Modernization has Revolutionized Korean Grand Strategy

In the summer 2015, I went off to Columbia for a strategy training seminar called the ‘Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy.’ It was pretty great. You should apply for it, here.

It got me thinking about Korean grand strategy, which I have written about before. I still think the primary geopolitical dilemma for Korea is that it is a middle power surrounded by three great powers. That really sucks, and may be unique in world politics to be bordered by three great powers while being a small/middle power yourself. Most encircled powers only face two large states so directly adjacent to them. Even Germany, while encircled, was never so overmatched by neighbors, because it too was a great power. But Korea has three large states right on top it. That’s very tough.

But the power ratios are changing. In the last 50 years South Korea has grown very fast, while in the last 20-30 years, Russia and Japan have stagnated. That still doesn’t mean Korea is a great power, but the gap is much narrower. So for the first time in its history, Korea is not a regional geopolitical football. That’s actually a pretty great national achievement.

This is the focus of this essay (after the jump), originally written for The Diplomat.


In the last few months, a retired Chinese general hinted that China should not support North Korea if it collapses; the United States has agreed to indefinitely remain South Korea’s national security guarantor; and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has hinted that he will likely visit Moscow before Beijing (North Korea’s traditional benefactor). It has been a good run for South Korea, not to mention its continuing strong economic growth, balanced budgets and regular trade surpluses, and continuing ability to keep Japan off-balance regarding the Pacific War. For a middle power, South Korea plays its moderate hand relatively well. Hemmed-in by North Korea, asymmetrically dependent on the US, and often culturally overshadowed by its larger neighbors, South Korea might easily have been overwhelmed by its challenging neighborhood. But it has not been. It plays larger role than its size would indicate.

Korean Grand Strategy

South Korea’s primary strategic challenge is maintaining national autonomy in a very tough neighborhood. Korea is a middle power, surrounded by three great powers – China, Japan, and Russia. Geopolitically, this is a terrible location. Indeed, it may be uniquely trying. Other small states, such as Mongolia or Paraguay, are surrounded and dwarfed by their neighbors, but in Korea’s case there are three neighbors, not two, and all three have been great powers for centuries. Such extreme asymmetry all but insures meddling by neighbors seeking to gain advantage against one other. Historically, Korea has often been a buffer to be neutralized, a spoil of war, a concession to be traded, and so on.

In the past, Korea was often manipulated or bullied by its much larger neighbors. During the Joseon period (late fourteenth to late nineteenth centuries) Korea was traditionally in thrall to China. It was also invaded by Japan (in the 1590s) and bullied by the Manchus. An independent foreign policy line was nearly impossible.

As Russian and Japanese power grew in Asia in the later nineteenth century, Korea became something of geopolitical football between them and declining China. It was in this period that Japanese Meiji strategists notoriously termed Korea “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” (In fact, it was a Prussian advisor, Klemens Meckel, who coined that expression, but the Japanese military fully accepted that interpretation.) Korea was among Imperial Japan’s first targets. From 1910 to 1945, it was a Japanese colony.

Although nominal independence returned after 1945, Korea was once again pulled into spheres of influence beyond its control. Like Germany and Vietnam, Korea became, yet again in its history, a victim of external geopolitics, this time to Cold War manipulation and division. But both Koreas’ elites were determined to prevent a repeat of past instrumentalization by others. Although we normally focus on South Korea’s rapid modernization as its path to foreign policy autonomy, North Korea has also managed to claw its way into far more foreign policy success, even after the Cold War, than many would have predicted.

South Korea’s Regional Rise

A third world country in the 1950s, South Korea today ranks as one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Its GDP per capita is on par with the OECD. Its gross economic size places it in the top fifteen economies globally. It belongs to the G-20. Its companies and products, most notably, Samsung, enjoy global profile. Its cultural products have occasionally broken though, most notably the film Oldboy and the song Kangnam Style.

This rapid modernization vouchsafes Korean autonomy in a way never before possible. Korea is wealthy enough to deter the sort of bullying and manipulation that plagued it in the past. Indeed, freeing Korea from its regional vise was the main point of ‘President’ (dictator actually) Park Chung-Hee’s modernization drive in the 1960s and 70s. Park learned, ironically from Imperial Japan, the old Meiji slogan, “rich nation, strong army.” A wealthy Korea would be able to push-back on regional pressure as never before in its history. And one sees that today in South Korea’s tough line with Japan – unimaginable as late as the 1960s – and its business-like relationships with Russia and China.

The external counterpart of this ‘internal balancing’ or ‘self-strengthening’ is South Korean external balancing against its region through alliance with the United States. Korea’s ability to ally with one of its neighbors against the others is limited. Its diplomatic history with Japan, Russia, and China is tense and checkered. Korean elites do not really wish to ally with any of them. And allying with one raises the old possibility of domination by that ally. But an alliance with a large external power is an excellent choice. That power helps reinforce Korean local autonomy against its tough neighborhood, but the distance – both geographic and cultural – of the United States from Korea means the likelihood of US domination in turn is low. The United States has never threatened to occupy or absorb Korea as Japan, China, or the USSR plausibly might have.

