties, the legislature, the bureaucracy, interest groups, public opinion, and national leaders is different from their Western equivalents. Contrary to most expectations, the role of the individual—be it adviser, bureaucrat, or the leader himself or herself—plays a substantially more prominent part. This means tools often used in the West to determine potential policy direction, such as public opinion surveys, can have substantially less efficacy in South Korea. It also means that policy change can appear more radical, dynamic and sudden.

To a degree, the debates underway in South Korea reflect similar questions raised in Australia and across the region in the path of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy wrecking ball. Yet, given South Korea’s prominence as a strategic pivot, foreign policy upheaval in Seoul could have a greater impact. Inattention, skewed expectations, lack of transparency and policy dynamism make South Korea a significantly harder target for outside analysts. Watching South Korea deserves more attention.

"Watching South Korea: Beware assumptions", The Strategist, ASPI, 29 January 2020