“Forging Autonomy in a Tough Neighborhood: Korea’s Foreign Policy Struggle” (1)

Part two is here; part three is here.

Last Friday I spoke at the Korean Association for International Studies’ conference on “Sino-US Relations and the Korean Peninsula.” I spoke on a panel entitled “The Future of Sino-US Relations and Korea’s Security Strategy.” I was requested to write about Korean foreign policy and the Sino-US relationship. This was a challenging mission, as I am not a Korean. It required a mental displacement, and one of my arguments – that a united Korea will probably ‘finlandize’ – created a stir. My paper’s title is the name of this post. Below is the first part of my short oral presentation. Here is part 2 and part 3; if you want the whole thing, email me at rekelly@pusan.ac.kr.)

“As I sat to write a paper about Korea’s foreign policy toward with the United States and China, it struck me that the central trouble Korea faces in dealing with these two very large states is the asymmetry of national power. And indeed, this asymmetry applies to Korea’s whole neighborhood. Korea, as I argue in the paper, has possibly the worst political geography on the planet. It is surrounded by three much larger powers – three great powers no less – with little chance to catch-up to those powers, economically or militarily. As such, much of Korean foreign policy must focus on retaining freedom of movement against the encroachment of larger, nearby powers, or as I entitled my paper, Korea must carve autonomy out of a very tough neighborhood.

This will be a struggle, and it is a struggle Korea frequently lost in the past. Today, the greatest threat to Korean autonomy is China, and its greatest guarantor is the United States. With Japan and Russia both stagnating at the moment, China and the US will dominate Korean foreign policy choices for the foreseeable future.

So I want to begin my paper with 2 basic IR theory insights. First the Republic of Korea is a middle power. Second, small and middle powers are frequently pulled into the orbit of larger powers.

First, Korea as a middle power. I provide some basic statistics in the paper on Korea’s neighborhood that bear repeating. These numbers are all drawn from the CIA World Factbook, which is updated every 2 weeks. SK’s population is 49.6 M. By contrast, Japan’s population is 127 M, Russia’s is 140M, and China’s is a staggering 1.3 B. That means Japan is 2.5 times Korea’s size; Russia almost 3, and China 26 times Korea’s population. If we include the 23 M N Koreans, Japan and Russia are still twice Korea’s size, and China is still 18 times bigger. Economically, Korea’s GDP (not PPP-adjusted) is $900B; Russia’s is $1.8T, China’s is $4.3T,and Japan’s is $4.9T. So Russia is twice Korea’s size; China is almost 5 times, and Japan almost 6. NK’s GDP is a crushing $26B, so its addition would not change these proportions much.

This is not to denigrate the miracle on the Han. Korea’s GDP per capita exceeds both China’s and Russia’s, and the rapidity with which Korea raced from African levels of poverty in the 40s to the OECD in the 90s is remarkable. Nevertheless, my point is that Korea is comparatively small, and downright tiny compared to China. As Kim Il Sung said, Korea is a shrimp among whales, and this is the central challenge to Korean foreign policy.

My second IR insight – that small powers often gravitate toward bigger ones – is aggravated in the Korean case, because that gravitation is even more likely to happen if, 1. those larger powers are great powers, and 2. if those larger powers are direct neighbors. Both of these conditions apply to Korea, and perhaps uniquely, Korea abuts 3 great powers. Not even Mongolia or Poland faces such harsh geography. Imperial Germany used to refer to the ‘ring of steel’ around it before WWI. Korea is in similar but worse position. Germany, a great power itself, could contemplate a breakout, and one may read WWI and WWII as German attempts to crack its encirclement. Korea has no such opportunities. It is simply too weak to pursue military resistance.

The great threat then to Korea is its domination by its much larger neighbors. Frequently large states intimidate, encroach, or otherwise bully smaller neighbors. Indeed, they may even absorb them outright. Korea’s own history gives us many examples of this dynamic. In the Choson dynasty period, Korea was a reliable vassal in the Sinocentric order. In the late 19th C, as Chinese power receded, Korea fell increasingly under the sway of Russia and especially Japan. In 1910, it was absorbed completely, and the Japanese pursued thoroughgoing japanification, including the elimination of the intelligentsia, restrictions on language and culture, and even encouraged the taking of Japanese names. Although Japanese power was smashed by 1945, it was locally replaced by the expansion of Soviet, Cold War power. And unfortunately for Korea, Japan rebounded quickly too. By the 80s of course, China’s rise had begun, so even as the USSR imploded, Korea’s entrapment continued. Throughout its history, its 3 larger neighbors have risen and fallen, but never fallen simultaneously. Korea seems doomed to a rotating list of hegemonic local threats. Today, although Japan and Russia are struggling, Korea faces the looming threat of China.”

