International Politics

, Volume 55, Issue 2, pp 242–263 | Cite as

South Korea’s mismatched diplomacy in Asia: middle power identity, interests, and foreign policy

  • Leif-Eric Easley
  • Kyuri Park
Original Article


Middle power identity and interests claimed by South Korean leaders predict a foreign policy of multilateralism, institution building, and contributions to global public goods. South Korea is indeed active in global governance, but its regional diplomacy for much of the Park Geun-hye administration defied middle power expectations. In recent years, Seoul appeared to apply a strategy of isolating and pressuring Tokyo, while behaving like a smaller power showing deference to Beijing. Existing literature offers several explanations for failures to implement middle power diplomacy: historical memory impediments (e.g., Japan), budgetary constraints (e.g., Canada and Australia), stalled regionalization (Brazil and Turkey), and inadequate economic development (India and Indonesia). Finding these explanations insufficient for the South Korean case, this article shows how anti-Japan identity and Korean unification interests at times overwhelmed South Korean middle power identity and interests, respectively. The article offers implications for the growing category of states considered middle powers and concludes with policy recommendations for how Seoul can adjust its mismatched diplomacy to serve as a constructive middle power in Asia.


Middle power diplomacy and strategy Korea, China, and Japan National identity and interests Asia regional politics and security Global governance 


  1. BBC. 2014. South Korea economic growth beats forecasts. 24 April. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  2. Carter, A. 2015. A regional security architecture where everyone rises. Remarks at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue by the Secretary of Defense. Singapore, 30 May.Google Scholar
  3. Cha, V. 2000. Hate, power, and identity in Japan–Korea security: Towards a synthetic material-ideational analytical framework. Australian Journal of International Affairs 54(3): 309–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cha, V., and K. Friedhoff. 2013. Ending a feud between allies. New York Times, Nov 14. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  5. Cheney, C. 2012. Politics delays the inevitable in South KoreaJapan security pact. World Politics Review, 29 June. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  6. Cho, T. 2013. 2nd Vice Minister’s welcoming remarks at the 6th Korea foundation global seminar. Seoul, 21 November.Google Scholar
  7. Choi, H. 2015a. Middle power cooperation and related issues in the G20. In MIKTA, middle powers, and new dynamics of global governance: The G20’s evolving agenda, ed. J. Mo, 73. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  8. Choi, Y. 2015b. South Korea’s regional strategy and middle power activism. Journal of East Asian Affairs 23(1): 47–67.Google Scholar
  9. Chung, J.H., and J. Kim. 2016. Is South Korea in China’s orbit? Assessing Seoul’s perceptions and policies. Asia Policy 21: 123–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cooper, A., and J. Mo. 2013. Middle power leadership and the evolution of the G20. Global Summitry Journal 1(1): 17–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cooper, A., R. Higgott, and K. Nossal. 1993. Relocating middle powers: Australia and Canada in a changing world order. Vancouver: UBC Press.Google Scholar
  12. Easley, L. 2012. Middle power national identity? South Korea and Vietnam in U.S.–China geopolitics. Pacific Focus 27(3): 421–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Easley, L. 2014. Korean courage to deal with Japan. American Foreign Policy Interests 36(1): 25–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Easley, L. 2016. Kaesong and THAAD: South Korea’s decisions to counter the north. World Affairs 179(2): 21–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Easley, L. 2017. How provocative? How pacifist? Charting Japan’s evolving defence posture. Australian Journal of International Affairs 71(1): 63–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Easley, L., and I. Park. 2016. China’s norms in its near abroad: Understanding Beijing’s North Korea policy. Journal of Contemporary China 25(101): 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Emmers, R., and S. Teo. 2015. Regional security strategies of middle powers in the Asia-Pacific. