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


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.

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  1. For different strategies typical of great and smaller powers, see: Keohane (1969) and Gaddis (1982). See also: the February 2015 Special Issue of International Politics 52(2) on ‘Regional Contestation to Rising Powers.’

  2. Some analysts assume that material rankings alone make a middle power (Holbraad 1971; Wood 1987). Others argue that a state needs to be ‘recognized’ as a middle power by other states in the system (Hurrell 2000; Prys 2012; Shim and Flamm 2013). This research takes the position that a state government maintaining middle power interests and proclaiming a middle power identity are sufficient conditions for being considered a middle power and that we would then expect such a state to pursue policies broadly associated with middle power diplomacy.

  3. Mares (1988) adds to a materialist structural approach by arguing that a state’s position in the international system should be defined not only by the international distribution of resources, but also by the state’s ability to act in defense of its own preferences and characteristics.

  4. For discussion of these elements of middle power activism and diplomacy, see Lee (2012).

  5. Keohane (1969) categorizes states in the international system into four types: system-determining, system-influencing, system-affecting and system-ineffectual. He argues that small powers fall into the category of ‘system-ineffectual,’ middle powers belong to ‘system-affecting,’ and great powers are ‘system-determining.’

  6. See Zyla (2016) for analysis on middle power institutional activism.

  7. According to Howe, international development cooperation was not on the G20 agenda before Seoul’s hosting of the summit because the group had primarily focused on the global financial crisis.

  8. Cooper et al. (1993). For example, Canada’s middle power niche is peacekeeping, while Sweden is renowned for its foreign aid (Hayes 1997; Ihonvbere and Elgstrom 1994).

  9. South Korea’s decision to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by 2030 furthered its status as a leading middle power on environmental issues. See Yonhap (2015a).

  10. Yun’s delayed visit to Tokyo was the first such trip in four years by a South Korean foreign minister, an usually long time for important neighbors.

  11. There was indeed a mechanism for addressing these issues—the Foreign Affairs Director General level talks between Junichi Ihara and Lee Sang-deok—but making progress was difficult without full leadership support.

  12. The North Korean threat is intensifying in terms of nuclear development, land and submarine-based missile tests, aggressive military deployments, and North Korean incursions, shelling, and use of reconnaissance drones and land mines on the South Korean side of the military demarcation line.

  13. The historical sites controversy was largely over Japan registering, with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Meiji-era industrial sites such as Hashima, where some 58,000 forced Korean laborers were mobilized. Contentious but productive consultations led to an understanding whereby South Korea would not lead a movement against the listing of the Japanese sites, while Japan promised to display information at the sites regarding the mobilization of wartime Korean labor. See Yonhap (2015b).

  14. For comparison of economic performance among OECD countries, see BBC (2014).

  15. The article in question was ‘Beichu Futamata: Kankoku ga Tachikirenu ‘Minzoku no Warui Isan’ (Two-timing between the United States, China: The ‘negative ethnic legacy’ South Korea cannot sunder), Sankei Shimbun, August 31, 2015). Korean nationalists in the 1900s criticized leaders for being overly deferential and tributary toward China, at the expense of Korean identity (Robinson 1988, pp. 27–36). While the history may affect some understandings and interpretations of international relations today, South Korean identity takes too much pride in Korean culture, international role, and material capabilities to accept a subservient identity to China.

  16. Emmers and Teo (2015, p. 187) argue that a ‘middle power with a relatively high level of resource availability and a high-threat strategic environment is expected to adopt a functional strategy as it focuses its resources on addressing a specific problem that directly challenges its state survival and sovereignty.’ This explanation correctly predicts Seoul’s focus on North Korea, but not its policy toward Japan or resource allocation for global efforts on climate change and poverty reduction.

  17. Data on trade volume between South Korea and China are somewhat exaggerated, because ‘half of the trade volume between China and South Korea is related to processing trade, namely importing raw materials, parts and components and re-exporting finished products after processing or assembly’ according to the Chinese General Administration of Customs (GAC) (Xinhua 2014).

  18. For example, South Korea has looked to build a network for enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea by employing middle power diplomacy. Park Geun-hye made the first-ever visit by an ROK head of state to Iran and visited African nations with close ties to Pyongyang in May 2016.

  19. Some scholars have suggested South Korea focus on preventing US–China power competition from escalating into military conflict (Lee 2012).

  20. On the growing category of states considered as middle powers, see Cooper and Mo (2013).


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Easley, LE., Park, K. South Korea’s mismatched diplomacy in Asia: middle power identity, interests, and foreign policy. Int Polit 55, 242–263 (2018).

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