By Jetnor Kasmi
South Korea’s rapid economic transformation since early 1960 from a poor and aid-dependent country to an economic powerhouse by 1990. South Korea’s might was internationally recognized when the country became a member of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996. The speedy recovery from the 1997 Asian crisis helped South Korea climb up the ladders of the economic powerhouses and have itself ranked among the top 15 economically powerful countries GDP wise (Lee 2012). Over the past two decades, South Korea has been trying to find its place among the superpowers, emerging powers, and middle powers. Therefore, simple statistics such as population size, military might – ranked as the top ten in the world; combined with its capital income of 24,000 USD, would demonstrate and underline South Korea’s emerging role as a leading middle power in the world. In addition to statistical proof for its increasing role as a middle power, South Korea has also been very active and been playing an important role as a middle power both at a regional and international level. It has hosted a series of events such as the G20 summit meeting in 2010, the fourth High-Level Forum on Aid and Effectiveness in 2011 and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012 (Sohn, 2015). On the other hand, such middle power behavior may also be characteristic of the underlining new governmental shifts and changes. Policies regarding South Korea as a middle power change with every presidential election.
In a rather global level, because of its increased national power and status, South Korea acts as an outstanding middle power. Moreover, every time there are disruptions at the regional level, in terms of geopolitics as well, the Korean peninsula becomes the center of attention to many great powers. At times there is aggressively and also military rivalry. When such events do occur, South Korea would have to act as a middle power in order to deal with instabilities in the region as a result of North Koreas treachery and misbehavior. Therefore, ROK can use good international citizenship as a middle power attribute, as well as taking upon a role as a peace builder while being at the center of the world focus (Chun, 2014).
The geopolitical instability in the in the region where the South Korea is located has provided with many opportunities and difficulties for the country. The subsequent economic rise of China and its increasing superpower status have called for South Korea to take on a leadership role in order to help mediate some of the conflicts in the region. The rising tensions that come from the north, however, have also created an opportunity for South Korea to act as a middle power. Hence, resulting in establishing middle power policies in regards to engagement with North Korea such as the “Sunshine Policy” adopted by the progressive Kim Dae-Jung’s presidency of (1998–2003). Therefore, the “Sunshine Policy” is based in the notion that diplomacy through dialogue and economic engagement with North Korea are the most effective way to bring significant changes in a country that commits atrocious crimes towards its people, and to prepare for a unification in the future (Kim, 2016).
Under the last three presidencies, South Korea’s middle power characteristics have been understood in geographical, hierarchical and strategic terms. The different characteristics of each presidency, however, have shaped but also have created lots of misperception on where South Korea stands as a middle power. The presidencies of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak, and Park Geun-Hye, have had different characteristics of middle powers, each presidency had different stances when it came to using the word “middle power”. For instance, in regards to the geographical and conceptual focus, Roh’s presidency has had a regional focus, also leaning towards a more progressive ideology. Whereas Lee’s presidency, on the other hand, has had a more conservative approach, and in regards to the geographical focus, they have been concentrating on establishing ROK as a global middle power (Kim, 2016). In addition, Park’s conservative presidency has been focusing more on working with China and creating an alliance in the region. Park’s presidency has also been reluctant when it comes to promoting middle power diplomacy, except in the case of MIKTA (O’Neil, 2015). Furthermore, MIKTA and “Bridge Building” diplomacy aimed to promote ROK’s influence of the Korean peninsula, and expand its influence in order to create better opportunities for economic expansions (Hwang, 2017).
Robertson on the other hand, argues that there might be an end to South Korea’s middle power initiative under Park Geun-Hye. The conservative administration started with an ambitious bid in the foreign agenda, which was not successful. Although MIKTA as a forum is part of the administrations middle power diplomacy, and arguably has been a little successful, it might get shut down with the next administration because the country’s political leaders might be unwilling to recycle existing initiatives from the previous governments (Robertson, 2016).
South Korea does show middle power attributes, especially during the last 20 years of its rise to “power”. Furthermore, over the past decades, the economic growth of South Korea has have pushed the country’s leaders to find a place in the international sphere. The increasing activity and the important role that South Korea has been playing as a middle power in regional and international level can be interpreted as a search for theoretical innovations by the countries leaders and intellectuals, aiming to elevate the countries place in the world, thus establishing South Koreas identity as a middle power. South Korean policymakers would have to be more careful in the future in regards to using middle power as a diplomatic narrative because the political consequences after every presidency changes can be harmful to the country’s diplomatic trajectory.
- Chun, C. (2014). East Asian Security and South Korea’s Middle Power Diplomacy. EAI Middle Power Diplomacy Initiative Working Paper 09. doi: ISBN 978-89-92395-99-1 95340.
- Hwang, B. (2017, February). The Limitations of “Global Korea’s” Middle Power. Retrieved July 06, 2017
- Kim, S. (2016, June 22). South Korea’s Middle-Power Diplomacy: Changes and Challenges. Retrieved July 5, 2017
- Lee, S. (2012, September). South Korea as New Middle Power Seeking Complex Diplomacy. Retrieved July 5, 2017
- O’Neil, A. (2015, June). South Korea as a Middle Power: Global Ambitions and Looming Challenges. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
- Robertson, J. (2016, December 29). An end to South Korea’s middle power moment? Retrieved July 06, 2017
- Sohn, Y. (2015, December). Searching for a new identity: South Korea’s middle power diplomacy. Retrieved July 5, 2017