Korea’s Regional Foreign Policy: Being an Encircled Middle Power Sucks


Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek Japan asked me to contribute an essay on Korean foreign policy for a special issue on current Northeast Asian tension. I also wrote the introductory essay for this special issue. There is one essay each on Japan, China, and Korea; mine is the Korean one. So this is a nice laymen’s review without too much fatiguing jargon.

Newsweek 3rd coverNewsweek Japan asked me to contribute an essay on Korean foreign policy for a special issue on current Northeast Asian tension. I also wrote the introductory essay for this special issue. There is one essay each on Japan, China, and Korea; mine is the Korean one. So this is a nice laymen’s review without too much fatiguing jargon. This was originally published in January, so this translation is late, but the points still hold.

In brief I argue that Korea’s foreign policy is driven by its geography. Korea is a middle power surrounded by three great powers, plus the most orwellian state in history. That position really, really sucks. The US alliance helps buttress Korea sovereignty in that tight neighborhood, but China’s rise is unbalancing everything, especially calculations for unification. Once again, there are no hyperlinks, because it was intended for print. Here we go:

“On December 19, Korea elected a new president, Park Geun-Hye. Park comes from the conservative New Frontier Party. The current president, Lee Myung-Bak, is also a conservative. Park will be inaugurated in late February. Her campaign presented her as more ‘dovish’ on foreign policy than Lee, but she represents greater continuity than her opponent, particularly regarding North Korea.

Korea’s foreign policy is heavily-driven by its geography. It is an encircled middle power that has frequently struggled to defend its autonomy against its much larger neighbors. And since World War II, it has faced the most orwellian country in history in a harsh stand-off that dominates Korean foreign policy. An opening of North Korea, leading to eventual reunification, is the central policy issue of every Korean administration. Beyond that, Korea’s central relations are with the United States, China, and Japan. All three structure Korea’s neighborhood and will significantly influence unification.


North Korea: Foreign policy played a small role in the Korean presidential election, and what there was focused mostly on North Korea. North Korea even test-fired a missile to intimidate Southern voters into selecting Park’s opponent. North Korea prefers Southern presidents from the left, for they have pursued the ‘Sunshine Policy’ (1998-2008). ‘Sunshine’ meant generous aid to North Korea and less condemnation of its human record. The current president halted this abruptly, and Pyongyang reacted furiously. It sank a South Korean destroyer and shelled an island town in 2010.

A sizeable majority of Koreans think the current hardline policy is too harsh, and Park ran a moderate campaign. Although from the conservative New Frontier Party, she has promised to restore some aid, increase ‘trust’ with the North, and pursue a summit meeting with the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Critically, what, if any, conditions she will place on aid is unknown. Her voters, and the Americans and Japanese, almost certainly want conditionality related to denuclearization. But most analysts believe North Korea will never voluntarily denuclearize at this point. If Park insists on linking aid to denuclearization, she may be inadvertently pushed into Lee Myung-Bak’s hardline position, even though she ran against it.

United States: The US-South Korea alliance goes back to 1953. It is an important bulwark in the defense of the South against the North. The US stations close to 30,000 soldiers in-country – not enough to stop the North Korean People’s Army, but enough to activate American assistance should North Korea invade. Today South Korea’s economy is much larger than the North’s, but the continuing American deterrent allows the South to spend less on defense than it otherwise would. This, in turn, is meant to signal to the North that South Korea would like a reduction in force totals and tensions.

Under the liberal administrations previous to Lee, South Korea drifted somewhat from the American alliance. Younger Koreans especially are more skeptical of the Americans, frequently because of poor behavior by Americans in-country. They strongly rejected George W. Bush’s placement of North on the ‘axis of evil’ and supported the Sunshine Policy. Lee went the other way. He travelled to the US and spoke to its Congress to reaffirm the alliance. As a fellow conservative, Park will almost certainly continue tight relations with the United States. But the value of that US relationship is waning as the US declines in the world relative to China.

China: China will shortly overtake the US in GDP, and South Korea must engage Beijing. This is perhaps the trickiest of South Korea’s regional relations. On the one hand, China is still a one-party state, and it provides great assistance to North Korea. Indeed, without Chinese aid, many experts think North Korea would collapse. China has consistently shielded North Korea from UN reprimands, and this has slowly alienated South Korean public opinion. China’s ability to forestall unification, by propping up North Korea indefinitely, is increasingly clear to Southern voters in the wake of the Six Party Talks’ collapse. In my own experience, I have seen Chinese scholars at conferences indicate that South Korea must come to terms with China for unification to occur, leading to sharp rebukes from South Korean participants.

