Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a “G-0” international system has surfaced. Countries like South Korea are pressed to consider pandemic management at a time when there are growing signs of a lack of cooperation between the two great powers, China and the United States, accompanied by a general absence of global leadership and accountability – i.e., the “G-0” international order.
South Korea’s response to the pandemic stands out, with its rapid increase in testing procedures, universal healthcare provisions, and general success in flattening the epidemiological curve. Notably, South Korea’s pandemic management measures allowed the country to hold parliamentary elections with the highest voter turnout in 28 years, which resulted in the ruling party winning by a landslide. Remarkably, all these efforts were undertaken while keeping the country generally open. In addition to keeping the economy open, South Korea also maintained relatively open borders. By contrast, most advanced countries immediately halted domestic movement and economic activities and closed international borders to non-citizens and non-permanent residents in the light of pandemic.
Given this unique experience, it is crucial to explore South Korean discourses on the pandemic, keeping in mind that Korean perspectives that are likely to be influenced by public health data and policy responses in conjunction with the domestic institutional environment and international political economy. Particularly, it is interesting to look at how South Korea managed the COVID-19 pandemic alongside how Koreans discussed the changes in the international order.
By “discourses” we mean output from academic journals, government organizations, major media outlets, as well as leading diplomacy and national security think tanks. We undertook a multilevel discourse analysis of multilingual sources examining the dominant South Korean discourses on the responsibilities held by the two great powers, China and the United States.
First, some background. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea’s engagement in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) led by China and the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) led by the United States was conditioned, selective, and fluid. Notably, South Korea followed diplomatic tracks to engage selectively in the IPS arrangement by focusing on the specific issues and agendas in line with the U.S. strategy. The year of challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified nationalistic propensities in shaping foreign and security policies. This has been evident in observing discourses on the pandemic, especially the “blame game” perpetrated by both China and the United States.
Amid ongoing friction between China and the U.S. over pandemic-related issues, two leading discourses appear in South Korea. At first, most Korean analysts see the blame game over the virus’ origin as primarily related to China and the United States’ respective domestic issues. Then, the finger-pointing is linked to the underlying hegemonic competition between China and the United States. In addition to these two dominant views, there is an ongoing debate that about what is going on behind the scenes in this war of words. This debate links to the very nature of the discord between China and the United States, and explores how best to elucidate the deteriorating China-U.S. relations, namely whether this is “hegemonic” or “strategic” competition. On this note, most sources point to the decisive role of internal politics and the ongoing discursive competition as an advancing policy considered by political leaders in both Beijing and Washington.
A closer look at prevailing discourses in South Korea indicates their appreciation of domestic developments in each country, adopting a critical perspective toward both Chinese and American narratives. Most notably, South Korean discourses do not reflect dominant consensus to side with either great power. In South Korean discussions of the China-U.S. blame game, three factors are highlighted: First, the continuing lack of cooperation between China and the U.S.; second, a continuing decline in global status endured by both China and the U.S.; and finally, the overall negative impact on South Korea. Accordingly, South Korean discourses conclude that South Korea is being pressured to choose sides as China and the U.S. shun cooperation and seek to shift the blame for the pandemic onto each other.
Consequently, South Korean discourses on foreign and security policymaking suggest three conspicuous positions in the era of “G-0.” First, South Korea should stay away from getting involved in the China-U.S. conflicts. Second, the country has an emerging need to decrease its dependency on both China and the United States. Finally, and related to the previous point, South Korea should expand and strengthen its relations with other countries. Overall, South Korean discourses emphasize the risk associated with being involved in a worsening China-U.S. competition and the importance of enhancing the country’s comparative technological advantage while reducing the dependency on both China and the United States. Pursuing the traditional role of a middle power and revitalizing the foreign policy directives of the current Moon administration are often suggested as alternative strategies to manage immediate pandemic-related challenges amidst growing China-U.S. tensions on multiple fronts.
Analyzing prevailing discourses on the China-U.S. war of words in South Korea as the country attempts to speed up the vaccination drive and manage healthcare needs leads to the observation that a “G-0” sentiment is predominant among academic, media, and policy circles in the pandemic period. The local discourses are not noticeably favorable to either of the two great powers in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated blame game. South Korean discourses focus on the frailties of both the Chinese and U.S. positions.
Importantly, it should be noted that there is a major difference between the China-U.S. blame game over the COVID-19 pandemic and other points of friction. The pandemic is an issue that involves health security and human security dimensions, both of which require a transnational approach. Given the pervasive impact of COVID-19, the wider global community is likely to participate in shaping the narrative, including people belonging to marginalized groups that are severely affected. Therefore, observing South Korea’s discourses on the subject provides a significant case study for analyzing the potential foreign and security policymaking outcomes of the war of words between China and the United States.
The world is witnessing a G-0 moment. As observed from the above South Korea case, a country may adjust its strategic interests vis-à-vis stronger powers in the absence of global leadership during the pandemic. This can potentially provide a base for public discourses and G-0 sentiment to seek a more independent approach and indigenous policy from the current and upcoming governments. Nationalism is likely to gain significant political power in the absence of accountability and cooperation between great power countries in the pandemic era.
The local discourses observed in South Korea resonate in other countries with similar conditions and concerns about the G-0 international system’s potential outcomes: no multipolar, bipolar, or unipolar order of accountability. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first and most likely not the last exogenous shock to move the world in that direction.