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 15: 185–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fackler, M., and S. Choe. 2013. A growing chill between South Korea and Japan creates problems for the U.S. New York Times, 24 November. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  19. Gaddis, J. 1982. Strategies of containment. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Genron NPO, and East Asia Institute. 2014. The 2nd joint Japan–South Korea public opinion poll (2014) analysis report on comparative data. Genron NPO, 16 July. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  21. Gilboa, E. 2009. The public diplomacy of middle powers. Public Diplomacy Magazine 2: 22–28.Google Scholar
  22. Glaser, B., and B. Billingsley. 2012. Reordering Chinese priorities on the Korean Peninsula. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies. Report of the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies, November.Google Scholar
  23. Glosserman, B., and S. Snyder. 2015. The Japan-South Korea identity clash. New York: Columbia University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ha, Y. 2013. 2020: Ten foreign policy tasks for ROK (in Korean). Seoul: EAI.Google Scholar
  25. Hasegawa, T., and K. Togo. 2008. East Asia’s haunted present. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.Google Scholar
  26. Hayashi, Y., and C. Tsunfoka. 2015. Japan open to joining U.S. in South China Sea patrols. Wall Street Journal. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  27. Hayes, G. 1997. Canada as a middle power: The case of peacekeeping. In Niche diplomacy: Middle powers after the cold war, ed. A.F. Cooper, 73–89. New York: St. Martin’s Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hayes, P., and K. Yi. 2015. The implications of civic diplomacy for ROK foreign policy. In Complexity, security and civil society in East Asia, ed. P. Hayes and K. Yi, 319–391. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.
  29. Heo, U., and T. Roehrig. 2014. South Korea’s rise: Economic development, power, and foreign relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Higgott, R., and A. Cooper. 1990. Middle power leadership and coalition building: Australia, the Cairns Group, and the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations. International Organization 44(4): 589–632.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Holbraad, C. 1971. The role of middle powers. Cooperation and Conflict 6(1): 77–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Howe, B. 2015. Development effectiveness: Charting South Korea’s role and contributions. In Middle-power Korea: Contributions to the global agenda, ed. S. Snyder, 21–43. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations Press.Google Scholar
  33. Hurrell, A. 2000. Some reflections on the role of intermediate powers in international institutions. In Paths to power: Foreign policy strategies of intermediate states, Latin American program, eds. A. Hurrell, A.F. Cooper, G. González, R. Ubiraci, S.S. Sitaraman. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center. Working Paper no. 244.Google Scholar
  34. Ihonvbere, J., and O. Elgstrom. 1994. Foreign aid negotiations: The Swedish–Tanzanian aid dialogue. African Studies Review 37(3): 139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Joo, S. 2012. History of defecting from North Korea (in Korean)., 18 May. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  36. Jordaan, E. 2003. The concept of a middle power in international relations: Distinguishing between emerging and traditional middle powers. Politikon 30(1): 165–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kang, E. 1997. Korea’s Sadae-Kyorin diplomacy with the rise of Ch’ing China. In Diplomacy and ideology in Japanese–Korean relations: From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, ed. E.H. Kang, 167–171. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kang, S. 2015. Seoul remains neutral in South China Sea dispute. Korea Times, 9 June. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  39. Kelly, R. 2014. Three hypotheses on Korea’s intense resentment of Japan. Diplomat, 3 March. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  40. Kennedy, T. 2016. Public divided over ‘comfort women’ agreement. East Asia Forum, 22 January. Accessed 23 June 2016.