On the other hand, China now absorbs the plurality of South Korea’s exports. So alienating China economically is risky (a lesson many Asia states are learning). Nor Koreans do bear the political hostility toward China they do toward North Korea or Japan. Koreans’ sense of nationalism is constructed around mistreatment by pre-1945 Japan, not by the earlier Chinese dynasties. In fact, premodern, Joseon Korea was very culturally close to China. Korea was comfortable in the Sinocentric tribute system; it was not a colony or conquered region like China’s western territories. Because of its intense Confucianism, Korea enjoyed Chinese respect, and after the Manchu conquest (1644), Korea became ‘more Chinese than China.’

Hence, Korea is unlikely to support a tough line by Tokyo or Washington against China. Instead, Park’s likely greatest concern is halting North Korea’s slide into full-blown client-dependency on China. In the 1990s and 2000s, negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program allowed Pyongyang to play off the US, Japan, China, and South Korea for aid, just as it had played off China and the Soviet Union for assistance during the Cold War. But with the collapse of the Six Party Talks several years ago, aid from all but China stopped. So North Korea is now quite dependent on Beijing. Therefore, prying North Korea loose from China is central. China can bail-out North Korea indefinitely, so Park must convince Beijing to accept reunification on Southern terms. South Korea’s relationship with China is now arguably as important as with the US.

Japan: Korea’s relationship with Japan is deeply strained. Memories of Japan’s colonial mistreatment run deep. Koreans are very aware that Imperial Japan attempted to culturally assimilate Korea, even to the point of replacing Korean names. The issue of the war-time sexual impressment of Korean women unites nearly all Koreans in intense anger. The Korean media watches intently for any sign of Japanese ‘remilitarization.’ Visits to the Yasukuni shrine are tracked, as are Japan’s many up-and-downs on apologizing for war-time behavior. Koreans learn that Japan has invaded many times, although most of these attacks were actually pirate (wako) raids. The Korean admiral who defeated the Japanese in the Imjin War is taught as a great national hero. Yi Sun-Shin, although his exploits were over 400 years ago, is memorialized throughout the country in statues and imagery. A soap opera was written around him, and his Wikipedia page is relentlessly nationalistic.

Competing against, and beating, Japan on its own terms is therefore a central point of national pride, a manner to overcome past feelings of inferiority and victimhood. Koreans thrill to the idea of Yuna Kim outskating Asada Mao, or Samsumg outselling Sony in electronics. Competing directly against Japanese export strengths – cars, electronics – is no accident. The Liancourt Rocks controversy captures all this quite well. The islands will never be ceded to Japanese control. ‘Dokdo’ imagery is ubiquitous. Subway cars are painted with the images of the islands. Websites declaim them as ‘sacred.’ Pop songs are written about them. A Korean Olympic athlete this year was initially denied his medal for holding up a sign declaiming ‘Dokdo is our land.’ The Korean Ministry of National Defense says it is ready to go to war if necessary to defend the claim.

Ironically, the president-elect comes from possibly the most pro-Japanese family in the country. Park’s father, Park Chung-Hee, was dictator from 1961 to 1979. He admired Japan and had even served in the Japanese imperial army (points rarely mentioned in the Korean media). When he promoted Korean industrialization, he brought over the Japanese economic model almost entirely. Korea’s chaebol were basically copies of the keiretsu, as was the banking structure and industrial policy. Given this family history, Park is unlikely to gratuitously criticize Japan.

Today, Korean conservatives tend to less anti-Japanese than the left (no one is pro-Japanese). When Lee Myung-Bak became president, he initially tried to reach a working relationship with Japan and kicked around the idea of a free trade agreement. Similarly, Park will probably try to soothe relations. She knows the Americans want Japan and South Korea to get along better, and she knows that South Korean-Japanese discord only serves North Korea and China. But she is boxed in by domestic nationalist opinion on Japan regarding the war, comfort women, and the Liancourt Rocks.

So she, and new Japanese Prime Minister Abe, will likely do the same thing – nothing. Simply ignoring South Korean-Japan relations for awhile allows current tensions to fade. Insofar as South Korea and Japan are both liberal democracies, US allies, and worried about China and North Korea, a time-out is undoubtedly a good idea. Abe probably cares a lot more about China, not to mention re-starting Japan’s economy. And Park probably cares more about China’s growing dominance over North Korea. Letting sleeping dogs lie between Japan and South Korea is a wise idea in order to focus on issues of greater geopolitical importance.

Maneuvering these northeast Asia relationships will be complex. South Korea is still small. North Korea is terrifying; the United States and Japan are in economic trouble; and China is rising fast. This is not a good correlation of forces to achieve the main goal of Seoul’s foreign policy – the unification of the peninsula on Southern terms. Park will need Chinese acquiescence to unification, however discomforting that may be. It increasingly seems likely that China will demand a concession regarding US military forces in unified Korea. The exchange of a US withdrawal for unification is a deal Seoul elites have sought to avoid for decades, but it may be the only way given rising China’s hold on the North.”

Filed under: China, Foreign Policy, International Relations Theory, Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), United States

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