The Evolution of South Korea’s Diplomatic Role

 /  May 20, 2018, 8:08 p.m.

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The relationship between South and North Korea has been experiencing a drastic change lately. Earlier this year, North Korea participated in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in recently met for the first time in the demilitarized zone. The inter-Korean peace process is crucial for South Korea, not only because of its own national security but also because of the opportunity it presents to the South to elevate its diplomatic and geopolitical role in the Korean Peninsula and on the world stage. The peace process enables South Korea to be the mediator connecting main powers in Asia-Pacific while it plays a decisive role in the US-North Korean relationship and a variety of inter-Asian exchanges.

With its complex network of competition and conflicting interests, Asia-Pacific has historically been a source of struggle between world superpowers. While exploring its role, South Korea has always sought to strike a balance in terms of international relations amidst this complex network. Since the Park Geun-hye administration, South Korea has attempted to shape its own diplomatic role as an indispensable and relatively independent actor in Asia-Pacific among other powerful players in the region.

In 2013, former President Park Geun-hye implemented a policy known as “equal-distance diplomacy.” It utilizes its democratic ideology, trade, and soft power, such as popular culture, to maneuver relations among different actors such as the United States, China, and Japan. Specifically, South Korea partners up with China for the purposes of its trade and the economy. The nation has created a fortune with its large output of commercial products, in addition to impacting China through soft power, mainly in the form of music and TV series. On the other hand, South Korea maintains its ties with the United States and gains substantial resources for national security and to cope with threats coming from North Korea. Thus, the essence of Park Geun-hye’s “equal-distance diplomacy” is that South Korea would never fully polarize itself by lining up with one faction or side completely: It should maximize the benefits of having a complex network of multilateral diplomatic relationships.

However, this strategy collapsed not long ago. Overwhelming pressure from North Korea formerly forced South Korea to fully rely on the military support of the United States, which led to the implementation of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System) in 2017. The establishment of this system caused the South Korean-Chinese relationship to deteriorate, as the Chinese government worried that the surveillance capabilities of the THAAD system would allow the United States to monitor and acquire information regarding the Chinese defense system. The equilibrium collapsed and the network of “equal-distance diplomacy” was replaced with the sole reliance on the United States, accompanied by an economic disaster on South Korea’s end.

While the THAAD crisis signifies the end of “equal-distance diplomacy” and the South Korean multilateral diplomatic equilibrium, the role of South Korea as an unbiased mediator in Asia-Pacific may be revived in the foreseeable future with the progress of the inter-Korean peace talks. This is because the relationship between North and South Korea is not merely a matter of the Korean Peninsula but rather will have broad implications in global politics with heavy involvement from international actors, such as the United States and China.

In the case of the US-North Korean relationship, the United States government now counts on the efforts of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to push forward its own summit and negotiations with North Korea. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, President Trump conveyed a message to the South Korean government and asked Seoul to take on its role as an effective conduit and broker for denuclearization dialogue. The same urge was echoed when Pyongyang invited South Korean officials to make its efforts to connect high-level delegations from North Korea and the United States. Additionally, the US government hopes that the peace talks at Panmunjom will set the stage for the future Trump-Kim summit.

South Korea’s role as a mediator and broker is becoming indispensable due to the severe and long-standing disconnect between Washington and Pyongyang. It would be extremely hard, if not impossible, for the United States to proceed in negotiations with Kim Jong-Un unilaterally without the efforts of South Korea. Thus, South Korea has once again been granted the role of a mediator and now has the power of shaping one of the most important and complex relationships in the world: that of the United States and North Korea. In a similar manner, South Korea may also promote collaboration among many key actors in Asia-Pacific, such as the United States, China, and Japan, which share a common interest in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Further, South Korea can play a crucial role channeling China’s interests in the Korean Peninsula. While China, upset by North Korea’s multiple nuclear tests close to the Chinese-North Korean border, has been attempting to impose sanctions on and reduce trade with North Korea, these policies have been generally ineffective. Thus, South Korea, by facilitating the negotiations of the potential denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula, will also impact China’s interests in the region: These negotiations will directly affect the security and safety of northeast China. With this common desire to terminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,  South Korea is in a position to regain China’s support and have a collaborative relationship as an indispensable broker and mediator for the Chinese government.

It is true that the inter-Korean issue has always been as a long-standing crisis and threat for South Korea, but it is now gradually transforming into an opportunity that will set the foundation for the elevation of the South Korean geopolitical status, as the peace process has a far-reaching impact beyond just the Korean Peninsula. South Korea has now gained momentum, made possible by the likelihood that it will engage in productive negotiations with North Korea, as it is the most effective proxy of the superpowers and their interests in Asia-Pacific.

South Korea is not only working towards its own national interests when it comes to inter-Korean dialogue; rather, it is also shaping the multilateral relationships between the Korean Peninsula and a variety of international key players. On one hand, the rise of the geopolitical role of South Korea may further complicate the powerplay in Asia-Pacific, rather than simplify it. The political dynamic of Asia-Pacific will gradually move away from a mere competition between the United States and China towards a multi-polar system, in which power will be more balanced among various actors instead of monopolized by two. This change could create collaboration, rather than confrontation, among superpowers since South Korea may be capable of bringing the crucial players to the table to work together based on a common interest to denuclearize of the Korean Peninsula.

Valerie Zhu is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and was taken by Jeon Han, a photographer for the Republic of Korea. The license can be found here. The original image can be found here.

Valerie Zhu

Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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