  41. Keohane, R. 1969. Lilliputians’ dilemmas: Small states in international politics. International Organization 23: 291–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kim, Y. 1994. The Segyehwa policy of Korea under president Kim Young Sam. The Sydney declaration. Sydney, 17 November.Google Scholar
  43. Kim, S. 2000. East Asia and globalization. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  44. Kim, B. 2013a. Statement by Deputy Minister for multilateral and global affairs ministry of foreign affairs and trade of Republic of Korea at the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Geneva, 27 February.Google Scholar
  45. Kim, K. 2013b. 1st Vice Minister’s Keynote speech at the 2013 KAIS-KF international conference. Seoul, 19 April.Google Scholar
  46. Kim, S. 2013c. Global governance and middle powers: South Korea’s role in the G20. Council on Foreign Relations, February. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  47. Kim, S. 2014a. Roles of middle power in East Asia: A Korean perspective. Seoul, South Korea: East Asia Institute. EAI Middle Power Diplomacy Initiative Working Paper 2.Google Scholar
  48. Kim, T. 2014b. South Korea’s middle power response to the rise of China. In Middle powers and the rise of China, ed. B. Gilley and A. O’Neil. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Kim, E. 2015. Korea’s middle-power diplomacy in the 21st century. Pacific Focus 30(1): 1–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kim, S. 2016. South Korea’s Middle-Power Diplomacy: Changes and Challenges. London: Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, June 2016. Accessed 17 Sep 2017.
  51. Kim, J., and Kim, S. 2016. South Korea’s middle power diplomacy: Toward an agenda-partner based leadership. Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 28(2): 317–333.Google Scholar
  52. Korea Times. 2014. Park voices regret over Japan’s moves ‘denying’ history. 6 January. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  53. Kupchan, C. 2013. From enmity to amity. Global Asia 8(3): 26–31.Google Scholar
  54. Lee, J. 2015. Is MIKTA, a middle power diplomacy? (in Korean), 26 May, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies.는-중견국외교인가. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  55. Lee, J. 2016. South Korea and the South China Sea: A domestic and international balancing act. Asia Policy 21: 36–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lee, S., I. Chung, W. Kim, Y. Kwon, and M. Seo. 2009. The vision of the Korean Peninsula and territorial networking strategies (in Korean). Seoul: Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements. KRIHS Report 2009-25.Google Scholar
  57. Lee, S. 2012. South Korea as new middle power seeking complex diplomacy. Seoul: East Asian Institute. EAI Asia Security Initiative Working Paper 25 (September 2012).Google Scholar
  58. Lee, S. 2014. Peacekeeping contributor profile: South Korea. Providing for Peace, June 2014. Accessed 5 Aug 2016.
  59. Lind, J. 2009. Apologies in international politics. Security Studies 18(3): 517–556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Lobell, S.E., N.G. Jesse, and K.P. Williams. 2015. Why do secondary states choose to support, follow or challenge? International Politics 52(2): 146–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Mares, D.R. 1988. Middle powers under hegemony: To challenge or acquiesce in hegemonic enforcement. International Studies Quarterly 32(4): 453–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. MIKTA. 2015. MIKTA. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  63. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Korea. 2013. Launch of MIKTA, a mechanism for cooperation between key middle-power countries. Seoul: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Google Scholar
  64. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Korea. 2016. Statement by the spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs of the Republic of Korea on the South China Sea arbitration award. Seoul: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Google Scholar
  65. Mo, J. (ed.). 2013. Middle powers and G20 governance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  66. Mo, J. (ed.). 2014. MIKTA, middle powers, and new dynamics of global governance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  67. Morris, Lyle J. 2016. South Korea cracks down on illegal Chinese fishing, with violent results. RAND, Nov 4. Accessed 21 April 2017.
