South Korea’s Position on the Global Stage

Society Culture

The Rise of China

A lively debate is underway in South Korea at the moment concerning the nation’s status as a “middle power.” There are a number of interesting factors in the background to this discussion.

First, South Korea is surrounded by three great powers: China, Japan, and Russia. Given the important role of the United States in this region, it is clear that without a clear understanding of its own position and role in the world, South Korea risks becoming a pawn in the games played by the great powers. In recent years, a rising China has made people more aware of this reality than ever. Until now, South Korea has lived beneath the protective wing of the United States. But with China’s rise, it has begun to worry that it may find itself squeezed between the two.

Second, as South Korea’s economy has developed, and as democratic political processes have taken hold, the country’s cultural output has become increasingly popular abroad—not least in Japan, where made-in-Korea television programs and pop music have become a commercial force to be reckoned with. This has boosted Koreans’ self-confidence and made them ambitious to establish their country as an international brand.

Why and in what way are these factors linked to the concept of South Korea as a middle power?

The Characteristics of a “Middle Power”

Inherent in the term “middle power” is the nuance that this is a status that any country, even a relatively small one, can attain with effort. South Korea was once a poor country ruled by an authoritarian military government. In the face of the “threat” from the North, it became so fiercely anti-communist as to sever all connections with socialist states. Today, however, South Korea has developed into a prosperous, democratic, and culturally attractive country that enjoys friendly relations with many other nations, including China and Russia. The path that South Korea has taken could serve as a model for many developing countries.

The “middle power” concept also implies that the medium-sized powers of the world can check the ambitions and arrogance of the great powers if they join together and cooperate with one another. In this sense, South Korea might consider joining hands with countries like Canada or Australia.

All of the factors I have discussed so far can be summed up as follows. Until now, South Korea has been in the shadow of the United States in terms of politics and national security. Economically, it lagged behind Japan. Historically and culturally, it was under Chinese influence. Korea, however, has entered a new period, and the time has come for the country to play a more self-assertive role in international society. Branding itself as a “middle power” is part of its national strategy for achieving this aim.

Underlying Assumptions of the Current Debate

The middle power strategy has been discussed and debated for some time. But one factor has been put aside: reunification. The middle power strategy sheds no light on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. On the subject of the reforms that may take place and the ensuing development of the North’s economy, not to mention the shared cultural and ethnic identity of people in both South and North Korea, the middle power theory is silent. In this sense, the middle power concept takes the continued division of the peninsula for granted. Indeed, it could be said that South Korea is attempting to deploy the middle power strategy in order to redefine its own position and strengthen its self-assertion while maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 24, 2012.)

United States China Australia Russia Ogoura Kazuo South Korea middle power Canada peninsula