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Author: Leif-Eric Easley, Ewha Womans University At the 2020 World Health Assembly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in shared his country’s success fighting COVID-19 based on democratic institutions, science and technology. He has also pledged Seoul will become a world leader in human security cooperation. This reflects South Korea’s national identity as a rising middle power […]
Author: Leif-Eric Easley, Ewha Womans University
At the 2020 World Health Assembly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in shared his country’s success fighting COVID-19 based on democratic institutions, science and technology. He has also pledged Seoul will become a world leader in human security cooperation. This reflects South Korea’s national identity as a rising middle power in Asia, in stark contrast to its colonised and war-ravaged past. Middle-power goals, such as strengthening diplomatic networks that implement multilateralism, are now a yardstick for South Korea’s foreign policy performance. If Seoul falls short, addressing the North Korea challenge and defending a rules-based order in Asia will be ever more difficult.
South Korea’s middle-power identity follows from necessity, ambition and recognition. The geopolitical realities of Asia place South Korea in the middle of a competitive dynamic among China, Russia, Japan and the United States, and next door to one of the world’s most militarily threatening and human-rights abusing regimes. Seoul’s alliance with Washington remains essential for dealing with North Korea, but it is determined to never again lack strategic agency as it did during wars between China and Japan and the post-World War II division of the Korean Peninsula.
Seoul looks to shape Asia’s future with pro-social norms and institutions. The New Southern Policy is the Moon administration’s strategy for connecting North and Southeast Asia with physical and digital infrastructure and intersocietal linkages. As a beneficiary of economic interdependence, South Korea wants to avoid trade wars and military force as means of resolving disputes. In the words of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, ‘by preemptively offering to cooperate with all neighbouring countries, we intend to create a virtuous cycle where expanded cooperation with one country leads to enhanced cooperation with another’.
Of course, identity is not just a function of circumstance and calculation but a matter of pride and recognition. International actors increasingly recognise South Korea as a player, for convening summits to bridge developed and developing nations, for brands like Samsung and Hyundai and for pop culture exports like the band BTS and the movie Parasite. But while Seoul is making meaningful global contributions—including on ODA and UN peacekeeping—it faces three challenges in maintaining a productive middle-power role in Asia’s contested regional order.
First, South Korea’s historical disagreements with Japan periodically short-circuit its middle-power diplomacy. Anti-Japan sentiment continues to be more salient than middle-power identity on issues of wartime compensation, symbols of incomplete reconciliation and disputed islets. South Korean media routinely exaggerate the threat of Japanese militarism and undervalue cooperation with Tokyo. All this impedes Seoul’s ability to contribute to regional security via intelligence sharing, ballistic missile defence, addressing sanctions evasion and export control violations, ensuring freedom of navigation and coordinating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Second, South Korea’s democratic liberal values often clash with its realist foreign policy pragmatism in dealing with China. Seoul sometimes takes a deferential approach to its powerful neighbour and largest trading partner, informed by a belief that the diplomatic road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing. This leads South Korea to abstain from criticising human rights conditions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and from advocating for North Korean escapees who are often exploited in China or repatriated to the Kim regime. Seoul also tends to stay mum on China’s maritime expansionism in the South China Sea, on questions of WTO compliance, and on international standards for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Third, domestic political polarisation extends deep into Seoul’s foreign policy. In the South Korean partisan context, the past two presidents were sent to prison and the National Assembly is a physical battleground for contentious legislation. Single five-year presidential terms and an unstable political party landscape produce pendulum swings in policies toward North Korea and greater Asia. South Korea’s internal divisions leave it susceptible to wedge-driving tactics by other countries and cause a generally well-run government to engage in inefficient and inconsistent resource allocation for foreign policy initiatives.
Rising above this polarisation will require enlightened leadership with political restraint and following the rule of law rather than weaponising it against ideological rivals. South Korean foreign policy needs more transparency to demonstrate democratic legitimacy and strategic thinking about national interests. This will help Seoul avoid policy fantasies like decoupling from Japan to pursue a ‘peace economy’ with North Korea. Principled policies are needed to deal with North Korean nuclear weapons, missiles and human rights abuses, as well as the perilous politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s economic coercion over South Korea hosting a US missile defence system.
Middle-power principles will help Seoul to dispel perceived zero-sum trade-offs between strengthening its alliance with Washington and managing its relations with Beijing and Pyongyang. South Korea can respond creatively to US burden-sharing pressures in ways that do not antagonise China or North Korea. In particular, rather than think of their contributions to global public goods as ‘alliance dues’, South Koreans can pick up the slack in areas where the superpower is underperforming, such as promoting free trade and mitigating climate change.
Seoul can unshackle its foreign policy from ideology and history by doubling down on building institutions in Asia. This will encourage economic and great-power stability in the region and eventually provide leverage towards a peaceful and rules-based unification on the Korean Peninsula. The Moon administration is underusing the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia) partnership and has yet to fully incorporate India in its New Southern Policy. South Korea can also work more with like-minded partners Australia and ASEAN on regional capacity building. Such middle-power diplomacy will provide positive reinforcement for Korean national identity and demonstrate to other states the value of international cooperation.
Leif-Eric Easley is Associate Professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha Womans University, Seoul.
A longer version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘’, Vol. 12 No. 1.