  68. Mukhia, A. 2013. Shift of power in East Asia: An analysis of South Korea’s middle power as the model of global South. Paper presented at Annual International Studies Convention; 10–12 December, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.Google Scholar
  69. Nam, I. 2013. China asks to postpone Japan, Korea summit. Wall Street Journal. 18 April. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  70. Otte, M., and J. Greve. 2000. A rising middle power? German foreign policy in transformation, 1989–1999. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  71. Pai, H., and T. Tangherlini. 1998. Nationalism and the construction of Korean identity. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.Google Scholar
  72. Palmer, G., and T. Morgan. 2011. A theory of foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Park, C. 2009. The future of the Korea–Japan strategic relationship: A case for cautious optimism. In Proceedings of the joint U.S.–Korea academic symposium, ed. KEI, 110–118, 16–18 September, Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute.Google Scholar
  74. Park, C. 2015a. Where are South Korea–China–Japan relations headed? Seoul, South Korea: East Asia Institute, East Asia Policy Debates 40.Google Scholar
  75. Park, G. 2015b. Keynote address by President Park Geun-hye at the 70th session of the general assembly of the United Nations. New York, 28 September.Google Scholar
  76. Park, G. 2015c. Commemorative address by President Park Geun-hye on the 70th anniversary of liberation. Seoul, 15 August.Google Scholar
  77. Park, H. 2015d. High-ranking U.S. official indicates S. Korea should ‘speak out’ on South China Sea. Hankyoreh, 5 June. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  78. Pempel, T.J. 2008. Japan: Divided government, diminished resources. In Strategic Asia 2008–09: challenges and choices, ed. A.J. Tellis, M. Kuo, and A. Marble. Washington, DC: NBR.Google Scholar
  79. Ping, J.H. 2005. Middle power statecraft: Indonesia, Malaysia and the Asia-Pacific. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  80. Presidential Office. 2015a. President hosts 6th Korea–Japan–China summit. Office of the President press release, 5 November. Accessed 8 Nov 2015.
  81. Presidential Office. 2015b. President holds summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Office of the President press release, 3 November. Accessed 8 Nov 2015.
  82. Prys, M. 2012. Redefining regional power in international relations. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  83. Ramstad, E. 2012. Tensions rise between Tokyo, Seoul over islets. Wall Street Journal. 10 August. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  84. Ravenhill, J. 1998. Cycles of middle power activism: Constraint and choice in Australian and Canadian foreign policies. Australian Journal of International Affairs 52(3): 309–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Reeves, J. 2014. Rethinking weak state behavior: Mongolia’s foreign policy toward China. International Politics 51(2): 254–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Robertson, J. 2007. South Korea as a middle power: Capacity, behavior, and now opportunity. International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 16(1): 151–174.Google Scholar
  87. Robinson, M. 1988. Cultural nationalism in colonial Korea, 1920–1925. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  88. Roehrig, T. 2013. South Korea, foreign aid and UN peacekeeping: Contributing to international peace and security as a middle power. Korean Observer 44(4): 623–645.Google Scholar
  89. Roh, M. 2005. President Roh Moo-hyun’s address at the 40th commencement and commissioning ceremony of the Korea Third Military Academy, Seoul, March 22.Google Scholar
  90. Roh, T. 1991. President Roh Tae-woo’s Speech at the Hoover Institution. Palo Alto, 29 June.Google Scholar
  91. Rozman, G. 2005. Regionalism in Northeast Asia: Korea’s return to center stage. In Korea at the center: Dynamics of regionalism in Northeast Asia. 1st ed, ed. C.K. Armstrong, G. Rozman, S.S. Kim, and S. Kotkin, 151–166. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
  92. Rozman, G. 2007. South Korea and Sino-Japanese rivalry: A middle power’s options within the East Asian core triangle. Pacific Review 20(2): 197–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Ryoo, K. 2014. Unification Minister of the Republic of Korea’s Speech delivered at the Asian leadership conference. Seoul, 3 March.Google Scholar
  94. Sandal, N. 2014. Middle powerhood as a legitimation strategy in the developing world: The cases of Brazil and Turkey. International Politics 51(6): 693–708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Saxer, C.J. 2013. Capabilities and Aspirations: South Korea’s rise as a middle power. Asia Europe Journal 11(4): 397–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Schirm, S.A. 2010. Leaders in need of followers: Emerging powers in global governance. European Journal of International Relations 16(2): 197–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Shim, D., and P. Flamm. 2013. Rising South Korea: A minor player or a regional power? Pacific Focus 28(3): 384–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Shin, D. 2015. Response by the ROK Deputy Minister for multilateral and global affairs to a question posed by the author.Google Scholar
  99. Shin, G. 2014. National identities, historical memories, and reconciliation in Northeast Asia. The Asan Forum. 25 January. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  100. Snyder, S. (ed.). 2012. Global Korea: South Korea’s contributions to international security. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations.Google Scholar
  101. Snyder, S. 2015a. [podcast] Korea and the world. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  102. Snyder, S. 2015b. U.S. Rebalancing strategy and South Korea’s middle power diplomacy. Seoul, South Korea: East Asia Institute. EAI Middle Power Diplomacy Initiative Working Paper 12.Google Scholar
  103. Soeya, Y. 2005. Nihon-no middle power Gaiko (Japan’s middle power diplomacy). Tokyo: Chikuma-shobo.Google Scholar
  104. Sohn, Y. 2012. Middle powers like South Korea can’t do without soft power and network power. Global Asia 7(3): 30–34. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  105. Song, H. 2016. South Korea’s overseas peacekeeping activities—part II: the implications for South Korea. Korea Economic Institute. 01 August. Accessed 5 Aug 2016.
