The Limitations of “Global Korea’s” Middle Power

2010 was a pivotal year for the Republic of Korea: as host of the G20 Leaders’ Summit—the first non-G7 and non-Western country to do so—the relatively small country earned international recognition as a significant force in the global arena. If the 1988 Seoul Olympics was South Korea’s debut on the international stage, then the Seoul G20 Summit was the equivalent—its opportunity to star in a leading economic role in front of a “standing-room only” global audience, at a crucial time in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. This was an astonishing achievement for a country which exactly 100 years prior had been formally annexed by the Japanese empire, marking a century of struggle to overcome humiliating defeat, division, and internecine war. With Seoul’s subsequent role as host of the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, it emerged from these successful responsibilities as an acknowledged “middle power.”

Seven years later, South Korea faces another pivotal year with its political future in the balance due to an ongoing leadership crisis involving the impeached President Park Geun-hye, and a presidential election that is likely to be tumultuous. Given these domestic challenges, and a regional environment in a state of flux exacerbated by the change of US leadership, it is unclear if South Korea will be able to maintain its position as a significant middle power. The future of its global position and influence are as much dependent on the dramatic changes in the international system today as they are on domestic factors, as well as on whether a “middle power” status meaningfully captures the country’s national identity, capabilities, and ambitions.

This article poses three principal questions: 1) How should South Korea’s claim of “middle power” status be assessed, and how does a focus on national identity serve as a guide to its foreign policy formulation? This means assessing whether achieving middle power status was a realistic goal, and how effective this status was in steering the regional and global environment in a positive direction. 2) What is the primary motivation driving South Korea’s obsession with achieving middle power status, and Seoul’s desire to “punch beyond its weight” in regional and global affairs? Understanding the deeper motives behind this pursuit reveals that the primacy of national identity has shaped the contours of the South Korea’s international role and status, and will continue to guide its future contributions. 3) Given domestic and foreign concerns in 2017, how sustainable is optimism about South Korea’s status as a middle power? At a time of flux and polarization, Seoul’s future path for proceeding in accord with this status may be far from clear.

Defining “Middle Power”

The term “middle power,” according to Randall Schweller, connotes a consensus about a state’s relative ranking in the hierarchy of the international system by virtue of its status somewhere between “great power” and “minor power.” While this status may suggest the kind of actions the state is likely to pursue, the term is sufficiently vague and so overly broad as to tell us little about the actual characteristics of middle power states, and merely what they are not: they are not great powers, major powers, or minor powers.1 Paul Evans provides some generalizable characteristics that describe the attributes of the states that comprise the diverse range of middle power status: they possess mid-range capabilities, comparative wealth, significant diplomatic capacity and reputation, at least some hard-power assets, domestic stability, surplus diplomatic energy, and no region to dominate.2 These characteristics apply well to South Korea for at least the past two decades.

According to these useful parameters, South Korea in the 21st century occupies a solid middle power status. Moreover, the country has purposefully and actively promoted itself as a “bridge” between the great and minor powers, a role that is emphasized by many as crucial for middle powers given the space they occupy in the global hierarchy, providing a link between the developed and undeveloped countries in the international system. As such, South Korea’s role as host of the 2010 G20 Summit was profoundly consequential for establishing it as a legitimate middle power, particularly in the global economic realm. With economic concerns at the forefront of global attention since the 2008 financial crisis, South Korea has asserted itself as a middle power, and achieved commensurate global recognition.

The Economic and Political Spheres

The ROK’s remarkable development in the last seventy years into a modern, thriving economy with a robust democratic political system uniquely qualifies it to serve as the natural “bridge” between the two divergent halves of the membership of the G20. Economically, It  occupies the middle rank among the developed and lesser-developed members, and is, therefore, an obvious model for the developing world.3 Moreover, as the first non-Western nation to head the G20, it is in a unique position to effectively bridge the gap between the developed Western nations of the G20 and the others. Because it shares historical sensitivities about falling victim to foreign domination with many of the non-G7 nations that comprise the G20, it understands that US or Western attempts to press for economic reforms and restructuring are likely to be rejected, in large part, because bowing to Western pressure is an unacceptable political humiliation for them. Such reasoning has emboldened South Koreans to occupy a particular niche in the international order.