Korea’s president before Park Chung-Hee, Syngman Rhee, saw this earlier than most. Rhee pushed hard for a US alliance at a time – the 1950s – when South Korea was of little obvious value to the United States. Between them, Rhee and Park laid the foundations of modern (South) Korean power. The former insured that a superpower would now be tied up in Korean security, inhibiting local domination; the latter pushed rapid modernization on a pre-modern agricultural society to give future Korean elites autonomous domestic capacity, including, in the most extreme circumstances, the ability to go it alone. Were South Korean to spend more defense and build nuclear weapons – neither of which would be too difficult at its current wealth level – it could even cut loose the American alliance if it really wanted to.

North Korea’s Diplomatic Success (yes, really)

Although South Korea’s successes are based on a more solid foundation of strong economics and capable military power, North Korea too has carved out far more local autonomy than one would imagine given its disastrous economy. It is only recently, with its extreme isolation of the last decade or so that North Korea is increasingly boxed-in. For much of its history, this was not the case.

Like Rhee and Park, Kim Il Sung came to power to determined to prevent the manipulation of his weak, half-state by the large powers around him. North Korean ideology explicitly targeted Japan right from the start. Generations have North Koreans have been dogmatically trained in Kim’s (rather exaggerated) anti-Japanese heroics. As for Russia/the Soviet Union and China, Kim carefully orchestrated his consolidation of power in the 1950s, purging Chinese and Soviet factions. By the 1960s, North Korea was a reasonably independent communist state, like Tito’s Yugoslavia, despite, amazingly, directly bordering China and the USSR.

Kim kept up his agile diplomacy throughout the Cold War, never tilting too much toward one or the other communist behemoth. Indeed, North Korean foreign relations became something of a ‘tail wags the dog’ scenario, in which Kim maneuvered the Chinese and Soviets to compete for his allegiance. This insured they both supported him in the Korean War, even though neither Mao nor Stalin wanted the war. Both also subsidized the increasingly inefficient North Korean economy.

Even after the Cold War ended and Soviet support disappeared, North Korea was able to pivot to Chinese support. And in its various dealings over its nuclear program, it has bargained its way into occasional aid from Japan, the US, and South Korea. For a state as feared and loathed as North Korea, it has done astonishingly well in securing external subsidization and playing its neighbors off against each other. North Korea’s economy is corrupt and dysfunctional. Its GDP per capita is on par with a third world less developed country. Without external support, the economy would break-down, as it did in the late 1990s, when over one million North Koreans starved to death. Yet North Korea has managed extract concessions from a range of players for most of its existence thereby forestalling internal reform and change.

This context also partially explains its nuclear weapons development. Those weapons expand on Pyongyang’s well-established tactics of brinkmanship and bluff to shake-down its neighbors for aid. So long as North Korea has such devastating weapons, it is in no one’s interest that the regime rapidly implode. During the Cold War, North Korea leveraged its position between Beijing and Moscow for aid. Today, North Korea exploits the regional fear of its collapse, its provocations, and its gangster activities (such as counterfeiting or methamphetamine production) to black-mail the locals into aid. It is an astonishing (and disturbing) record of success for state so dysfunctional and universally despised.

The Future: Unification and Autonomy

The goal of both Korean states continues to be the maintenance of autonomy – freedom of action, both internal and external – in a cramped, overwhelming neighborhood. South Korea’s efforts are more efficacious. Its large economy, educated labor force, integration into globalization, modern military, and so on, return a depth of durable national power North Korea lacks. China, Russia, and Japan may still be larger than South Korea by traditional measures, but the gap has never been smaller in Korean history. That is a huge achievement.

Indeed, as Russia and Japan have declined over the last several decades, and South Korea has continued to grow, South Korea is closing the regional gap even faster. Were Korea to unify under Southern leadership, parity with those two would be even closer. Korea is now a global middle power and a regional power punching above its weight. This is most obvious in how Korea has fought Japan to a stand-still in global public opinion over World War II and in the naming controversies of Pacific geography.

The real issues of the future then are China and unification. Although Japan and Russia are slipping, China is not, of course. It is Korea’s historical curse that its three neighbors have never declined simultaneously. The future threat to Korean autonomy is a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, a Monroe Doctrine that informally pressures Seoul and dominates Pyongyang. One can already see concerns about this in the criticism that current President Park Geun-Hye is toadying to Xi Jinping, or that North Korea is becoming an economic colony of China.

But South Korean elites are not obsequious regarding China. When China expanded its air defense identification zone in 2013, Seoul expanded back. South Korea fought hard to retain a robust US defense commitment, which, aimed primarily at North Korea, also bolsters South Korea against China. Seoul has repeatedly rejected a Chinese role in Korean unification. And, I believe, would be willing to develop nuclear weapons in post-unification Korea to prevent a return of Chinese domination. The days of Korea as geopolitical football of the region are over.

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