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The Peninsula

Ms. Kang Goes to Davos: South Korea at the 2018 World Economic Forum

Published January 23, 2018
Author: Kyle Ferrier
Category: South Korea

By Kyle Ferrier

It was only just reported last week that South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa will be attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. Her visit to the annual conference most closely associated with globalization marks the first time a South Korean foreign minister has participated since Yoon Byung-se attended in 2015. Like her predecessor, Minister Kang will offer remarks on the North Korea nuclear issue, but will also join sessions on meeting sustainable development goals and formulating a shared future for the world. Her extensive background with the UN, which included participating in the 2014 WEF, resonates with the overarching goals of the conference, enabling her to more broadly promote South Korean values and interests. Despite this, her efforts are likely to be in line with South Korea’s experiences at Davos in recent years: overshadowed by shifting geopolitical factors, which mirror the increasingly difficult situation Seoul finds itself in with Pyongyang and between Washington and Beijing.

Just under a year after President Park Geun-hye’s Dresden speech, South Korea’s core objective at the 2015 WEF was to promote the administration’s plan to unify the peninsula. In addition to Foreign Minister Yoon’s remarks on North Korea during a panel on geopolitical risks, the theme of Korea Night, held on the sidelines of the conference, was “A Unified Korea, Infinite Possibilities.” The theme of this evening event changes year to year to reflect top government priorities: in 2016 the theme was “K-culture, Connect to the World” and this year it will be the Pyeongchang Olympics. During his keynote remarks, Minister Yoon reiterated the Park Administration’s arguments of unification being key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue and a boon for the regional economy in hopes of gaining further international support.

However, North Korea completely undercut ongoing efforts to advance this agenda just before the 2016 WEF. Seemingly encouraged by the lack of a nuclear test since February 2013, the conference organizers extended an invitation to Pyongyang in hopes that their participation in the discussion of global issues would be a positive influence. Within a week of the announcement that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong would be leading a delegation, North Korea tested its sixth nuclear device and the invitation was withdrawn. While unification aspirations did not come off the table, they were pushed to the background and almost immediately replaced with rhetoric on punishing the regime such as the need for “bone-numbing” sanctions. The test essentially marked the start of ratcheting up of pressure against Pyongyang in response to its provocations over the past two years. Though current President Moon Jae-in has reasserted efforts to strengthen inter-Korean relations, North Korea has continued to prove itself a problematic diplomatic partner.

The 2017 WEF came on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s election and highlighted the beginnings of a major potential shift in global leadership. The official theme of last year’s conference, “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” provided a framework to address growing populist movements challenging globalization, particularly in the United States. The implications of Trump’s “America First” were widely discussed as a challenge to the liberal international order, which Beijing took as an opportunity to exert itself as a global leader. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping never once directly referred to President Trump during his keynote speech, he clearly rejected the tenets of Trump’s foreign economic policy, stating “We must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation through opening-up and say no to protectionism.” Through this, Beijing was able to cash in on portraying a role reversal, making itself look much less like the revisionist power growing evidence suggests it may be by way of new U.S. policy.

Other countries may be able to watch this power dynamic play out from afar, but South Korea is on its frontlines. In the past year, the most obvious example of this is Beijing’s continued economic retaliation over the deployment of THAAD, costing South Korea upwards of $10 billion. Additionally, the South Korean economy may be more dependent on trade with China, but its success is also directly tied to global trade rules that the U.S. was instrumental in creating and upholding. While the postwar liberal international order was structured so that open economic integration would be sustained regardless of the country leading it, recent developments in Beijing and Washington leave its future in question, presenting possibly the most important geostrategic challenge for Seoul.

This year’s WEF will leave questions about Seoul’s geopolitical situation unanswered, and may even complicate things further. The shift in U.S. politics will continue to be a major topic of discussion, with sessions like “The Global Impact of America First” and “Left Behind in the United States.” However, Trump’s speech, in which he is expected to defend “America First,” will likely dominate the post-conference narrative, much like Xi’s did last year. Xi may not be in Davos to take advantage of this easy publicity, though is sending a high-level official to give a speech on China’s economic policy. In past years, a speech on the Chinese state-led economic model would likely have attracted criticism, but placed alongside what Trump is offering, Beijing now has much more leeway to promote its economic policies.

North Korea will also be a major topic of discussion. New inter-Korean cooperation for the Olympics may provide for the most positive outlook on North Korea at the WEF since the 2015 Korea Night, but the 2016 debacle is another reminder of how precipitously things can change when dealing with Pyongyang.

As one of the world’s most advanced economies, South Korea certainly has interests in other subject-areas at the WEF, particularly using the conference to showcase its efforts to incorporate the Fourth Industrial Revolution into government policy. However, the issues that will receive the most press at Davos this year reflect the most pressing challenges for Seoul. The WEF has proven useful in highlighting these challenges, but resolving them is far beyond the scope of the conference.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Philips Communications’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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