South Korea’s distinction as an extraordinarily successful graduate of overseas development aid (ODA) also makes it well qualified to serve not only as a role model for the lesser-developed economies as recipients of financial assistance, but also as an effective communicator between them and rich nations and donor institutions. More than a decade after the IMF’s controversial role in responding to the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998, many Asian countries and others remain understandably wary of engaging the IMF and have kept their distance from it. South Korea began to actively utilize its economic resources and experience in December 2009, when it became an official member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), and the first to transition from ODA beneficiary to aid donor since DAC’s creation in 1961. By 2015, the ROK had provided USD 1.9 billion in net ODA, and was the 14th largest DAC provider,4 a source of national pride.

It is not just economic success that puts South Korea in a singular position to bridge the two G20 groups, but its unique role as one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia. Indeed, by offering tangible proof that a non-Western country is capable of evolving into a flourishing democracy that still retains Asian characteristics, South Korea presented itself as a natural bridge between the West and the rest, beyond G20 members. While it is practically an article of faith that the leadership of global institutions must accommodate non-Western emerging powers, Jorge Castaneda—a former foreign minister of Mexico—warns against accommodating rising economic players such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) into global organizations. He argues that inclusion of them threatens the liberal principles and practices of democracy, free trade, nuclear non-proliferation, environmentalism, and international justice that such institutions—and most of their current leadership—seek to spread: “At best they are regional powers that pack a minuscule international punch; at worst, they are neophytes whose participation in international institutions may undermine progress toward a stronger international legal order.”5 South Korea serves as a powerful role model of a non-Western society that has successfully incorporated democratic and liberal principles and practices into its political and economic structures, notwithstanding its current leadership turmoil; if anything, the lack of systemic political disintegration and economic chaos or instability reveals the solidity of established institutions. This image of a values bridge is flattering to Seoul despite a loss of democracy’s bridging role.

Although aspirations were high, seven years after hosting the G20 Leaders’ Summit, South Korea has not offered any significant models of progress to the G7. And while the ROK has continued to solidify its middle power status among the G20, how successful it has been in bridging the gap between the developed and developing members remains questionable. This begs the question: is the role of “bridge-builder” an adequate or even necessary responsibility to qualify as a solid middle power? President Lee Myung-bak, the progenitor of the “Global Korea” strategy to elevate his country’s international role, himself declared in 2010: “the world can be split into two groups: one group sets global rules, the other follows. South Korea has successfully transformed itself from a passive follower into an active agenda-setter.”6 But merely hosting a global leaders’ summit is not sufficient to elevate South Korea’s international position, and it is not clear that it has achieved a leadership role, especially in the global economy.

One crucial area in which Seoul has notably had little independent impact is in international trade, despite the fact that revitalizing trade was a priority of the G20 in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis and that it has been at the forefront of pursuing trade liberalization through negotiating FTAs. As the world’s ninth largest trading country with more than 60 percent of its domestic economy dependent on trade, South Korea has a powerhouse economy fueled largely by its vigorous interaction with the global economy, and remains highly dependent on an open liberal trading environment. Thus, unsurprisingly, the ROK was and remains keenly interested in sustaining the G20’s commitment to resisting protectionism. Indeed, it has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most aggressive pursuers of FTAs, successfully achieving ambitious FTAs with the two largest world economies, the United States and the EU.7 The ROK also has the distinction of being the only G20 member to be in negotiations or have concluded an FTA—or other trade liberalization agreement—with every other G-20 member, bilaterally or as part of a larger bloc. It is also involved, in one stage or another, with the greatest number of economic entities in free trade arrangements globally. South Korea has garnered a reputation for pursuing “high-class” FTAs, in contrast to China, which has settled for the lowest common denominator in its agreements. The ROK has distinguished itself too by exhibiting far greater flexibility than Japan, establishing an admirable standard not only for the region, but globally.

