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The Peninsula

Korea and the Uncertain Waters of the Blue Pacific

Published November 3, 2022
Category: South Korea

At the end of September, the Republic of Korea attended a meeting of the Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP). The initiative, led by the U.S., Australia, Japan, and Britain, aims at working with states in Oceania on advancing regional development. Ahead of the meeting, the Korean government was equivocal to the initiative. “Nothing has been decided yet,” an unnamed Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told the Hankyoreh newspaper, “but as South Korea seeks to be a global hub state, strengthening reciprocal cooperation with Pacific island countries is important.” While Korea has not had a major focus on development in the Pacific, experts say Seoul should consider ways it can contribute to the PBP.

The invitation to South Korea demonstrates the Biden administration’s desire to reinvigorate American leadership in the international system. Dr. Patricia O’Brien, an adjunct professor in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University, says American interests in other parts of the world means it is more reliant on its partners in order to achieve its objectives here. “The U.S. has limited resources, and this has been an ongoing problem that the U.S. has had with trying to stay engaged in the Pacific,” she said. But Korea’s inclusion in the PBP also demonstrates the changing priorities of the bilateral U.S.-ROK alliance, which has also begun looking at cooperation on development in the region. “I think Washington is hoping that Seoul will take on a broader role across the Indo-Pacific (and globally) in an effort to strengthen the network of leading democracies,” said Dr. Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Korea playing a part in the Pacific is advantageous for the United States, if Seoul is willing and able to do so.”

How the PBP interacts with China is a serious factor Korea will need to evaluate. Beijing made waves in the region earlier this year, signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, and dispatching Foreign Minister Wang Yi to eight states in the region shortly thereafter. “Anyone who thinks that this isn’t about China is not being honest,” said Dr. O’Brien. But she pointed out that Pacific island states engage in policies that alienate China. “It’s not a winning strategy to make it all about China,” she said. Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says he expects the PBP to focus more on providing public goods to the region, such as investing in climate change resiliency and advancing economic development. While pushing back against China “might be the thing that gives this engagement urgency, the Partners in the Blue Pacific itself and the work plan is geared around a more positive agenda,” he said.

Another obstacle is Korea’s experience providing foreign development in the region. According to data published by the Korean Office for Government Policy Coordination, Oceania received $16.42 million in Korean official development assistance (ODA) in 2021, or 0.8% of total expenditures. Separately, other experts have questioned whether Korea has the expertise needed to increase its ODA contributions. “Korea does not yet have sufficient experience and capacity to carry out effective aid programs,” says Professor Park Myung-ho of Hankuk University, writing for the Korea JoongAng Daily. But Dr. Satu Limaye of the East-West Center in Washington is more optimistic. Projects needed by Pacific island states, like a climate change resiliency or access to fresh water, are well within reach. “We’re talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars, a couple million dollars,” he said. “It makes quite a significant difference, I believe.”

At the same time, Korea’s lack of a record in the region may actually help its public diplomacy in the region. PBP members like Britain and Japan have historically maintained colonial empires in the Pacific. The U.S. also has exploited the region for nuclear testing and other military objectives. Seoul has a relatively clean state, unlike Washington, London, Tokyo, and some of the other PBP members. Adam Morrow, the Director of the Young Leaders Program at Pacific Forum, says this is an opportunity for Korea, not a handicap. “There’s no colonial legacy to overcome,” he said. “Lacking that baggage, South Korea really has an opportunity to shape its agenda and engagement in the Pacific however it sees fit.”

The Yoon administration has not made further announcements on the PBP, making it unclear how far it will cooperate with the initiative. Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that the Yoon government has faced significant domestic criticism, raising concerns about its ability to convince the public on its policies. But the PBP does fit well with President Yoon’s foreign policy vision for Korea. The Americans “know that President Yoon is an internationalist and wants to be involved in international affairs beyond the Peninsula,” said Mr. Grossman. “The chances of Yoon saying yes is very high.” Indeed, at the end of October, South Korea hosted foreign ministers from 14 Pacific Island states, to discuss Korean developmental aid to region and cooperation on issues like climate change. “Korea is committed to strengthening partnerships with the Pacific island countries for the regional sustainable development and enhanced resilience,” said Foreign Minister Park Jin, according to a report by Yonhap.

Public diplomacy and investing in education are two areas experts say Korea should consider first under the banner of the PBP. Dr. O’Brien says that she is particularly struck by the enthusiasm her Korean students have for the Pacific region. “Sharing knowledge and really working on building relationships with youth of the Pacific and youth of Korea,” she said. “That sounds like a really great place to start.” Peter Oleson, a former senior government official and executive committee member of the International Maritime Security Exchange, says Korea can provide education and training that are otherwise not available in the Pacific. “If you look at Korea, the intellectual level of the nation is certainly well above what would be the world standard, and sharing that would be beneficial to others,” he said. Mr. Oleson added that the U.S. has been very successful in using military training for foreign partners to deepen its relationships abroad. He warns that policymakers ignore the Pacific region at their peril. “Doing what we can now will pay dividends in the future.” said Mr. Oleson.

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Josh Krancer’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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