Project: Asia Programme, Korean Peninsula

Sung-Mi KimFormer Visiting Fellow, Creative Powers Fellowship, Asia Programme, Chatham House

The concept of ‘middle power’ has provided an important framework for South Korea’s diplomatic initiatives but other alternatives may be better suited to its regional situation, aspirations and strategic imperatives.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and US President Barack Obama receive a briefing from United Nations Commander General of US-ROK Combined Forces Command in Seoul, on 26 April 2014. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images.South Korean President Park and US President Obama are briefed by United Nations Commander General of US-ROK Combined Forces Command in Seoul, 26 April 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • The concept of ‘middle power’ has provided an important framework for South Korea’s diplomatic initiatives. However, policy-makers often use the term without sufficiently unravelling its meanings and their ramifications. In addition, its use has not been consistent from government to government.
  • The constraint of a single, five-year presidential term is one of the factors underlying this incoherence. Incoming administrations are often keen to mark a departure from the policy concepts and ‘catchphrases’ of their predecessors, so the election of each new president tends to be followed by a proliferation of new initiatives and vision statements.
  • Under the presidencies of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s middle-power characteristics have largely been understood in geographical, hierarchical and strategic terms respectively. These different yet interrelated perceptions have shaped – but also confused – debates about the country’s diplomatic identity and choices.
  • Many analysts are sceptical about the utility of ‘middle power’ as a guiding principle for South Korea’s diplomacy, particularly given the differences between South Korea’s particular circumstances and those of the Western middle powers to which the concept has traditionally applied.
  • There are alternatives to the concept of ‘middle power’ that may be better suited to South Korea’s regional situation, aspirations and strategic imperatives. These include the possibility of the country leveraging its considerable soft-power resources to act as a ‘creative’ or ‘constructive’ power in the region; development of a doctrine-based approach to foreign policy that shifts the focus from identity concepts and deprioritizes hard-power calculations; and embracing ambiguity as a strategic posture in its own right.