Yet, despite its central role at the nexus of a complex web of bilateral, regional, and global FTAs and other trade arrangements, South Korea has been unable to significantly alter the global momentum away from liberalizing trade. This is perhaps one of the starkest reflections of South Korea’s limited capabilities as a true middle power, despite its relative global economic weight. Given the seemingly inexorable tide of populism and nationalism that appears to be spreading, including in the United States as evidenced by the recent election of Donald Trump, South Korea’s dogged efforts to continue to seek FTAs is a hallmark of the country’s stubborn ability to eke out success against the odds, but, ultimately, also a reflection of middle power limitations that are dependent on the global environment, and particularly the gravitational pull of the United States, which has shaped the parameters of South Korean capabilities throughout its existence as sovereign country. Thus, while the G20 Seoul Summit clearly announced to the world that South Korea had become a significant, if limited, middle power, whether it can assert its capabilities beyond the economic realm, particularly in the security arena, is uncertain.

The Security Sphere

Broadly considered, the ROK’s contributions to global security have expanded tremendously in the last two decades. Once, almost entirely a consumer of security dependent on the international community for its defense—UN Forces during the Korean War—, its national security capabilities today exemplify yet another model of graduating from recipient to donor. Despite its continued reliance on the United States to augment its national defenses, ROK economic, military, and political capabilities have developed sufficiently that it can confidently contribute to global security and stability. These activities have included joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an international cooperative effort to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); sending ships to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Africa; expanding contributions to peace-keeping operations (PKO); sending forces and support to Afghanistan and Iraq for reconstruction and stabilization efforts; and hosting the global Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. In addition, Seoul’s speedy response in 2010 to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti was its largest relief effort to date for an international disaster, and an important example of its commitment to fulfilling duties as a responsible member of the international community.8

Inherent in such contributions is broad recognition by South Korea and its leadership of greater global responsibilities commensurate with the nation’s development and success, as well as the understanding that the country owes a debt of gratitude to the international community. It is also, perhaps, a function of the new global dynamic in which transnational threats are expanding and increasingly diffuse. This has meant that South Korea has become more vulnerable to non-traditional threats but, ironically, it also is afforded new opportunities, as a middle power state, to play a more substantial international role by elevating its contribution to meeting new challenges and taking advantage of the greater flexibility of middle powers, because they tend to carry less political and global baggage than great powers. However, the regional security environment is glaringly devoid of South Korea’s active contribution. An inability to have substantial impact on security in its most immediate neighborhood is, perhaps, the greatest inhibitor to South Korea’s achievement of a true middle power status, which, according to the previously stated definition, includes some independent ability to influence or shape outcomes beyond its own borders.

South Korea’s inability (unwillingness?) to actively engage in regional security issues off the Korean Peninsula is, in great part, due to the obviously compelling existential threat posed by North Korea. As a function of that threat, the defense structure maintained under its alliance with the United States has imposed certain limitations, but also afforded the ROK the latitude to focus almost exclusively on its narrow security interests and needs. Indeed, without US security guarantees since the Korean War’s ceasefire in 1953, as well as American economic and political support, South Korea would arguably not have achieved its middle power capabilities.

Moreover, it can be argued that ROK efforts in the last two decades to actively participate in the global security arena are also a direct function of its alliance with the United States, given Washington’s efforts to push its allies around the world to contribute to multilateral efforts to promote global stability. Indeed, as the reluctance of the Roh Moo-hyun administration and the fierce political opposition to ROK contributions to the US war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 reveal, they seemed more a direct function of a quid-pro-quo of American cooperation on North Korea, rather than due to a sense of global responsibility. Even today, South Korea can be doing far more to address international issues such as the plight of refugees spurred by the Syria crisis. Nevertheless, there has been a fundamental shift in the framing of global interests and their impact on South Korea and its responsibilities since 2007. With Lee Myung-bak’s “Global Korea” strategy, national interests became integrally intertwined with the country’s ability to have global impact, which explains, in great part, outsized ambitions to “punch above its weight” compared to its limited capabilities. Yet,  because Sino-US rivalry dominates the regional scene and South Korea has sought to maximize the cooperation of the two great powers in facing North Korea, its hands have been tied in addressing regional conflicts.

