South Korea’s evolution toward true ‘middle power’ status

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The old Korean expression “When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken” is often used to encapsulate the perceived dilemma of South Korea being a small country among the giant powers in Northeast Asia: China, Japan, Russia and the US.

That may no longer be the case as the new South Korean administration demonstrates signs of a political maturation that matches the county’s economic achievements.

South Korea’s population of 50 million is far less than China’s 1.4 billion or even Japan’s 127 million. And its economy, with an annual GDP of US$1.4 trillion is considerably smaller than China’s (US$10.4 trillion) and Japan’s (US$4.6 trillion).

Even so, Korea is one of the nations that economists often cite when speaking of up and coming economic engines in Asia. Given that, and in view of its rising political verve, Seoul may well be on its way to becoming a true middle power.

To fulfill that destiny, however, South Korea must find its own way among the other regional nations. And there is evidence that it is doing just that.

The political dynamism of South Korean president Moon Jae-in is taking the country in a new direction, out from under the often-resented patronage and guidance of the United States and on a path toward geopolitical independence.

The shrimp shows its mettle

Initially standing against the deployment of the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, Moon agreed to only a limited number of THAAD batteries, despite US pressure and more than a little American subterfuge in installing the equipment in a great hurry during the last moments of the previous South Korean administration.

Importantly, Seoul has emphatically informed the US that decisions regarding the defense of South Korea will be made by South Korea, stressing that Washington must first get permission from Seoul before attacking the North.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in.Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Moon Jae-in. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Moon has also expressed a desire to engage North Korea on a far larger scale than past administrations, seeking to build an intertwined economic future. Although critics have valid arguments for going slow on this, it is clear that Moon is his own man, not content to take a back seat to the wants or wishes of the US.

It seems clear that the South Korean president intends to guide his country in finding its own way to becoming a middle power in Northeast Asia. To give one example, he has declined to participate in a three-way military alliance involving Tokyo and Washington. In addition to rebuffing a Japan that has yet to fully atone for its monstrous behavior during World War II, Seoul, by doing so, is also signaling Beijing that it has its own agenda.

Path not without risk

Part of that agenda is for Seoul to improve relations with Beijing, although that course is not without risk. While Moon seeks greater economic exchange with China, such a course may be dicey. China
already accounts for more of South Korea’s exports than its second and third biggest export markets (the US and Hong Kong) combined. As an export-driven country, there are risks in relying too heavily on only one trading partner to buy your goods.

Should China’s markets or financial systems experience problems – or Beijing try some form of economic blackmail to influence Seoul’s politics – South Korean businesses, and therefore its national economy, will suffer. The example of China’s boycott of Lotte products as a result of that company’s involvement in the placement of THAAD batteries stands as an intimidating example.

Looking to the future

It is not yet a year since Moon was elected president, and in a number of ways his political stance is still evolving. In looking at how his administration responded to the complexities of the THAAD issue, it is clear that he is a quick study and is flexible in his approach to changing conditions. That bodes well for South Korea, and although it isn’t a whale by any measure, it is certainly no longer a shrimp. Other players in Northeast Asia – and the United States in particular – need to take note of this.

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