South Korea’s middle power diplomacy

By Jetnor Kasmi

2010 was a very fundamental year for South Korea, as a host of the G20 Leaders Summit- the first Asian country to do so. South Korea earned international recognition and rose up establishing itself as a middle power country.  Previous significant events that have place South Korea in the center of international perspective include the hosting of 2002 World Cup with Japan and also the hosting of 1988 Seoul Olympics – which was South Koreas first debut on the international stage (Mo, 2016). The hosting of the G20 was important for South Korea as a mighty economic empire, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis. While South Korea has established itself as a middle power among the G20 member countries and the rest of the world with its controversial middle power initiatives such as “Sun Shine Policy” and MIKTA, it still has a long way to go in dealing with the challenges that North Korea presents (Hwang, 2017). In some aspects nevertheless, South Korea as a middle power will be able to deal with North Korea using its middle power diplomacy attributes – thus through dialogue, humanitarian aid and good international citizenship. On the other hand, to increase the success in dealing with the challenges that North Korea presents, the ROK government should also rely on the umbrella provided for by the alliance with the United States.

Changes to the geopolitical sphere with the end of the Cold War and the subsequent drift of power distribution brought forth more peaceful security environments, although East Asian countries still suffer from power struggles. Global security environment nowadays has been defined by emerging issues that influence geopolitics such as terrorism, cybersecurity, and the increased hostility of antagonist countries such as North Korea. Such changes have provided South Korea with opportunities and difficulties (Chun, 2015). In the global spectrum, South Korea has increased its national power and status and has undertaken the role of a middle power. South Korea has actively participated in global peace operations and has deployed its military to many conflict zones.  In regards to the issues of the Korean peninsula, South Koreas middle power diplomacy has been somewhat divided and situated in a flashpoint between China, the Pacific, and North Korea. Because of the tensions in the region, with the proliferation of North Korean nuclear ambitions, and the severe rivalry of influential powers in the region, South Korean foreign policy serves as a deterrence aiming to absolve the impacts of the great powers.

South Korea’s middle power position was and still might be in jeopardy due to the leadership change as a result of the impeachment of president Park and also the creation of flux in the regional environment with the changing leadership of the United States. Whether or not South Korea is able to maintain is middle power position is yet to be seen (Hwang, 2017). On the other hand, the South Korean contribution and participation in the global security arena have been commendable. The ROK-USA alliance has been contributing to peace in the Korean peninsula. Moreover, South Korean position in the region has been increasing as a result of its hopes in maximizing the cooperation of the United States and China in facing issues that escalate with the North Korean military ambitions. As the US-Sino rivalry has been dominant in the region, as well as an increase of North Korean tensions, have shifted the South Korean foreign policy into focusing on maximizing the cooperation between the US and China – aiming to keep North Korea at bay. Efforts to keep North Korea at bay, however, have somewhat been reducing South Korean efforts to pursue multilateral middle power diplomacy (Lee, 2012).

The issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons has been the most important and the utmost challenging foreign policy that South Korea had to deal with. North Korean issues dominate the ministry’s of foreign affairs agenda, firstly because the two countries are still at war with each other, and secondly because of the fact that North Korea naturally attracts more public attention. In regards to dealing with North Korea, ROK has been able to rely on middle power strategy and soft power to mobilize international pressure on the north, through its allies; rather than talking heads on approach and relying on the use of force (Mo, 2016). In some aspects, North Korea undermines South Koreas middle power capability and diplomacy, because many South Korean policymakers devote lots of time and resources into dealing with North Korean issues rather than focusing and devoting its resources into global issues (Mo, 2016), (Chun, 2014). On the other hand, South Korean military faces with the same struggle as the ROK diplomacy does – the ROK military’s primary role is to deter the North Korean threat, which produces limitations on the number of the peacekeeping operations the military can conduct outside the Korean peninsula (Lee, 2012).

The South Korean – US alliance provides for the basics of ROK’s security and defense policy, and therefore, such alliance is impeccable in order to deal with threats coming from the north. South Korea as a middle power cannot act alone when it comes to dealing with the evil bad brother of the north. By strengthening the ROK-US alliance, South Korea will be able to be under US protection and under its “nuclear umbrella.” The backing of the alliance could make way for South Korea to take the initiative in humanitarian dialogue with North Korea as previously stated by the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Ji,2017). The rising threats that come from North Korea and proliferation of regional threat among great powers such as South China the U.S and Japan would be too much of a serious threat for South Korea to pursue autonomy in dealing with North Korea (Snyder, 2017).

In the foreseeable future, however, South Korea will continue to face security threats from North Korea. Therefore, South Korea should take the North Korean challenge as a prospect which could help in strengthening its regional multilateral security cooperation. The development of a North Korean nuclear program and the constant military provocations support the claim that South Korea needs to rely on the US-ROK alliance and its regional partners in dealing with North Korea. South Korea could use its middle power diplomacy to counter the nuclear crisis coming from North Koreas uncertain future political situation, and also convince regional powers to converse in regards to the normalization of North Korean crisis. South Korea could appeal to the regional powers mutual interest for peace and security to persuade the regional powers to make some efforts in hopes to stabilize the region (Chun, 2015).


  1. Chun, C. (2014, December). East Asian Security and South Korea’s Middle Power Diplomacy. Retrieved July 26, 2017, from
  2. Chun, C. (2015). Policy Recommendation for South Korea’s Middle Power Diplomacy: East Asian Security. EAI Middle Power Diplomacy Initiative Policy Recommendation.
  3. Hwang, B. (2017, February). The Limitations of “Global Korea’s” Middle Power. Retrieved July 06, 2017
  4. Ji, D. (2017, July 19). S. Korea will take the initiative in humanitarian dialogue with DPRK, says President. Retrieved July 26, 2017
  5. Lee, S. (2012, September). South Korea as New Middle Power Seeking Complex Diplomacy. Retrieved July 5, 2017
  6. Mo, J. (2016). South Korea’s middle power diplomacy: A case of growing compatibility between regional and global roles. International Journal: Canadas Journal of Global Policy Analysis, 71(4), 587-607. doi:10.1177/0020702016686380
  7. Snyder, S. (2017, June 29). A Necessary Alliance: Neither South Korea Nor The U.S. Can Take On North Korea Alone. Retrieved July 26, 2017
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Jetnor Kasmi

Jetnor Kasmi holds a Political Science degree with emphasis in International Relations from Methodist University, USA; and MA degree in Development Policy from KDI School of Public Policy and Management, South Korea. Originally from Tirana, Albania, Jetnor attended the United World College in Norway. At Methodist University, he co-founded the university’s chapter of Amnesty International, worked as a research assistant and History teaching assistant, and tutored students in History, Italian, and Spanish. Jetnor is interested in cultural conflict, Chinese foreign policy, and local government decentralization. Jetnor has published a paper regarding the Romany rights in the Balkan region, and policy analysis regarding the South Korean politics. Papers under publication include policy analysis regarding the Belt and Road Initiative in the Balkan Region.

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