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Is South Korea really a middle power?

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un raise their hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, 27 April 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Korea Summit Press Pool).

In Brief

Google Scholar academic citations during 2008–18 for the terms ‘South Korea’ and ‘middle power’ return 4260 hits — nearly double that of ‘middle power’ and Mexico (2060), Turkey (1990) and Indonesia (2850) and only just behind Canada (4420) and Australia (4380). South Korea has succeeded in promoting itself as a middle power.


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South Korea fits the bill under any number of the myriad contested middle power definitions. But despite the flood of academic papers, think tank reports, workshops and seminars on the topic, there appears to be few ideas on how being a middle power helps resolve Korean Peninsula issues.

Middle powers such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden are characterised by satisfaction with the ‘status quo’ international order. Having reached an enviable position in the international hierarchy, their interest lies in strengthening the status quo by facilitating rules-based governance systems that constrain the states above them and sustain 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 characterised by diplomatic behaviour. 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, South Korea’s diplomacy has included engaging smaller states at the Winter Olympics ‘peace games’, ASEAN and MIKTA through regular dialogue mechanisms, and other bilateral partners through routine visits. However, there is no creativity, niche diplomacy, coalition building or good international citizenship to be seen.

During periods of heightened security tension, middle powers are supposed to follow the hegemon until directly threatened, while during periods of lower security tension, middle powers 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 that windows of opportunity for middle power initiatives are few and far between.

Successful middle power initiatives require not only timing but also sustainability, which is assured through continuity and consistency. With single five-year presidential terms, bureaucratic inertia at the beginning and end of presidential terms and a weak party system, South Korea’s foreign policy lacks continuity. Sources of ideas, influence and decision-making change between administrations. This 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 and 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?

South Korea needs to increase its leverage vis-a-vis major powers. The first step should be a non-threatening intellectual instrument to increase influence, such as an international commission. An international commission may hold persuasive moral power if it is led by highly-respected and experienced senior political figures and is backed by the institutional capacity of South Korea and another middle power, such as the Netherlands. 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. This would give South Korea greater influence in interacting with major powers.

South Korea also needs to secure active support for its policies. Decades of visiting politicians’ publicity shots at the DMZ and intermittent North Korean provocations have failed to transform global concern into global action. South Korea needs active middle power participation to build peace — before they are asked to support conflict. The establishment of a ‘secondary-level council of states’ that consists 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 European Union, such a council could add substantial weight to the South Korean voice amid the unbridled self-interest of major powers.

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. South Korea may be a middle power but sustainable and intellectually creative middle power policy initiatives are yet to emerge.

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

5 responses to “Is South Korea really a middle power?”

  1. Thanks for an informative analysis on a concept which I read about before but admittedly not understood in as deep a way as the author presents it.

    I am left wondering if any divided nation can be a middle power. After all, it cannot readily endorse ‘the status quo’ when it is struggling with an unresolved political division with its resulting social stress as has the Korean peninsula for the last 60+ years. The recent circumstances with the North having developed nuclear weapons capability has obviously heightened the tensions for the South. How can it operate as a middle power in the midst of such security concerns?

    Would Germany have been considered a middle power before it reunified in 1989? Is it now seen as one? If Canada’s internal struggles with French speaking Quebec had been even more intense and threatening to its unity, would it have been a middle power? How did England figure in that framework while it was dealing with ‘the troubles’ for so many years in Northern Ireland?

    The point about S Korea’s single 5 year Presidential term, weak party system, and low profile if not weak foreign affairs bureaucracy not fostering continuity in foreign affairs is well taken. I am not sure how these processes can be altered to allow for longer term planning and implementation of the country’s foreign relations.

    It seems to me that President Moon’s active efforts to achieve some kind of rapprochement with the North are largely focused on the South’s relations with the USA. This is understandable given its dependence on the USA for its security. It will be crucial to see how this plays out in the coming months. IF some kind of more stable status quo can be established between the North and the South, then one can speculate as to how the South might engage more fully with the world as a middle power.

    • Thanks for comment. You are right. The situation of division inherently positions South Korea as a ‘potential disruptor’ of the status quo, but even more significantly takes a tremendous amount of financial, intellectual, and policy attention that could be directed towards supporting innovative, creative middle power policy initiatives. It’s an interesting question as to whether a divided state can really be a middle power.

  2. Robertson, this is brilliant. You have laid out the necessity for Korea’s middle power acceptance, as well as the limited time-frame within which to embrace it. You also hinted at the key reason Seoul has failed so far to act based on its capabilities: the lingering impact of Cold War ideology and identity among political elites. The most recent example of this is the predictable behavior of the Korean conservative opposition to the Pyongyang summit. They are unalterably against it. When Kim Dae Jung asked the conservatives to join him in the first summit in June 2000, they rejected that too. American Republicans are of the same mind.
    So Seoul’s acceptance of its middle power strengths is not only dependent upon the structures you smartly suggest. It also depends on practical, non-ideological and more modern leaders with stiffer backbones and political sophistication, both toward domestic anachronists and alliance incapacities.
    There are good signs so far from the Moon administration, but the big tests are ahead of them.
    Very well done!

  3. A middle power country would rank roughly, from 60-120 on a list of countries. So where does South Korea rank. They have the world’s #11 economy by size of GDP, they have the world’s #7 largest army and by rank of military strength. Also in soft power of cultural influence K-pop and South Korean movies and TV shows would score a top ten ranking. Mr Robertson might be judging power by a country ability to effect other countries. That list would be the USA, China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. That power is not used most times to the benefit the powerful state of the country it is used on, if in doubt look at the US experience in Iraq. As for moral power the inability of South Korea to speak out against the abuse of their fellow Koreans in the North screams moral cowardice. As for a middle power state defending the status quo, I don’t see how defending the current state of affairs as regards North Korea in in the South’s or the worlds interest.

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