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© 2020 Jeffrey Robertson

Is South Korea really a middle power?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Google Scholar academic citations during 2008-18 for the terms “South Korea” and “middle power” returns 4,260 hits, nearly double that of “middle power” and Mexico (2,060), Turkey (1,990), and Indonesia (2,850); and only just behind Canada (4,420) and Australia (4,380). South Korea has succeeded in promoting the country as a middle power.


South Korea fits the conditions under any number of the myriad of contested middle power definitions. Yet, despite the flood of academic papers, think-tank reports, workshops and seminars, there appears to be few ideas on how being a middle power helps resolve Korean peninsula issues. Is adding ‘middle power’ to every piece of research or commentary on South Korea just a frenzied academic trend? Is South Korea really a middle power? Taking a narrower definition in the context of the current Korean peninsula, there is an argument to suggest it is not.


Middle powers, such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands or Sweden, are characterized by satisfaction with the status quo. Having reached an enviable position in the international hierarchy, their interest lies in strengthening the status quo – facilitating rules-based governance that constrains the states above them, and sustains dominance over states below them. The very nature of being a divided state, with the potential to drastically change the status quo, could preclude South Korea from the middle power category.


Middle powers are also routinely characterized by diplomatic behavior. They use energetic and creative diplomacy; focus resources in niche areas to secure optimal results; strengthen influence through coalition building; and portray what is ultimately self-interest, as globally significant, ‘good international citizenship’. To date, outside of mundane engagement with the United States, China, Russia and Japan, South Korea has only engaged smaller states at the Winter Olympics ‘peace games’; ASEAN and MIKTA through regular dialogue mechanisms; and other bilateral partners through routine visits – no creativity, niche diplomacy, coalition building, or good international citizenship to be seen.


The Korean peninsula challenges middle power theory. During periods of heightened security tension, middle powers are meant to follow the hegemon (until directly threatened), while during periods of lower security tension, distance themselves and seek to constrain the hegemon’s actions. When coupled with the uncertainties of international politics, the on-again, off-again nature of security tension on the Korean peninsula means windows of opportunity for middle power initiatives are few and far-between.


Further, successful middle power initiatives require not only timing, but also sustainability - assured through continuity and consistency. With single five-year presidential terms (and bureaucratic inertia at the beginning and end), and a weak party system, South Korea’s foreign policy lacks continuity. Sources of ideas, influence, and decision-making change between administrations – as is occurring with the current administration as influence moves from traditional foreign policy circles to national intelligence circles. For this reason, South Korea failed to sustain momentum on previous highly successful niche initiatives, such as green growth, aid effectiveness, and nuclear security/infrastructure exports. The current constitution and party system, constrains South Korea’s capacity to act as a middle power.

Successful middle power policy initiatives, such as the Cairns Group, APEC, the Cambodia Peace Settlement, or the Ottawa Treaty, are what really make middle powers. Labelling several leftover, disparate countries in the G20 as a grouping, as was done with MIKTA, is not enough. Middle power policy initiatives have clear purposes, are well-structured and planned, and above all, are intellectually creative. What then could a middle power policy initiative on the Korean peninsula look like?


First, South Korea needs to increase its leverage vis-à-vis major powers. With this purpose in mind, the first step should be a non-threatening, intellectual instrument to increase influence, such as an international commission. With highly-respected senior political figures holding expertise in political, military, humanitarian, and human rights issues; backed by the institutional capacity of South Korea and another middle power, such as the Netherlands; an international commission could hold persuasive moral power. In much the same way as the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty transformed global thinking on the responsibility of states, a report on a peace regime for the Korean Peninsula could transform and influence thinking – giving South Korea greater leverage in interaction with major powers.


Second, South Korea needs to secure active support for its policies. Decades of visiting politicians’ publicity shots at the DMZ and intermittent North Korean provocations haven’t transformed global concern into global action. South Korea needs active middle power participation to build peace – before they are asked to support conflict. With this purpose in mind, and in the wake of an international commission, the establishment of a ‘secondary-level council of states’ consisting of middle powers to help plan, coordinate, and facilitate an evolving peace regime would bolster support for South Korean policy. With the participation of ASEAN and the EU, such a council could add substantial weight to the South Korean voice amidst the unbridled self-interest of major powers.


Optimistically, it may be too early to judge the Moon administration’s diplomatic efforts. But if we take lessons from history, the current window of opportunity to build middle power initiatives will close again soon. Being a middle power “in between” two major powers, or being a middle power by merely promoting the country as such, was never enough, and never will be. We may know in our heart that South Korea really is a middle power – but we’re still waiting for sustainable, intellectually creative middle power policy initiatives.


As published at East Asia Forum on 2 May 2018.

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