Stephen Costello “South Korea’s Role in Northeast Asia” TEXT



Stephen Costello 

ProducerAsiaEast Policy Roundtable

“South Korea’s Role in Northeast Asia”

Sookmyung Woman’s University – Seoul

23 June 2014


I                Context

II               Interests

III              Two Overriding Questions

IV             Korea’s Biggest Card to Play

V               Implications for Policy Going Forward

VI             Likely Scenarios



I                Context

The context for today’s strategic and political environment includes the post-Korean War, when national development took off; the post-Cold  War, when ideological polarization could be overcome; and the post-9-11, when Korea’s primary responsibility for its security and development became clear.  Other frameworks matter, such as South Korea’s post-Authoritarian dynamics and the rise of China, but it is primarily these other three that constitute the current reality for South Korean strategic thinkers.

II               Interests

Interests – both subjective and perceived – are at the heart of Korea’s dilemma today.  What are South Korea’s primary strategic interests in the region?  That depends on which political/ideological power group you are talking about.  The different groups see things quite differently.  And how, specifically, do the different groups in Korea see things?  A good source of data for answering this question can be found in the debates over policy that occurred during the presidential campaigns of the past 25 years.  Increasingly during the authoritarian period, and unabashedly during the recent decades of progressive and conservative government, parties and candidates argued for very different calculations of the national interest.  In the life of nations, 25 years is not a long time.  Have Korea’s real interests changed dramatically during this time?

Geography is a funny thing.  It does not respect the interconnected world.  Nor does it respect globalization, Google, or KakoTalk.  It just is.  A test helps to make this point.  Find a map of NE Asia from way back in 1993, when Kim Young Sam and William Jefferson Clinton first took office in Seoul and Washington.  Then take a map of today’s Northeast Asia.  Slide today’s map over the one from 21 years ago.  Remarkably, the coastlines and borders will line up exactly.  Geography is the great determinant when assessing a state’s interests.  And like geography, the core interests of the countries in this region have not changed much in the past two decades.

Back to those campaign debates.  This clash of views of “the national interest” is no different in some ways from the clashes in Japan and the US.  Two or more political/ideological/power groups see this question differently, sometimes radically differently.  Our media are not good at understanding or reporting on this, so much reporting and commentary are full of confusion.

III              Two Overriding Questions

For Korean presidential candidates, leaders, policy makers and policy specialists, there are two overriding questions on the table regarding Korea’s role in the region.  One, what kind of modern political/economic development should Korea follow?  Which models are best?  Two, what regional role can Korea play? Which should it play? The question can be posed as “what should be Korea’s primary role, its primary posture” since the various roles are not mutually exclusive.

Regarding the first question, and beyond the basics of political democracy and economic liberty, is the European social democrat model the most appropriate, or the US conservative mainstream model of small government, low taxes and minimum regulation?  This debate in Korea is natural, because of the influence of the US system, policies and politics here, and because of Korea’s growing exposure to modern Europe and its participation in international institutions.  The direction chosen will impact your regional posture, because it will affect your political and policy choices and it will determine the strength of your example and of your diplomacy.

Regarding the second question, what role in the region, a simplistic choice is this: On the one hand, the role of US ally in the regional US alliance-based system, and a key balancer against growing Chinese power.  In this way, Korea would insure maximum symbolic “security assurance” in exchange for some limits on diplomatic flexibility.  On the other hand, while anchored to the US alliance and acting as a check on Chinese misuse of power, Korea could act as a diplomatic/economic/security middle power, convener and peace-builder.

The choices of economic/democratic development and regional role – along with the particulars of their implementation – have major implications for domestic cohesion, social progress and national strength.  Some choices can increase cooperation and compromise.  Others can increase divisions and mistrust, and will drain national strength.  A flexible, more independent force.

IV             Korea’s Biggest Card to Play

No player in the region has a bigger or more consequential “card” to play than South Korea.  That card, and even the prospect that it might be deployed with commitment, is the most powerful leverage in the Korean arsenal.  It is far more powerful than cruise missiles, jet fighters or submarines.  That card is the reunification card.  More specifically, it is the public commitments and follow-on actions between the two Koreas to work together to narrow differences, denuclearize, and slowly integrate national interests that greatly overlap.

Needless to say, the decision to deploy the reunification card has implications for the two overriding questions noted above.  Economic models and political calculations would change.  Korea’s role would be perceived differently, and its range of options would expand.  All the main Korean power groups know this.  That is why debates over this issue are so intense.

Real movement would also urgently and directly impact Korea’s relations with Japan, China and the US.  We know this partly because of the diplomatic record during the most extensive South-North engagement from 1998 to 2001.  The reunification card is so powerful that it is also the biggest card in the US arsenal.  For now the US leadership has chosen to withhold its support, but that could change in the future, either by US or ROK initiative.


V               Implications for Policy Going Forward

In view of interests, the two overriding questions, and Korea’s unification leverage, what are the implications for policy going forward?

  1. South Korean policy entrepreneurship and creativity in this region can serve the interests of all players.  There need be no losers as a result of negotiated South-North rapprochement or Korean-Japanese growing interest-based, strategic integration.


  1. China’s recent bullying behavior should provoke more South Korea-China dialogue and more intensive diplomacy, not less.  A North Korea that is developing, denuclearizing, and beginning to interact with international institutions is preferable from China’s perspective to an isolated, poor and dangerous North Korea.  If the two Koreas were to return to practical initiatives toward integration of national interests, China would quickly recalculate its power relationship with the Peninsula, and that recalculation would be in Korea’s favor.


  1. The Korean government can be confident and secure in two things:
    1. The deep and unshakable strength of the Korea-US alliance.  The alliance is too deep, ranging across social, political, economic and security affairs, to be buffeted by small political gestures or normal policy disputes.  And it is values-based.
    2. The willingness of and the necessity for your US ally to accept and accommodate an expanded South Korean role in the region and new initiatives in peninsular affairs.


  1. A threat-based regional environment where the democracies align to contain the non-democratic states, and an arms race continues unabated, is not in the interests of any state.  It is particularly not in the interests of South Korea, because it renders your greatest strengths unusable.  However, this threat-based environment may serve the perceived interests of political groups, power groups, and individual leaders.  This is one reason why we may expect it to continue.

VI             Likely Scenarios

What are we likely to see from President Park and other leaders regarding the questions addressed here?  It would be easy to predict a continuation of the current uneasy, cold, semi-peace and semi-stability.  Many leaders and groups are invested in it.  If one had to bet, that would be a safe one.

Yet that bet almost requires that one questions the sincerity of President Park and her “Eurasia Initiative.”  I don’t think we should.  She has demonstrated unusual determination in the past, and her history and experiences make her a leader uniquely qualified to break the impasse of the past 13 years.

In view of growing conflicts in the South and East China Seas, it might be useful to ponder how new diplomacy surrounding the inter-Korea and Korea-Japan issues would impact those fights.

South Korea today has the most flexibility and the biggest card to play in regional security, economic development and power relations.  Weather it chooses to play that card, and if so how it does so, are top agenda items for the administration, for the power and political groups, and for the Korean public.  The past two decades should make clear that no other state has more to gain from active, creative diplomacy to lower regional tensions and end inter-Korean hostility.  Nor does any other state have more to loose from the political/diplomatic paralysis that defines today’s environment.  If President Park does not act forcefully to change this game, another South Korean president someday will.