The Korean Pivot

The Study of South Korea as a Global Power

Executive Summary


South Korea’s leadership and proactive participation in global affairs under the government banner of “Global Korea” demonstrates South Korea’s ability to play an important role on the global stage. The country’s hosting of major international forums such as the G-20 Seoul Summit, the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, and the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness not only raised the country’s international profile but also showed its national capacity to serve as a global agenda setter and a bridge between developed and developing countries. These successful diplomatic experiences have raised the critical question of whether South Korea’s global participation can and will be sustained. The contours of future policy and whether Global Korea will remain “global” will in large part be determined by political preferences and the politics of future South Korean governments.

But there is a lack of a conceptual framework in which to think about South Korea’s global commitments. Without such a conceptual framework, there is no grand strategy context in which to think about how much more or how much less South Korea should engage on the global stage.

We choose specifically to use the term “global” in juxtaposition to the more traditional term of “middle power” used to look at Korea’s international participation. While this project commissioned research that looks at Korea’s role as a “MIKTA” (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia) country, our supposition is that Korea can do more on the global stage in certain niche areas. That is, South Korea can “pivot” off of its middle power status to exert global influence in niche areas. Korea’s middle power status can be augmented in certain issue-areas to have impactful global presence. On almost any international issue, bilateral or multilateral coalitions that come together inside or outside of international institutions consider South Korea an important partner.

Like many developments in South Korea, this trend has occurred at a breakneck pace, turning South Korea from a parochial player into a major contributor and leader in the provision of public goods to the international system. Can Seoul continue to play such a role? Is it overextending itself? Should it scale down its role and focus on peninsular issues? Should it focus its attention on certain global issues but not others?

Taking stock of what South Korea has accomplished as a global power is a first-of-its-kind effort. Our project incorporates a conceptual framework, as well as empirical analysis, to understand under what conditions middle powers like South Korea can exercise influence disproportionate to its hard power metrics. We acknowledge that according to most metrics, Korea registers as a middle power—the study by Randall Schweller of Ohio State University in Chapter 1 develops a conceptual framework focusing on South Korea as a middle power and seeks to define the parameters of a middle power.

What makes Korea interesting is its ability to leverage middle power metrics to exert influence in certain areas on a global stage. One of the most effective means of amplifying its influence is through networking and positioning as a hub in multilateral gatherings. Professor Miles Kahler at American University offers a study that enumerates how we should think about “network power.”

The project finds that South Korea’s network power is enhanced in a variety of different ways. For example, South Korea augments its efforts on any given issue in partnership with other major players, thus its influence as a middle power is exponentially greater. South Korea also positions itself as a host of multilateral gatherings on any given issue, giving it greater influence. Third, when South Korea occupies a key positional node on any given issue or in any international institution, its influence as a middle power is exponentially greater.

Studies by experts of Korea’s global influence illustrate the partnership function, hosting function, and nodal power in key issue-areas. Dr. Michael Green, senior vice-president and Japan chair at CSIS and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at Georgetown University, looks at Korea’s role in multilateral architecture in Asia. Ambassador KIM Young-mok, former president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), discusses South Korea’s contributions in the area of official development assistance. Dr. Dan Lucey of Georgetown University enumerates Korea’s role in global health. Dr. Andrew Yeo, associate professor of politics at Catholic University, studies Korea’s role in the China-Japan-Korea trilateral subregional architecture. Dr. Miyeon Oh explores South Korea’s role in regional energy cooperation. Finally, Dr. Balbina Hwang of the National Defense University studies Korea’s role in the G20.

Our three-year project concludes that South Korea is a successful middle power that is well positioned to punch above its weight in the international system. There are three main reasons for this.

  1. Nonthreatening powers operate effectively as bridge-builders. To successfully pivot to global influence from middle power status, a country has to operate in the international system in ways that are not threatening. Given its successful democratic transition and its experience with rapid economic development, South Korea retains a good reputation among developing countries as a model country worthy of emulation. Moreover, initiatives by South Korea are not viewed in a threatening way to other powers (e.g., Japan, China) in the region. As a result, South Korea’s activism in international affairs and multilateral institutions does not arouse anxiety or create insecurity dilemmas that one might see with bigger or more powerful countries, which allows South Korea to be in a good position in the international system to play a bridging role between countries.

  2. Harnessing bureaucratic capacity lends to effectiveness. South Korea also has bureaucratic capacity and resources that it can devote to be an effective player in functional issue-areas like global health, overseas development issues when great powers are occupied with other issues. For instance, when the great powers are focused on issues such as war or conflicts in other regions, this opens a space for middle powers like South Korea to pivot to a larger role in providing public goods.

  3. Offering services as a facilitator lends to nodal power. One of the ways that middle powers can assume a larger role than their capacity is when they occupy a central hub. For South Korea, the country can do so by using its hosting function as it has already demonstrated this capability from its successful hosting of the G-20 summit in 2010, the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. An effective middle power needs to be seen as transparent and trustworthy. South Korea’s hosting function is an attribute that makes South Korea a leader among middle powers.
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Marie DuMond