An end to South Korea’s middle power moment?

December 30, 2016

An end to South Korea’s middle power moment?

by Jeffrey Robertson, ANU

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The Park Geun-hye administration started with an ambitious middle power foreign policy agenda. But as President Park’s time in office seems set to come to an end, South Korea’s middle power prestige may fall victim to South Korea’s domestic politics.

Park had several policies seeking to utilise South Korea’s middle power status. The ‘Eurasia Initiative’ aimed to establish a logistics and energy network through North Korea, Russia, Central Asia and on to Europe. Park’s ‘trustpolitik’ idea was intended to encourage reciprocal reconciliation with North Korea. The Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) sought to overcome the ‘Asia paradox’ of high levels of economic interdependence but low levels of trust and political cooperation. And the grouping of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia (MIKTA) aspired to become a forum for middle powers to convene on global issues.

But despite the middle power zealotry, successes on the foreign policy front have been few and far between. With strains in the North Korea relationship, the Eurasia Initiative, ‘trustpolitik’ and NAPCI all faced an uphill battle from the start. Now, as the Park administration enters interminable decline, what’s left of the fruits of middle power diplomacy may also wither on the vine.

The next South Korean administration will face a choice on whether to continue promoting South Korea as a middle power.

The first reason to drop the middle power label is electoral politics. Under the Park administration, ‘middle power diplomacy’ became a guiding refrain. Hardly a speech went by without officials reiterating South Korea’s middle power identity.

As yet there are no clear signs that the electorate is tiring of the middle power label. But for an indeterminable period of time, middle power rhetoric will be inextricably linked to the Park administration. This may deter its use under the next administration.

Like Australia and Canada at the end of the 1990s, South Korea has also reached a middle power saturation point. Political, academic and media interest in middle powers is waning.

Image result for Unrest in South Korea

The second reason to drop the middle power label is the personal vanity of leadership. Governments everywhere seek to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. But the South Korean presidential system effectively encourages foreign policy differentiation. The president overwhelmingly dominates the parliament, its political parties and the bureaucracy, which support greater continuity in other countries. With a single five-year term, it is also natural for a presidential administration to favour short-term goals over medium to long-term goals.

Sometimes only the labels change on foreign policy. South Korea’s relations with the Central Asian region serve as an example. Under Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea launched the ‘Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative’. Under former president Lee Myung-bak this became the ‘New Asia Initiative’, and under Park Geun-hye it was transformed into the ‘Eurasia Initiative’. Each reincarnation acted only as a façade of new policy, all seeking to strengthen bilateral relations with countries sharing a high degree of trade complementarity with South Korea.

At other times, more than just the label changes. In 2010, Lee Myung-bak launched the Global Green Growth Initiative as one element in a broader policy initiative to establish South Korea as the global hub of green growth and sustainable development. Despite the huge potential and importance of this initiative, the desire to differentiate led the Park administration to largely discard it. MIKTA may now meet the same fate.

Image result for Unrest in South Korea

MIKTA may be the only foreign policy initiative of the Park administration that will be missed. What seemed like a haphazard gathering of diverse states with varied interests and aims is steadily transforming into a distinct process that is building bridges between politicians, policymakers, media and academics. The result will be a degree of middle power ‘like-mindedness’ and, ultimately, cooperation between the five countries on global issues.

Even in its short history, the process has witnessed warming relations between states that previously saw little reason to gather. Without ongoing South Korean support, the likelihood that MIKTA will recede into foreign policy memory increases. Whether it does or not will be in the hands of the next administration.

Both electoral politics and the personal vanity of leadership suggest that we are, unfortunately, witnessing an end to South Korea’s middle power moment.

Jeffrey Robertson is Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University and Assistant Professor, Yonsei University. He is the author of Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea (Routledge, 2016).


3 thoughts on “An end to South Korea’s middle power moment?

  1. 2016 is a horrible year in terms of politics and economics. There is a crisis of leadership everywhere you look including in Malaysia where there is mounting discontent among Malaysians about Najib Razak. South Korea is still in turmoil.

