SOUTH KOREA: HOW TO WIN AT INTERNATIONAL POLITICS

por | Ago 8, 2023

Artículo en colaboración con Junior Female Leaders – Área de Seguridad y Defensa.   South Korea’s soft power strategy has been a focal point of its development over the years, aimed at surmounting geopolitical obstacles. Despite encountering numerous challenges, the Republic of South Korea has successfully positioned itself on the global stage and garnered recognition […]

Artículo en colaboración con Junior Female Leaders – Área de Seguridad y Defensa.

 

South Korea’s soft power strategy has been a focal point of its development over the years, aimed at surmounting geopolitical obstacles. Despite encountering numerous challenges, the Republic of South Korea has successfully positioned itself on the global stage and garnered recognition as a foremost leader in soft power within the international framework.


South Korea, surrounded by formidable neighbors such as China, Japan, and the United States, has faced challenges in positioning itself as a crucial player on the international stage. Nevertheless, South Korea has been able to overcome these geopolitical obstacles and become leader within the global framework. By examining various factors and perspectives, including the reasons behind its choices, key moments of international engagement, the dynamics of its relationship with the United States, and the utilization of cultural diplomacy, South Korea has navigated through geopolitical complexities to carve its path in the global landscape. 

HISTORICAL CHANGES

South Korea’s positioning in the realm of international relations has garnered significant scholarly attention due to its remarkable ascent. Despite its modest size, South Korea cannot overlook its privileged status, boasting abundant resources such as coal, iron, gold, and silver, as well as its impressive economic and social development. However, the nation’s relevance on the global stage was not always apparent until the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1953-1957), events that directly impacted the country and its citizens, resulting in a devastating loss of three to four million lives, primarily civilians. It was not until the late 1980s, when an economic surge transpired, that South Korea solidified its position as a pivotal actor in both regional and global affairs.  

Nonetheless, South Korea’s geopolitics position presents challenges in pursuing its interests, with China, Japan, and the United States playing influential roles in these intricate dynamics. China’s current dispute centers on the Dokdo islands, which both governments claim as their own. Meanwhile, Japan’s ascent as a new power in Asia has been met with South Korea’s counteractive Soft Power strategy, evident in the shifting of countries for the Asian Winter Games. Most notably, South Korea faces the critical challenge of consolidating its regional geopolitics between the two Great Powers, China and the US. The divergence between China and South Korea was exacerbated by the US’s continued military presence in the country after the Armistice of 1953.  

 In response to these complex circumstances, the South Korean government has embraced a Soft Power strategy, resulting in the proliferation of the ‘Hallyu’ phenomenon, more commonly known as the Korean Wave. Leveraging ten cultural symbols, South Korea’s Soft Power has not only gained popularity domestically but also resonated profoundly abroad 

 

Dokdo Islands Historical dispute between Japan and South Korea (Agence France-Presse, 2015)

 

UNLEASHING SOFT POWER 

South Korea, deeply touched by the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, had to mold itself to establish a presence in the international arena. In order to pursuit its objectives, the country predominantly embraced the theories put forth by Lee Soo-man highlighting the enhancement of its Soft Power through various forms of leisure, including music and television. This deliberate focus remarked the rise of  

K-Dramas and K-Pop, leading to the fusion of traditional Korean culture with modern American influences, thanks to the support of the United States.  

However, it was not until 1988 that South Korea witnessed a significant breakthrough in its music industry, coinciding with the country’s broader transition, “thanks to the growth of the economy and freedom, Korean arts and entertainment were soon recovering”. In fact, the country’s popularity grew such exponentially it was exemplified by Seoul’s hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Hosting the Seoul Olympic Games was a great moment to let the world know about Korea as this event provided the necessary conditions to attract international attention and stimulating tourism in the country.  

POSITIONING MOMENTS

Throughout the 1990s, South Korea’s foremost objective in foreign affairs was directed towards achieving greater influence in shaping the international agenda. Joining and actively participating in the G20 proved to be the pivotal catalyst that propelled the nation into assuming the role of a significant power in development and democratization. The G20 summit held in 2010 further affirmed South Korea’s leading position, espousing the vision of ‘Shared growth beyond the crisis’ 

The transformative process had a profound impact on the state’s regional integration, with particular emphasis on its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The economic realm has been the cornerstone of South Korea’s ties with the Asian region, with the group of Asian developing economies witnessing sustained GDP growth and record-keeping over the past two decades. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, these economies achieved an annual growth rate of 2.0% within the OECD countries.  

