Any discussion of North Korea in Seoul must incorporate the U.S. alliance. The lack of a clear foreign policy platform is likely causing a degree of concern in Washington. The Park team emphasizes the need to maintain a strong U.S. alliance. Both Moon and Ahn have emphasized the need to rebalance South Korea’s relationships between China and the U.S.
There are a number of important issues to be addressed in the South Korea-U.S. relationship, including the transition to an ROK-led military command on the Peninsula in 2015, and the renegotiation of the U.S.-ROK nuclear energy cooperation agreement that expires in March 2014. Regarding the latter, the current cooperation agreement forbids Seoul from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, something that South Korea is hoping to change. Failure to give South Korea the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel will impact the bilateral relationship, particularly because Japan is allowed to do so under previous U.S.-Japan cooperation agreements. The specter of anti-Americanism in South Korea remains.
Visionary foreign policy leadership needed
The next South Korean president will lead during a period when its foreign policy is blossoming. South Korea has long been a middle-power in terms of capacity. It rests comfortably between major powers and minor powers in the economic, political and military realms. Over the last ten years it has also started to act as a middle-power, exhibiting an activist diplomatic stance, coalition building, accumulating strong multilateral credentials, establishing distinct niche interests, and demonstrating “good international citizenship.”
The next step in this middle-power trajectory is visionary foreign policy leadership. As an activist middle-power, South Korea can play a niche role in shaping global responses to looming issues.
South Korea holds a strong interest in supporting the global transition to green development. Over the last five years it has promoted a “green growth” model of sustainable economic growth. It has encouraged private and public sector investment in new technologies such as renewable energy, electric cars, rechargeable batteries and LEDs. It is now seeking to export these strategies by transforming the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) into an international organization.
Commensurate with that, Seoul has already demonstrated its niche interest in tackling development issues. As a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC)– and the only member to transform from an authoritarian aid recipient to a democratic aid provider– Seoul has a particularly important role to play. Projects such as K-Developedia and the Knowledge Sharing Program (KSP) share Korea’s economic development experience and contemporary best practices with least-developed and developing partners across the globe.
Seoul’s middle-power activism is ultimately guided by self-interest. South Korea relies upon the health of the global economy with a trade dependency rate greatly exceeding comparable states. Regional and multilateral trade liberalization efforts are begging for the inspired leadership of an activist middle-power coalition builder like South Korea. Building on its development credentials, Seoul is well placed to lead developed and developing states towards a conclusion of the Doha round World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral trade liberalization talks.