OPINION

[Jeffrey Robertson] Time to start debate on Korea’s role as middle-power

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Mar 22, 2012 - 18:06
  • Updated : Mar 22, 2012 - 18:06

During March 26-27, Seoul will host global leaders for the Nuclear Security Summit, just two years after it hosted the G20 Leaders Summit. It is today obvious that South Korea is a middle-power. Yet, it is rare to hear South Korean politicians talk about being a middle-power. Why?

The first condition of being a middle-power is to be positioned between great powers and smaller powers in the measurement of political, economic and military power. South Korea comfortably satisfies this condition. Indeed, South Korea has satisfied this condition for a long time.

The second condition of being a middle-power is to demonstrate certain characteristics in diplomatic practice. These include diplomatic activism, niche diplomacy, coalition building and “good international citizenship.”

Diplomatic activism refers to the innovative, intellectually creative and energetic use of diplomacy to pursue national objectives. Seoul first took this route in its early support for the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, back in the late 1980s. Its continued commitment to diplomatic activism was most recently apparent in its strong support for the G20’s role as the premier international body to address the global financial crisis.

Niche diplomacy refers to the pursuit of limited and highly specific diplomatic objectives. Middle-powers by their nature have limited diplomatic resources to pursue their objectives. They must therefore concentrate their resources within a specific niche area in order to maximize their returns. South Korea’s support for the Nuclear Security Summit could be viewed along these lines. It allows Seoul to position itself in a specific niche area ― nuclear security, in which it holds related interests ― nuclear energy, nuclear plant construction and nuclear nonproliferation.

Coalition building is the mainstay of middle-power diplomatic practice. Middle-powers do not have enough political influence to pursue objectives on their own, but have enough political influence to convince “like-minded” states of their shared goals. Coalition building allows middle-powers to build momentum towards the achievement of diplomatic objectives, ultimately allowing them to “punch above their weight.”

South Korea has long been a viable coalition builder in economic affairs. It is now positioning itself as a viable coalition builder in areas as diverse as development, human rights and resource investment and extraction.

Good international citizenship refers to the view that the state has a responsibility and role to play in fostering peace and security and promoting human rights, justice and equality. Practically, this entails an awareness of the need for global cooperation to solve global problems, a commitment to international standards of human rights, and a willingness to provide humanitarian aid and assist in development.

The growth of its aid and development program over the last 10 years is evidence of South Korea’s awareness of and willingness to play the role of good international citizen. With formal membership of the OECD Development Assistance Committee in 2010, and hosting of the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, South Korea is globally recognized as good international citizen.

The final condition of being a middle-power is to be situated within the core of international society. International society refers to the global village of states, which conceive of themselves as part of a wider society, bound by common interests, values and rules of conduct. Being at the core of international society implies strongly supporting and strengthening these common interests, values and rules of conduct.

Some states satisfy the first two conditions of being a middle-power, but to a degree fail in the third. Venezuela, in measurement of political, economic and military power is positioned between major-powers and smaller powers. Its diplomatic practice demonstrates diplomatic activism; niche diplomacy, coalition building and a certain form of good international citizenship. Yet, due to its current political situation, Venezuela remains to a degree isolated from diplomatic intercourse with key regional and international partners. It is distant from the core of international society.

South Korea’s membership of nearly every multilateral forum, the hosting of key diplomatic events and the number of its nationals working in multilateral organizations, from the lowest levels to the United Nations secretary-general, demonstrate that the country is at the core of international society. The hosting of the Nuclear Security Summit is another example that South Korea is a middle-power situated at the core of international society.

This begs the question ― why do South Korean politicians never talk about being a middle-power? Australian and Canadian politicians love to talk about the special role they play as middle-powers. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to stop Australians and Canadians from talking about their role as middle-powers. Yet, in South Korea, hardly a word is whispered about its role as a middle-power. Why is there no domestic public policy debate about South Korea’s role as a middle-power?

Perhaps it is South Korea’s background as politically divided nation surrounded by major-powers? The early struggle for political legitimacy as one-half of a divided nation and the ongoing threat presented by North Korea has inevitably placed a high premium on survival and power. The function, process and structure of foreign policy implementation, including diplomatic practice, have thus focused on major-powers.

The small number of academics who do undertake work on the concept of middle-powers often focus on the first condition pertaining to measurements of political, economic and military power. The much smaller number of academics, who utilize a wider conceptualization of middle-powers remains on the periphery of mainstream debate.

Perhaps, it is South Korea’s unwillingness to accept a position of inferiority to major powers? When visiting Australia and Canada, South Korean diplomats, ambassadors and politicians love to talk about South Korea as a middle-power and willingly talk of shared interests and common goals as middle-powers. They know that Australian and Canadian audiences love to talk about middle-powers. Yet, to label South Korea as a middle-power to a domestic audience, a politician risks raising a degree of public anger. In domestic public policy debate, South Korea strives to be at the top. Settling for the middle, would never be popular.

Finally, perhaps it is the implications of being a middle-power, which deters public debate? Middle-powers are after all status quo powers. Having reached a certain degree of political influence, economic well-being and military security, they want the global balance of power to remain. Implicitly (and provocatively), this means that as a satisfied, status-quo middle-power South Korea has a lesser interest in reunification. Opinion polls, which show a declining preference for reunification amongst the younger generation, may support this idea.

The debate on South Korea’s role as a middle-power needs to start. As South Korea hosts the Nuclear Security Summit, the population of Seoul will get increasingly frustrated at the traffic. They will complain about the cost to the taxpayer and they will decry the limited ability of the summit to address questions central to the state’s interests. Explaining what it means to be a middle-power may address these complaints. 

By Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is a visiting professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management. He will be presenting a seminar “Middle-Powers compared: Australia and Korea” at the Centre for Australian Studies (CAS), Yonsei University, on March 30, 2012. The author can be reached at jeffrey_robertson@kdischool.ac.kr. ― Ed.