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The Peninsula

South Korea and the Study of Middle Powers

Published September 28, 2023
Category: South Korea

There are a plethora of studies on South Korea as a middle power. Some argue Korea needs to change to fit the term, some reinvent the term to fit Korea, and still others just use the term without questioning. Very few ask why we bother at all.

The modern term “middle power” is an historically embedded neologism – a new term created to address a specific set of contemporary circumstances. Its lexicographic journey commenced with Canadian and later Australian officials who sought to distinguish their nations as deserving a more prominent role in post-World War II global governance with the formation of the United Nations. There is no evidence that these officials sought the revival of an earlier used term, nor evidence that they were aware of earlier uses, which would be later discovered as academics explored the concept.

To these officials, it was a simple compound term, a modifying adjective “middle” and noun “power” brought together to fill a gap where existing vocabulary, such as superpower, great power, imperial power, colonial power, neutral power, etc., both failed to appropriately distinguish the target and lacked detail to adequately satisfy users.

There was also an additional benefit to the term. It was, in the best traditions of diplomatic lexicography, appropriately ambiguous. “Middle” can refer to both dimensional and spatial measures, allowing enough ambiguity for states and their leaders to emphasize either hierarchical order or alignment. This in turn aided Canadian and Australian officials to push for a more prominent role in post-war global governance with the support of states less obviously aligned.

Its lexicographic confirmation followed a standard path. It was first reported as a novel term, appearing in the New York Times and the Sydney Morning Herald in quotation marks. Through repeated use, it lost the quotation marks in mainstream publications, and then finally entered lexicographic guides for journalists and editors. Around the same time, it entered academic terminology and subsequently started to meet an appropriate level of scorn regarding its ambiguity.

A number of early academics were not overly positive about the term. Yet, it persisted. The study of the great powers would always dominate, but the significance of middle powers started to become an important consideration for a number of dedicated scholars. From their works three overlapping schools of thought emerged.

1. Functional. Middle powers are states that have a capacity to contribute to international order and thus hold a distinct functional role. This could include maintenance of peace and security in a specific region, contributor to global governance and other potentially overlapping functional roles.

2. Capacity. Middle powers are states ranked in capacity terms between larger and smaller states. The types of measures vary widely, from the size of armed forces to the number of diplomatic posts, but with outliers ignored, usually end up capturing states in the nominal GDP ranking of 10-60.

3. Behavioral. Middle powers are states marked by characteristic diplomatic behavior including activist diplomacy, niche diplomacy, coalition building, and “good international citizenship” as result they hold preferences for multilateralism, and recognize the need to pursue issues, such as environmental protection, trade liberalization, nuclear non-proliferation, and peacekeeping.

It’s important to note that each school of thought was found to be lacking. Functional definitions are imprecise; capacity-based definitions are highly dependent on the indicators used to establish the category; and behavioral definitions while holding greater explanatory power are ultimately tautological as well as highly dependent on domestic political choices.

South Korea was largely absent from the functional, capacity, and behavior schools of middle power research. With a focus on post-Korean War security, reconstruction, development, and democratization, few Korean scholars focused on the topic. It is only later with the “revival school” that the middle power label became popular in South Korea.

The revival school commenced in the early 2000s. It grew with academic interest, South Korea’s unique academic/policy environment, government support, and then took off with the serendipitous pairing of administrations using the concept in Australia and South Korea, culminating in its use as a platform in global governance to address the emerging global financial crisis.

However, despite the best intentions of both government and academia, the revival proved to be more of a fizzle. As one writer noted towards the end of the decade “everyone is a middle power now.” Questions were raised about the utility of the concept and its prominence. The middle power moment was an illusion. A mess of attempts to restore, amalgamate or invent new definitions left the concept meaningless in academic terms. Reflecting its beginnings, it rested as an ambiguous term, giving diplomats a rationale to work together and push for a more prominent role in global governance. The MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia) grouping was perhaps the last hurrah of the middle power moment. If every state is a middle power, is any state really a middle power?

It’s fair to imagine that by this stage, an objective observer would caution against using the middle power term to describe South Korea. It’s hardly believable that a term which started in purposive ambiguity, continued with questionable academic credibility, and ended in a morass of confusion, could be a useful tool to better understand South Korea’s foreign policy. This begs the question, why do we bother calling South Korea a middle power?

Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock

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