  106. Stokes, B. 2015. How Asia-Pacific publics see each other and their national leaders. Pew Research Center, 2 September. Accessed 3 Nov 2015.
  107. Sussex, M. 2011. The impotence of being earnest? Avoiding the pitfalls of a ‘creative middle power diplomacy’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 65(5): 545–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  108. Tiberghien, Y. 2013. Global and regional institution building: The importance of middle power diplomacy in East Asia. In Proceedings of the 2013 KAIS-KF international conference: The role of middle power in the 21st century international relations, ed. The Korean Association of International Studies and Korea Foundation, 159–181. 19–20 April, Seoul, South Korea.Google Scholar
  109. Tiezzi, S. 2015. China and South Korea’s lagging military ties. Diplomat, 13 May. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  110. Triandafyllidou, A. 1998. National identity and the ‘other’. Ethnic and Racial Studies 21(4): 593–612.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. United Nations. 2015. Troop and police contributors. United Nations Peacekeeping. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  112. Voice of America. 2015. President Park Geun-hye, decides to participate in China’s victory day ceremony. South Korea–China bilateral summit on December 2nd (in Korean). 28 August. Accessed 30 Aug 2015.
  113. Waltz, K. 1979. Theory of international politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  114. Weymouth, L. 2015. Eventually we will face a situation that will be beyond our control. Washington Post, 11 June. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  115. Wood, B. 1987. Middle powers in the international system: A preliminary assessment of the potential. Helsinki: United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research. WIDER Working Papers 11 June.Google Scholar
  116. Xinhua. 2014. China, S. Korea trade volume rises by 2.8 percent. 3 July. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  117. Yonhap. 2013. S. Korea expresses regret over China’s air defense zones. 25 November. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  118. Yonhap. 2014. S. Korea–China FTA to create largest economic bloc in Asia. 10 November, Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  119. Yonhap. 2015a. S. Korea offers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 37 pct by 2030. 30 June. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  120. Yonhap. 2015b. S. Korea, Japan fine-tune UNESCO heritage issue. 1 July. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  121. Yonhap. 2015c. S. Korean parliament speaker proposes helping N. Korea through infrastructure development banks. 1 July. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  122. Yoo, S. 2015. Joining AIIB corresponds to interests of S. Korea, European countries. Xinhua, 18 March. Accessed 23 Aug 2015.
  123. Yoshimatsu, H. 2015. Diplomatic objectives in trade politics: The development of the China–Japan–Korea FTA. Asia-Pacific Review 22(1): 100–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  124. Zyla, B. 2016. Who is keeping the peace and who is free-riding? NATO middle powers and burden sharing, 1995–2001. International Politics 53(3): 303–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of International StudiesEwha Womans UniversitySeoulSouth Korea
  2. 2.Program in Political Science and International RelationsUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations