Features | Politics | East Asia

Middlepowerism & Continuity in South Korean Foreign Policy

The way Seoul defines its middle-power status could offer the best insight into its policy direction.

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.

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?

Middlepowerism can be interpreted as a balancing role. Middle-powers are states that balance between geographic, cultural, or ideological poles or between rising and declining states. Practitioners thus tacitly seek to play roles as pivots or facilitators between opposing poles through diplomatic initiatives, such as dialogue facilitation and avoiding commitments to hegemonic alliances. An example of this kind of thinking could include South African diplomacy, balancing between Africa and Europe and between developed and developing states.

Middlepowerism can be interpreted as supporting the status-quo. Middle-powers are states are satisfied with their hierarchical position in the international and regional system. Practitioners thus tacitly seek to entrench and maintain existing conditions through diplomatic initiatives, such as institution building and strengthening, norm entrepreneurship and strengthening, and supporting hegemonic alliances. Classic examples of this kind of thinking could include Australian and Canadian diplomacy during the 1990s.

Finally, middlepowerism can be understood as a stepping stone – just a convenient tool to pursue diplomatic objectives until the state has other options. Practitioners thus tacitly utilize classic middle-power diplomacy, coalition building and “good international citizenship” to achieve self-interested aims like national development. Policymakers are typically creative in their use of diplomacy to pursue objectives. An example of this kind of thinking could include Indian or Brazilian diplomacy during the 1980s.

This begs the question – what will middlepowerism mean to South Korean policymakers and diplomatic practitioners in the long-term? What image of middlepowerism will South Korean policymakers hold?

The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s foreign policy reflected an understanding of middlepowerism as playing a balancing role. There was a strong belief amongst policymakers that South Korea could be the “hub” of East Asia by playing a balancing role between China and the United States. These efforts were sometimes perceived as challenges to the ROK-U.S. alliance relationship.

The Lee Myung-bak administration interpreted middlepowerism as supporting the status-quo. It pursued institution building, such as the creation of the Global Green Growth Initiative (GGGI) and the use of the G20 to address the Global Financial Crisis. It also maintained strong support for and sought to strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance.

How will the Park administration interpret middlepowerism? Contemporary South Korean research on middlepowerism is characteristically innovative, and can be distinguished from increasingly stale Australian and Canadian research in the same field. Some of the most innovative research utilizes network and cluster theory to explore ideas behind the practice of middlepowerism.

When that late night call from the foreign minister’s office comes, will future South Korean policymakers think of supporting the status-quo; balancing between China and the United States; or pursuing diplomatic objectives via a stepping stone?

Deciphering this element of continuity could tell us much more about South Korea’s long-term trajectory than all the changes made in the first hundred days.


Jeffrey Robertson is a Visiting Professor at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management. He can be reached at [email protected]