11 thoughts on ““Forging Autonomy in a Tough Neighborhood: Korea’s Foreign Policy Struggle” (1)

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  3. As an aspiring scholar of Asian studies, I find the paper very interesting and insightful. The strategies pursued by NK and SK to create a space for themselves were presented well. The different models that SK, NK and a united Korea can adopt in the future, as well as the constraints and advantages of each position were also explained succinctly. I appreciate the attempt to make a balanced assessment of the possible scenarios for the Korean peninsula. Kudos!

    However, please allow me Sir to raise some rather trifling questions
    and comments:

    1. Should we attribute the autonomy of NK largely to its nuclear brinkmanship or its ability to play one power against another? Can we not look at the reluctance of the major powers to see a change in the status quo as a force behind the maintenance of the present configuration of the Korean peninsula? Is it the making of Pyongyang that the region’s powers do not have a common ground in dealing or interacting with NK? No one wants to tip the balance because they know the other regional party will react and it is uncertain whether their actions will remain within the confines of rationality. However, I understand that the emphasis of the paper is on the study of small or middle powers and not that of big powers so I think, in this case, it is warranted not to inquire on the reasons behind NK’s autonomy that can be linked to the behaviour of Northeast Asia’s regional powers? Therefore, I think this is a minor matter.

    2. I believe SK had never been marginal to overall US Cold War security concerns. Preventing the spread of communism across the 38th parallel and into Japan is a cardinal US interest in the region. Well it may be insinuating but Im afraid ill disagree with the point that the US’ position to look the other way around during the coups and repression that took place in post Korean War SK as arising from their inherent inability or commitment to influence SK affairs. Communism can easily thrive and flourish in democracies and it is this fear and apprehension that prompted Washington to tolerate military rule in SK in the same vein as it abetted Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile and Marcos in the Philippines. SK developed because the US wants to make it showcase against NK. At the time of the partition, much of the industrial area and mines of Korea were placed in the North, hence it is important to help SK industrialization and economic development so as not to be eclipsed or dominated by the communist North.

    3. I’m having some difficulty accepting the categorization of Canada as being comparable to Korea, Paraguay, Mexico or Poland. I think Canada is now a major global power in its own right. It is a developed country, OECD member, geographically larger than the US, and an active player in the international community. It had been attracting many migrants for its potentials to offer a better life thru higher paying jobs, peace and order and better living standards. Furthermore, to demonstrate the country’s growing global clout, Canada sits at the presidency of the influential G8 this year. I cannot imagine the country or a part of it (like say Yukon or the Northwest Territories) being partitioned by Russia and the US.

    4. Thailand is a good example of a small middle power who was able to create an autonomous space for itself to the extent that it was able to play off the British and the French against one another. Remaining independent (not partitioned), it acted as the buffer between British Burma and French Indochina. During the Cold War, Thailand also cultivated good relations with China to balance its alliance with the US, as well as contain the influence of Vietnam in Indochina. I wonder why Thailand’s case was not included among the success strategies pursued by small or middle powers to create a space for its own amidst the presence of rival colonizers. To remain sovereign, Thailand has to cede some lands to the British (e.g. Kedah, Kelantan and adjoining areas along its border with Burma) and French (e.g. Battambang).

    5. While Switzerland had maintained neutrality during the two World Wars, it had been one of the major depositories of stolen Nazi wealth. Many Nazis also escaped to Switzerland or used the country as a transit point to Italy and from there to South America, the Middle East or other parts of the world. I don’t know if being a subtle accomplice can pass on strict neutrality. There was also a mention of Austria as “having escaped bipolar competition in its doorsteps” (page 24). As far as I know, Austria was pressed into the Nazi war machine after the Anschluss.

    6. I believe Vietnam tilted more to Moscow rather than Beijing’s orbit.In the Sino-Soviet proxy war in the Indochina reflected in the backdrop of the Vietnamese invasion of Khmer Rouge (KR) Cambodia, USSR supported Vietnam, while China was a sponsor of the KR.

    I enjoyed and learned a lot from going over your manuscript Sir.

    Keep up the excellent work and it will be my great pleasure to meet you again sometime.


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