Middlepowerism & Continuity in South Korean Foreign Policy
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Middlepowerism & Continuity in South Korean Foreign Policy


On coming to power, every South Korean presidential administration seeks to differentiate itself from those that went before. There are no exceptions. Administrations with identical party roots will distinguish themselves by creating new administrative structures, rebranding policy and reinventing rhetoric. This gives academics plenty to write about when they pen the all important one-hundred day reviews. But in the case of a state as dynamic as South Korea, they may be missing the point. It is not change that is significant, but rather continuity.

Elements of change in the foreign policy of the administration of President Park Geun-hye are clear. First, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) was divested of its responsibility for international trade negotiations and launched under a new name, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Second, policies blending both deterrence and reconciliation in relations with North Korea, and policies aimed at strengthening Northeast Asian cooperation have been rebranded under a new policy platform, the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative. Finally, the rhetoric to support policy has been reinvented. Before the Park administration’s term is up, we will hear much more of the terms “trustpolitik,” “trust building” and “trust diplomacy.”

Elements of change will receive extensive attention as academics and commentators start to review the Park administration’s foreign policy. Focusing on the first hundred days of any administration to attain insight into the trajectory of foreign policy is counterintuitive. With the current administration it may even be foolish. With difficult parliamentary confirmation hearings; challenges in securing passage of the administrative reorganization; and the necessity of immediately focusing on North Korean issues, the current administration has had a slow start.

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Elements of continuity may tell us much more about South Korea’s foreign policy trajectory. Chief amongst these is middlepowerism.

Middlepowerism entered South Korean scholarship during the 1990s and soon after was reflected in policy. First mentioned during the Roh Tae-woo administration; touched upon during the Roh Moo-hyun government; middlepowerism received a prominent airing under President Lee Myung-bak. Now with the Park administration it has made an immediate impact. In an April 2013 keynote speech by Vice-Minister Kim Kyou-hyun at an international conference on Middle Powers hosted by the Korean Association of International Studies and the Korea Foundation, middlepowerism was promoted as a central pillar in efforts to pursue the Park administration’s initiative of “trust diplomacy.”

Middlepowerism is a difficult concept. It is hard to find any two scholars who agree upon what it means to be a middle-power. It has been studied by scholars in Australia and Canada since the mid 1940s, when both states sought to buttress their role in the post Second World War peace settlement and preparations for the establishment of the United Nations. Definitions remain contested. Middle-powers can be states that are major powers within a distinct geographic region, but minor powers on a global scale. Middle-powers can also be states that sit between major powers and smaller powers in measurements of political, economic, and military capacity. The term can also denote states that demonstrate strong diplomatic aptitude through activities like diplomatic activism, coalition building, niche diplomacy, and “good international citizenship.” But for policymakers and diplomatic practitioners, middlepowerism is something very different.

For policymakers and diplomatic practitioners, middlepowerism is a practice. It is something that they “do” in the routine processes of everyday work. Policymakers and diplomatic practitioners have an image of their state’s role in their mind, which underpins every action and practice.

A hypothetical helps illustrate this point. When a diplomat sitting in the foreign ministry at 8 pm receives a call from the foreign minister’s office requiring a policy speech by 8 am the next morning what do they do? The first step is delegation. The second step is cutting and pasting from previous speeches. The third step is the turn to tacit knowledge – the mental image of the state’s role and its place in the world. What do these middle-power “images” look like to policymakers and practitioners?

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