An End to South Korea’s Middle Power Moment?

An End to South Korea’s Middle Power Moment?
Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像

What you need to know

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

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 utilize 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.

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 favor 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.

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.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White