Park Geun-hye has expanded international commitments further, increasing participation in more FTAs and other multilateral forums to capitalize on South Korea’s middle power: She has promoted participation in MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia), an informal cooperative grouping of middle power countries designed to play a “bridge-building” role in the international community.9  She has also expanded earlier strategies designed to prioritize development of deeper relations with the broader Asian region beyond Northeast Asia, such as Central, Southeast, and South Asia, and to promote the creation of a Eurasian region. All these efforts were articulated as strategies to expand South Korea’s influence off the peninsula, and to create greater opportunities for economic expansion. In the security sphere, however, they are marginal associations with scant impact on the ongoing rivalries dominating the broader region.

The framing of South Korea’s pro-active presence globally as intrinsically linked to the pursuit of more narrow national interests has been successful in garnering broad public support for increased global activities, even in the security realm. Yet, many Koreans remain ambivalent when it comes to the prospects of engaging in security issues closer to home. Roh Moo-hyun famously reacted to the 2005 announcement of a US strategy to adapting US Forces Korea into its regional strategic flexibility doctrine, declaring: “the clear thing is that our citizens will not become embroiled in Northeast Asian conflicts without our consent.”10 This emotional outburst, which negatively damaged the alliance at the time, reflects the classic twin fears held by junior ally partners of “abandonment” on the one hand, and “entrapment” on the other.11

Ultimately, South Korea’s appetite to engage the world as a global leader across a spectrum of arenas despite its clearly limited middle power capabilities may be less about shaping the global environment and more about the pursuit of national interests. Prioritization of domestic interests over global ones is an understandable if not justifiable rationale for any state, especially one that is not a great power. Through initiatives such as the Sunshine Policy and the Northeast Asian Peace and Security Initiative, Seoul sought a larger security role in the narrow neighborhood around the Korean Peninsula, but great power rivalries and Pyongyang’s refusal to cooperate leave it with no realistic path forward. With its middle power hopes frustrated close to home and in the East Asian region, South Korea is left only with a global economic presence for its status enhancement.

Middle or Great Power? Reality vs. Ambition

South Korea’s ambition to achieve global standing and recognition is, arguably a function of its unrealistic, even impossible, goal to ascend past middle power status and to achieve great power stature. While a seemingly fantastical aspiration for a relatively small country that is clearly and inexorably embedded in a region dominated by far greater powers, for South Korea—and North Korea too—the goal is not to be the regional hegemon but to acquire enough relative power to maintain, at a minimum, independence from neighboring great powers’ influence. Such logic is derived from a profoundly embedded strategic culture—a paradigm of beliefs and a set of strategic preferences that is the lens through which state actions are interpreted—shaped by centuries of historical, nationalistic, ideological, and pragmatic considerations.

The territorial division of the peninsula is a constant condition that dominates the political calculations of both Korean regimes, and is the driving force in their respective management of internal and external affairs. Centuries of unequal relations, foreign depredation, and dependence on foreign powers for assorted benefits and even survival, have informed how Koreans perceived and conducted their relations with the outside world. These patterns have given rise to the widely shared assumption—in the North and the South—that the capacity to control their national destiny is severely limited by geopolitical constraints, and their lack of relative power in the immediate region and globally is considered their greatest source of insecurity.12 As bitter as the differences are between the two, they agree that the division of the peninsula was caused by great power machinations, and continued undue external influence is responsible for the unnatural status quo.

Geographically situated at a critical strategic crossroad in Northeast Asia, Korea has over the centuries been coveted by the great powers that surround it for its strategic rather than any intrinsic value. By the turn of the 20th century, Korea was the prize in Asia’s first “modern” wars: the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904), which marked Japan’s “debut” on the international stage as the first industrialized Asian nation to defeat a “great Western power.” Yet during this period, Korea remained stubbornly impervious to the growing strength and inevitable dominance by regional great powers. The extent of its unrealistic determination to maintain independence despite overwhelming odds was stunningly exemplified by King Kojong, the last dynastic ruler of the Chosun kingdom. In 1897, he elevated his own status to that of “Emperor of the Great Han” (“Taehan hwangjae”) since he deemed that “wang” or “king” did not sufficiently connote the independent status he claimed for the peninsula; furthermore it would command equal respect from both the Japanese and Chinese emperors, and declare to the world that as a sovereign state, the Korean empire was the equal of its neighbors. It did not matter that by this time Korea was already being carved up into spheres of influence by Russia, Japan, and China. Thus was born the “Great Han Empire” (“Taehan Cheguk”) from which is derived South Korea’s current modern name: “the Great Republic of Korea” (“Taehan Min-guk).”13