The 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit once again underscored South Korea’s prominent standing in the international arena, reaffirming its unwavering commitment to promoting democracy and peace. Subsequently, two years later, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-Asia relations, a special summit was convened, culminating in the inauguration of the ASEAN Culture House in Haeundae in 2017.  

 

Heads of State/Government of the Member States of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations (ASEAS, 2019)

 

STRATEGIC MILESTONES  

South Korea, in the 90s, aimed to enhance its global influence and played a significant role in shaping the international agenda. Its participation in the G20 boosted its status and democratic power along with a strong focus on economic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit showed the country’s commitment to democracy and peace. Additionally, Seoul is home to the Green Climate Fund and Global Green Growth Institute, promoting international cooperation. Currently, South Korea maintains diplomatic relations with 191 countries and has numerous diplomatic missions worldwide increasing its position in the global arena.  

 

U.S President meets with South Korean President and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on a NATO summit in Madrid (Kyodo, 2022)

FORGING ALLIANCES

In recent years, the relationship between the United States and South Korea has experienced its ups and downs. Following the Armistice of 1953, the United States made the decision to maintain its military presence in South Korea. However, in 2017, former American President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea signaled a shift in bilateral agreements, creating a sense of uncertainty. This shift raised concerns about an excessive military and security dependency between the US and South Korea, potentially influencing their relationship with China – a key partner that represents a significant portion of South Korea’s exports.  

Under President Biden’s administration, there is a renewed focus on expanding the military alliance between the United States and South Korea, with an innovative approach that highlights the importance of technology. Recognizing the evolving landscape, President Biden seeks to strengthen the core function of the alliance while adapting to emerging challenges and opportunities.  

NAVIGATING THE PANDEMIC  

The 2020 South Korea National election, which brought President Moon to power, were notably influenced by the Covid-19 crisis. The Moon administration swiftly and effectively tackled the pandemic by providing test kits and personal protective equipment (EPE). Moreover, public health promotion under Moon’s leadership served as a strategic approach to curbing the number of cases. Despite being lauded as a model country in managing the Covid-19 crisis, South Korea was not at the forefront of vaccine donations and funding. The country’s vaccine procurement process, initially rapid, gradually led to only 15% of its population being fully vaccinated as of 2022.  

 

THE RESOUNDING INFLUENCE OF K-POP  

Among various components of South Korea’s Soft Power strategy, the music industry stands out as one of the most significant. K-pop does not only imply music but also choreographies, fashion, idols, and an extensive merchandising. Beyond entrainment, K-pop industry has expanded its influence in the political arena as idols have become ambassadors advocating for global issues and defending values. In 2018, the internationally group BTS was invited to the United Nations in order to promote Generation Unlimited, an initiative focused on education. Moreover, BTS was also invited to the White House to address anti-Asian hate crimes. Therefore, celebrities have become a crucial actor involved in diplomacy leveraging their influence on the global stage.  

BTS and Joe Biden at the White House (Hindustan Times, 2022)

THE POWER OF ATHLETICS

South Korea’s hosting of the 1988 Olympic Games marked the inception of its extensive trajectory in organizing major sporting events, yielding significant impacts on domestic regional, and international levels. On the domestic front, the country leveraged the Olympics to propel its industrialization process while concurrently fostering a sense of nationalism and unity deeply rooted in traditional Korean loyalty and patriotism.  

Regionally, the relationship between Japan and south Korea soured due to their concurrent pursuits of elevated status not only within the region but also on the global stage. Internationally, the 1988 Olympic Games served as a gateway for South Korea to emerge as a newfound power, projecting its identity on a global scale. Notably, the event also facilitates the inclusion of South Korea’s traditional martial art, Taekwondo, in the Olympic Summer Games, signifying the country’s endeavor to expand its state capabilities in international relations. South Korea’s adept utilization of a sport mega-event stands as a compelling exemplar of strategic statecraft in the domain of international relations.  

 

CONCLUSION 

South Korea has emerged as a leading force in the international arena, utilizing a soft power strategy since the end of the Korean War’s end. Through active participation in forums such as the G20, strong ties with ASEAN, and the establishment of key headquarters in Seoul, South Korea has boosted global recognition, especially form the United States. The music industry has played a crucial role in the expansion of South Korea culture’s influence worldwide. With its open approach and leadership in soft power, South Korea has made significant contributions to global diplomacy, being considered leader in Soft Power.  

 


NOTA: Los planteamientos e ideas contenidas en los artículos de análisis y opinión son responsabilidad exclusiva, en cada caso, del analista, sin que necesariamente representen las ideas de GEOPOL 21.

 

Este artículo se ha realizo en colaboración con Junior Female Leaders. 

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