    Even in America, that city of the hill, there is easiness over Trumpism and the politics in Washington DC. Tensions between Russia and the US are at a boiling point as Obama chose to impose sanctions against the Putin regime. 2016 is coming to an end in matter of hours, but what will 2017 bring to us?. –Din Merican

  2. There seems to be a foreign conspiracy behind the ousting of President-Park Cheu-hye because of her steadfastness in ” middle power foreign policy” which had ran against US foreign policy of G.W Bushd “you are against me if you are not with me”

    Time will tell.

  3. MITKA is created in response to Obama’s and Hillary’s announcement of rebalance to Asia. South Korea knows their hope, if any, to reunify with North Korea depends much on China but the American strategy of rebalance to Asia is to contain China and hinder any of their hope for reunification. But at the mean time they need the American military protection.

    South Korean analysts have always expressed concerns regarding the sustainability of the U.S. rebalancing strategy, especially as they have watched the U.S. budget debate over sequestration. Some of those concerns have been expressed in the context of worries that U.S. fiscal constraints will lead the U.S. to make greater demands on South Korea to shoulder its own defense burdens or to provide greater financial contributions to the support of U.S. forces deployed there. Overhanging these near-term tactical concerns is the question of the extent to which U.S. credibility will be sustained long-term in the context of China’s rapid military modernization.

    South Korean strategists have considered carefully how their country can effectively use diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities it has accrued as a result of its own rise to prominence as a top-tier trading economy. The discussion within South Korean foreign policy circles regarding its future strategy has been animated primarily by the idea that South Korea is a middle power. Therefore, a deeper understanding and application of attributes of a middle power to South Korea’s situation will assist its policymakers by providing a constructive blueprint for South Korea’s foreign policy.

    Seoul National University Professor Chun Chae Sung identifies the following characteristics of South Korea’s middle power diplomacy: 1) to help great powers lessen mutual strategic mistrust; 2) to develop an issue-specific dispute settlement mechanism; 3) to develop multilateral institutions or to actively participate in and further existing institutions; 4) to preemptively import globally established norms to the region to set up the principle on which East Asians can solve problems; 5) to make a cooperative network among like-minded middle powers to strengthen their positions vis-à-vis great powers; 6) to be a co-architect in making and reforming the regional security architecture.

    The exposition of these six characteristics of middle power diplomacy is helpful in thinking about U.S. responses to South Korea as a middle power, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that there has not been any formal U.S. recognition or policy toward middle powers as a group, nor is there evidence that middle power as an attribute has been consequential to U.S. foreign policy toward countries that classify themselves in this way. In this respect, the concept of middle power has never had practical consequences or impact on the formation of U.S. policy. Therefore, it is useful to assess the extent to which these six factors are salient in U.S. perspectives toward South Korea as a diplomatic partner and ally of the U.S.

    There is no evidence that Obama administration has reached out for help to South Korea as part of its efforts to manage the China-U.S. relationship. Nor is there evidence that beyond President Park’s declaratory policy, South Korea has made tangible contributions in support of Sino-American efforts to manage bilateral competition between the major powers. In this respect, South Korea’s objective of trying to facilitate better relations with great powers is both challenging and somewhat awkward, since great powers are likely to view management of relations with each other primarily as a bilateral matter that does not necessarily require the assistance of third parties.

    To the extent that the U.S. has pursued consultations with allies regarding management
    of relations with major powers, the dominant framework has been the security alliance and has come in the form of defense planning, but this is a framework that is primarily focused on how to bolster security against the effects of the rise of a new challenge from emerging powers, or alternatively, on the need to assure allies regarding the credibility of U.S. capacity to provide defense. As a result, these defense-oriented dialogues are not framed in such a way that they provide much opportunity for a country like South Korea to facilitate a better relationship between the U.S. and China.

    MITKA is non consequential to Korea’s ability to play a middle power role and its future diplomacy between the U.S. and China, respectively, as it manages specific issues in the event of Korean reunification, if it proves to be feasible.

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