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The Peninsula

South Korea as a middle power: assumptions and misunderstandings

Published October 13, 2023
Category: South Korea

Words and labels have power. They can frame the way we think, fortify assumptions, and build expectations. They also obfuscate and mislead. In academic, diplomatic and media settings, the routine descriptor to contextualize South Korea’s role in the world is “middle power.” We rarely think deeply about the term and are prone to ignore its influence. Could using the middle power label blind analysts to changes in South Korea’s foreign policy?

There are multiple middle power definitions on which academics spend way too much time. Regardless of which definition they use, the import of the term in the English language remains much the same. A middle power is a state that is neither big nor small. Yet, there are also inherent associations that the epistemic community brings to the term based on experience, education, and background. Typical widely held assumptions include:

– Middle powers are “international in focus, multilateral in method, and good citizens in conduct.” They hold diplomatic capacity and influence within their region and with hegemonic states; seek to work together with like-minded states to find multilateral solutions to the challenges of interdependence; and hold a degree of idealism, displayed in efforts to contribute to global public goods.

– Middle powers are stable and secure democracies, and consequently hold an interest in supporting freedom and democracy, human rights, and the rule of law across the globe.

– Middle powers are satisfied, status quo powers, and as a consequence are strong supporters of the U.S.-led liberal international order (and often the alliance commitments this entertains).

Assumptions regarding middle power foreign policy behavior were formed during the Cold War and Post-Cold War era. This included through experience—seeing and/or interacting with states, which called themselves middle powers; education—academic research on middle powers; and background—exposure to the academic, diplomatic, and media circles in which the term was popular. Despite efforts to broaden it, for much of the period when the concept was most popular, the middle power category consisted of a small number of largely Western-oriented, liberal-democratic, market economy states. For a long time, the most typical and consistently labeled middle powers were Australia, Canada, and a scattering of European states. The assumptions, and subsequent expectations about how a middle power should behave, became very powerful.

During the Cold War and Post-Cold War period, states that did not conform to expectations were rarely considered middle powers. Iran is a good example. Iran fit multiple middle power definitions: it held a distinct functional balancer role in its region; ranked between 10 and 60 in most capacity measures; and even demonstrated (its own form of) characteristic diplomatic behavior, such as activist diplomacy, niche diplomacy, coalition building and good international citizenship. However, influenced by their experience, education, and background, very few middle power scholars included Iran in their accounts of middle powers. For most scholars, criteria like “good international citizenship” could not apply to support for Palestine, building mosques, or sponsoring activities clearly not in support of the U.S.-led liberal international order. However, the assumptions associated with the category have not aged well.

Middle powers were framed in a different era. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that they only existed in the period 1940-2000. It’s no longer the Cold War or the post-Cold War. A recent paper demonstrated that these assumptions no longer apply to even the states most often categorized as middle powers. Australia and Canada have lost the middle power mojo. Yet, academics, diplomats and journalists still routinely use the term. This entails a risk—using the term results in gaps between assumed and actual foreign policy behavior.

South Korea was a late entrant to the middle power category. Whether the Cold War/Post-Cold War era middle power assumptions could ever provide insight into South Korea’s foreign policy behavior was always questionable. Arguably, in labeling South Korea as a middle power, the gap between assumed and actual foreign policy behavior could be even wider.

When academics, diplomats and journalists call South Korea a middle power, they make assumptions regarding its stability as democratic state, alignment with the United States, and the strength of its support for non-proliferation. Yet within the last few years, South Korea has seen democratic backsliding, questioning of the alliance, and an ongoing debate to secure an independent nuclear weapons capacity.

When academics, diplomats and journalists call South Korea a middle power, they also make assumptions regarding its satisfaction and acceptance of the status quo. A core feature of Cold War/Post-Cold War middle powers was their satisfaction with the status quo. Finding themselves at a ranking, which placed them above the vast majority of states, they sought to stabilize and strengthen the international order to maintain their privilege. For middle powers, it could be argued that nuclear non-proliferation was as much about ensuring states below them didn’t “jump rank” as it was about the environment and protecting humanity from itself. Both Australia and Canada once considered pursuing nuclear weapons, but gave up the pursuit in exchange for implicit protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and a strong non-proliferation regime. But is South Korea really a supporter of the status quo? As a divided state it may not be. Sooner or later when the opportunity to unify with North Korea arrives, it could be assumed that South Korea would readily disrupt the status quo.

We are today in a fundamentally different strategic environment. It is not a Cold War. The behaviors of all states are currently changing, including those states once labeled middle powers. To better understand the category of states that are neither big nor small, we need to abandon the terminology and its inherent Cold War/Post-Cold War assumptions. Applying this well-outdated category to the most dynamic state in the region is particularly nonsensical. We need to rethink South Korea’s foreign policy free from the mental constraints that the middle power label imposes.


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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