How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In just over half a century, South Korea has undergone a dramatic transformation from a poor, authoritarian country devastated by war to an economically dynamic, culturally rich, and resilient democracy. It is a major trade hub and a technological powerhouse. And its pop culture has gone global in recent years, as the boy band BTS and the hit Netflix series Squid Game have become household names.
The country has come a long way, but it can become an even more responsible and respected member of the international community. The incumbent South Korean administration has been guided by a parochial and shortsighted conception of the national interest. A foreign policy tailored mostly to improving relations with North Korea has allowed Seoul’s role in the global community to shrink. Most importantly, the U.S.-South Korean alliance has drifted owing to differences between the two countries on North Korea policy: Seoul has focused on cooperating with Pyongyang whereas Washington has prioritized confronting North Korea over its nuclear threats and human rights violations.
Dealing with North Korea is an important task for any South Korean government. But it should not represent the whole of Seoul’s diplomacy. Dialogue with the North was once a specific means to a specific end: the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Under President Moon Jae-in, however, dialogue with the North has become an end in itself. Meanwhile, as U.S.-Chinese tensions have grown, South Korea has failed to adapt, maintaining an approach of strategic ambiguity without stating a principled position. Seoul’s reluctance to take a firm stand on a number of issues that have roiled the relationship between Washington and Beijing has created an impression that South Korea has been tilting toward China and away from its longtime ally, the United States.
This timidity has extended beyond South Korea’s approach to its own neighborhood. South Korea survived a long, dark period of dictatorship, but has remained conspicuously silent in the face of violations of liberal democratic norms and human rights that invited outrage from other democracies. South Korea is home to the UN-backed Green Climate Fund and International Vaccine Institute, and it is well positioned to take a leadership role on climate change and pandemic response. Yet the current government has failed to take advantage of those assets and step up to the most important global challenges of our time.
This is a moment of change and flux in international politics. It calls for clarity and boldness, and for a commitment to principles. South Korea should no longer be confined to the Korean Peninsula but rise to the challenge of being what I have described as a “global pivotal state,” one that advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.
The intensifying competition between the United States and China poses a strategic dilemma for South Korea and many other countries in East Asia. They cannot neglect their longstanding cooperative relationship with the United States. But their growing economic ties with China make them reluctant to join multilateral initiatives to which Beijing objects. Having experienced Beijing’s anger in the past, Washington’s three partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Australia, India, and Japan—are wary of cooperating in ways that would explicitly antagonize China. In 2010, when Japan seized a Chinese fishing vessel near the island chain known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, China retaliated by suspending exports to Japan of rare earths, an essential material for semiconductors. Following Australia’s call for an extensive investigation of the precise source of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Beijing suspended imports of coal, Australia’s main export product.
Like those countries, South Korea has faced Chinese economic retaliation. Unlike them, however, South Korea has succumbed to Chinese economic retaliation at the expense of its own security interests. In the wake of Seoul’s 2016 decision to deploy the U.S.-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to defend against North Korean missiles, China mounted economic pressure from all angles. This included encouraging boycotts of South Korean products and imposing restrictions on South Korean imports and tourism. The Moon government responded with overly accommodating gestures meant to placate China, declaring the “three nos” policy: no additional THAAD deployments, no participation in a U.S. missile defense network, and no establishment of a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan. These pledges undercut South Korea’s sovereign right to protect its people. South Korea should never feel compelled to choose between the United States and China; rather, it must always maintain the principled position that it will not compromise on its core security interests. Securing deterrence against the North Korean threat is a matter of sovereignty, and Seoul should remain open to additional deployments of THAAD in proportion to North Korea’s growing missile threat.
South Korea has succumbed to Chinese economic retaliation.
A deeper alliance with Washington should be the central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy. South Korea has benefited from the global and regional order led by the United States. Seoul should seek a comprehensive strategic alliance with Washington, and the nature of U.S.-South Korean bilateral cooperation should adapt to the needs of the twenty-first century. Alliances that solely balance against specific military threats are a thing of the past, especially because it has become common practice to inflict damage on adversaries through economic retaliation or technological assaults. That is why today’s alliances involve complex networks of cooperation on a diverse set of issues, including privacy, supply chains, and public health.
Through a comprehensive economic and security dialogue, South Korea and the United States should cooperate on the development of cutting-edge semiconductors, batteries, cyber-tools, space travel, nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals, and green technologies. The governments of the United States and South Korea should update and synchronize their regulatory approaches in these areas in order to spur development and investment.
Seoul must also retool its complex relationship with Beijing. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and South Korea is a major market for Chinese goods. Despite these economic ties, the countries differ strongly on security concerns, especially when it comes to North Korea. The Chinese government seems to support the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula rather than just North Korea, and its main goal is to preserve the stability of the Kim regime.