The symbolic perpetuation of “Great Han” in the ROK’s official moniker—similarly reflected in North Korea’s constant stream of exaggerated claims of self-aggrandizement and grandeur—belies the objective reality of both Koreas’ historical and current relative weakness in the region along all measures of power. Yet, both “shrimps surrounded by whales” seem undeterred in their determination to forge independent paths, each in its own diametrically divergent manner: the North by barricading itself from external influence and breaching international standards, and the South by immersing itself in the global community. Such ambitions reflect a shared supposition about Korea: that certain immutable traits, i.e. it is a small, relatively weak power situated at the center of great power interests, are responsible for its loss of independence. This logic concludes that policy decisions are, thus, reactive to the exigencies of external situations thrust upon them, rather than proactive in any fashion. According to such a capabilities-based argument, the only way (South or North) Korean foreign policy formation becomes more proactive is with a corresponding elevation of status and power in the regional hierarchy.14

Thus, despite the immutable reality of  relative weakness in the region, or perhaps because of it, South Korea has almost obsessively and consistently pursued policies to carve out some measure of independent power (as has the North). In the early stages of development in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea had little independence given the strictures of the Cold War structure and its dependence on the United States for survival. Since the 1990s, however, when both the end of the Cold War and North Korea’s precipitous decline coincided with its own rapid rise in the global economy, Seoul has been able to actively pursue an ambitious strategy to achieve larger, and middle, if not great, power status, and thereby reduce its dependence on the United States. Yet, ambitions driven by the above national identity assumptions, exceeded real possibilities.

The end of the Cold War precipitated the rapid decline of the North Korean economy and increased its vulnerability to South Korea and the rest of the globalizing world. Pyongyang’s inevitable alternative to capitulating to Chinese dominance was to pursue nuclear weapons in, perhaps, an ultimately futile effort to achieve some level of independent security while attempting to maintain “splendid isolation.” While seemingly a futile and senseless pursuit, the regime has defied expectations by sustaining this strategy longer than many believed possible. One might add that Seoul, enamored by its “middle power” status has also overestimated its own prospects as the current environment—unfavorable to FTAs and globalization, and with increasingly severe security dilemmas—casts doubt over whether earlier optimism will endure.


Today South Korea is considered a solid middle power by almost all measures. Yet, Koreans seem uncertain about having achieved this status and whether it is even satisfactory. It is not readily discernible whether South Korea has been aggressively participating in a wide range of global forums to maximize its middle power capabilities, or whether it views such participation as a minimalist position to ensure that it is granted recognition by the international community. If the latter, then it is uncertain, even to South Koreans, whether the nation has fully accepted, much less embraced, the role of confident middle power and the responsibilities commensurate with this rank.    Complicating doubts about whether the country should be content with its middle power status and the limited security capabilities it implies, is uncertainty in the region regarding the relative power status of its neighbors: North Korea’s recalcitrant pursuit of nuclear weapons potentially elevates the otherwise weak state’s  position—at least in terms of military capabilities—exponentially higher. Japan, which until recently had been the center of regional economic gravity, has been limited in its ability to return to great power status by virtue of domestic structural limitations and its alliance with the United States. But under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the possibility that it might shed some of these strictures and revive its economic vigor has aroused fears of a resurgent, dominant Japan whose ambitions remain under deep suspicion.

Dominating the fluctuating regional power dynamics is, of course, China, whose regional if not global ambitions seem rather clear to its neighbors: to reduce if not eliminate the US presence and power in the Asia-Pacific and to increase its own influence in all spheres: economic, military, political, and cultural. China is even seeking to reshape and dominate multilateral institutions, the traditional purview of middle powers and the arena in which they have typically exerted maximum influence. The further increase in relative weight of an already powerful China without the counterweight of US protection is an unnerving prospect for South Korea and Japan.