A new era of Seoul-Beijing cooperation should be based on the principle that such differences should not get in the way of economic issues. The two countries should regularly hold high-level strategic dialogues to address not only the North Korea issue but also climate change, public health, and cultural exchanges. Relations should be grounded in respect for each other’s interests and policy positions. Just as South Korea does not oppose China’s Belt and Road Initiative and works with Beijing in trade and commerce, China for its part should accept, rather than oppose, South Korea’s cooperative system with its allies.
A more cooperative relationship with Beijing would also help Seoul deal with the North Korean quagmire. Relations between the two Koreas have been distorted by Pyongyang’s provocations and Seoul’s subservient reactions. In 2020, North Korea blew up the joint inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, less than two years after it was built by the Moon government. And in the last month alone, North Korea has launched 11 missiles. But the Moon administration has not raised its voice. To make matters worse, South Korea in recent years has allowed its military readiness to deteriorate significantly in the face of a growing threat from the North. For the South Korean government, protecting the lives and property of its people should be the main priority. Seoul must neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities by strengthening South Korea’s air and missile defenses and reinforcing Washington’s extended deterrence against North Korea. South Korea can achieve this by regularly holding the tabletop exercises with the United States, which were conducted only twice during the Moon administration, and by establishing a more concrete agenda for the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group that Washington and Seoul established in 2016.
In the last month alone, North Korea has launched 11 missiles.
South Korea should put forward a road map for the denuclearization of the North that clearly sets parameters for negotiations and establishes corresponding measures for each step Pyongyang takes toward the goal. Pyongyang’s sincere and complete declaration of its existing nuclear programs would be the first step milestone in restoring trust. Sanctions against North Korea might then be eased in line with verifiable and irreversible steps Pyongyang must take toward denuclearization.
Negotiations should rest on the idea that if the North Korean leadership makes the bold decision to denuclearize, the South will offer economic support and discuss cooperation projects, including an inter-Korean joint development plan to guide economic relations in a post-denuclearization era. Seoul should also provide humanitarian support that helps the people of North Korea in a practical way and promote people-to-people exchanges and cross-cultural communication between the two Koreas.
Just as South Korea should play a more proactive role in matters close to home, it should also take the initiative in the broader region. Rather than passively adapting and reacting to the changing international environment, South Korea should actively promote a free, open, and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific. Seoul should willingly participate in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue working groups, consider joining multilateral regional cooperative initiatives in phases, and take part in trilateral security coordination with the United States and Japan.
Bilateral relations with Japan also require a rethink, and Seoul should recognize the strategic importance of normalizing ties with Tokyo. Reviving the cooperative spirit of the joint declaration issued in 1998 by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, the two countries should seek comprehensive solutions to their disputes over history, trade, and security cooperation. Above all, South Korea should resume shuttle summit diplomacy and restore trust between the two countries. Seoul should also set up a high-level negotiating team to engage in comprehensive talks with Tokyo on issues of cooperation as well as conflict. To bring back trust and confidence, the two countries should expand the scope of people-to-people exchanges across borders, in particular among the young people of South Korea and Japan.
Seoul should recognize the strategic importance of Tokyo.
In the 1950s, South Korea was reduced to ashes by war and was completely dependent on foreign aid. Just 50 years later, it became an economic powerhouse providing aid to others. Today, the country wants to give back to the international development system by sharing its considerable expertise in economic development. To help the world more quickly achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly reducing inequality within and among countries, South Korea should expand its overseas development assistance programs. As both an advanced democracy and economic powerhouse, South Korea should play a leading role in development cooperation projects with emerging countries that seek to foster democracy.
To ensure the safety and security of cyberspace, South Korea should establish an international cyber-cooperation network to support the efforts of the UN Group of Governmental Experts and the Open-Ended Working Group, paying particular attention to bridging the digital divide between developed countries and developing ones. As a high-tech powerhouse with strong democratic fundamentals, South Korea will continue to champion an open and secure cyberspace. At home, Seoul should strengthen its own systems for acquiring, managing, and protecting personal data online and increase its oversight on cross-border data flows.
South Korea, like other countries, is being buffeted by a whirlwind of change that has been heightened by the pandemic. The country’s future will be shaped by climate change, rapid scientific and technological advances, and shifting power relations in the international system. In this time of extreme uncertainty, the passive, conventional leadership to which South Koreans have become accustomed cannot guide the country into the future. South Korea can become a vibrant, innovative, and attractive country, but only if its government exercises creative thinking and makes clear choices.
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