Such trepidation is reinforced by the uncertainty unleashed by the Trump administration, whose global and regional strategies remain ambiguous, and whose pre-election questioning of the value of crucial allies for American national interests has increased anxiety for an already vulnerable South Korea and Japan, worsened by rising threats from China and North Korea. Russia’s revisionist views about the global balance of power and Vladimir Putin’s uncertain ambitions also have the potential to greatly unsettle relative power dynamics in Northeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the ROK’s extended political leadership crisis and uncertainty about its next leader have caused national self-doubt and widespread public skepticism, if not outright cynicism about the country’s future. The continued sluggishness of the economy has dampened a singular source of national pride and of perceived national strength. Such concerns only exacerbate a sense of vulnerability amid fear of greater competition from China and Japan, compounded by the possibility of a more economically belligerent United States under Trump.

Given the dynamic flux in a regional environment dominated by zero-sum calculations, it will be challenging for South Korea to readily embrace and be satisfied with its middle power status, even if it had been so inclined previously. Both Koreas will remain perennially insecure until unification or the demise of one regime or the other, driving both to seek an elevation of their relative power. Even then, because the Korean Peninsula will inevitably remain relatively far weaker than its neighbors, the quest for power beyond “middle power” limitations will likely continue indefinitely. Many believe that it is unification that offers the only possibility for Korea to potentially garner enough power capability to forge sufficient independence from regional domination. Exaggerated hopes of middle power status are linked to aspirations for a unified Korea to confer objectives that are increasingly challenging, or even unattainable  in the current environment.

1. Randall L Schweller, “The Concept of Middle Power,” CSIS (Korea Chair) Project on Study of South Korea as a Global Power (forthcoming).

2. Paul Evans, “Middle Powerism in the 21st Century: Mission Impossible?” Global Asia 11, no. 1 (2016).

3. The ROK is the 12th largest economy among the G20, and with an approximate GDP per capita of USD 28,000, it occupies the very mid-point between the advanced G7 economies (each with per capita income at or over USD 30,000), and the remaining developing economies (each at or below USD 20,000 per capita).

4. OECD, November 2016,

5. Jorge Castaneda, “The Not Ready for Global Prime Time Players,” Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5 (September/October 2010).

6. Christian Oliver and David Pilling, “Into Position,” The Financial Times, March 17, 2010.

7. The KORUS FTA with the United States was concluded on June 30, 2007, and the EU FTA was concluded on September 10, 2010.

8. In 2010, the ROK pledged more than USD 16 million in aid and committed an additional PKO unit of 240 personnel for deployment to Haiti, committing to share with the UN the estimated USD 25 million cost for the deployment. Jung Sung-ki, “Inauguration of PKO for Haiti Mission Due,” Korea Times, February 16, 2010. In addition to official aid, ROK manufacturers were the first to sign agreements with US and Haitian officials to invest in factories in Haiti. Jonathan Katz, “Haiti Accord Paves Way for Korean Factories,” Associated Press, September 20, 2010.

9. “Five Middle Powers Hope to Serve as ‘Bridge-Builder’ on International Stage,” Yonhap, August 28, 2014.

10. The Chosun Ilbo, “Roh Says No to Greater USFK Role in Northeast Asia,”

11. This theme is compared for the US-ROK and US-Japan alliances in Victor Cha, Alignment Despite Antagonism: The U.S.-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

12. Balbina Y, Hwang, “North Korea: Foreign Policy of a ‘Rogue’ State,” Handbook on Diplomacy (New York: Routledge, 2012).

13. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun (New York City: W.W. Norton & Co, 2000), 153.

14. Elsewhere, I argue that this is an incomplete characterization of Korea’s strategic choices given the intervening variable of strategic culture, which has led both Koreas to carve out unique foreign policies independent of exogenous variables. Balbina Y. Hwang, Globalization, Strategic Culture and Ideas: Explaining Continuity in Korean Foreign Economic Policy (doctoral dissertation, Georgetown University, August 2005).