Korea: a new great power?

Author: Artyom Lukin, FEFU

Some South Koreans like to see their country as an emerging great power, but can the Republic of Korea really claim this status? To answer this question one needs to identify the essential qualities of a great power.

First, a state must be able to defend its basic security and sovereignty without relying on other powers or international institutions. Sufficient military capability, perhaps including nuclear deterrents, is crucial. By some estimates, South Korea has the best army in Asia. But in the realm of national defence, Seoul still critically depends on the United States.

Second, an aspiring great power needs both hard power (including material and demographic resources) and soft power (an attractive political and cultural image) to have global influence. South Korea boasts the 13th-biggest economy, with its rate of growth overshadowing that of the Western world. But although South Korea, particularly its pop culture, is already noticeable internationally, its soft power is yet to become a global force.

Third, the country must show willingness to proactively shape global processes and the international order. South Korea is eager to enter the rank of nations that define the rules in world politics and the international economy. For instance, Seoul has successfully sought to host premier international events, such as the G20 and nuclear security summits. Seoul has also been steadily increasing its contribution to development aid and international security missions.

Fourth, great power status should be confirmed by membership of the most influential international groupings, such as the United Nations Security Council or the G20. Although the incumbent UN secretary-general is from South Korea, Seoul is a long way from attaining a permanent seat on the Security Council. Nonetheless, the ROK has become a prominent member of the G20 and plays a major role in Asia Pacific regional institutions.

Despite remarkable growth in its economic, political and military standing over the past several decades, South Korea falls short of great power status. This becomes clear if one compares the ROK with second-tier great powers, such as France. South Korea loses out to France on all key measures. Population-wise, there are 50 million South Koreans versus 65 million French. South Korea’s GDP of US$1.1 trillion is overshadowed by France’s US$2.7 trillion. In military–strategic terms, the crucial difference between Seoul and Paris is France’s ability to independently provide its own security, underpinned by the French nuclear arsenal.

For all its global ambitions and comparatively dynamic economy, South Korea is not on the verge of becoming a great power. The best it can hope for is to establish itself as a strong middle power. However, great-power-hood could be achieved by a unified Korea.

The combined population of South and North Korea would be 74 million, much bigger than France’s or the United Kingdom’s. Although there is a widespread belief that unification with the destitute North would damage South Korea’s economy, the opposite may turn out to be true. The South will have to spend a lot of money on the North, but the investments will pay off, as the North has an abundance of the most precious economic resource: labour. Rather than hurting Korea’s economy, the unification would boost the nation’s development, significantly raising its GDP.

The reunification of the North and South, both possessing formidable armed forces, would certainly increase Korea’s military–strategic weight. The most intriguing question is whether the new Korea would maintain the DPRK’s nuclear legacy. Finally, whereas the two Koreas currently divert a huge amount of resources to the North–South confrontation, after unification they would be free to use these to raise their country’s international standing.

Granted, all this would only be possible if unification occurred and Korea acted as a unitary player on the world stage, even if internally it resembled a confederation. The notion of Korea as a new great power might even serve as an added incentive to unify.

How would Korea’s regional neighbours respond to the prospect of Korea as a new great power? China is unlikely to be pleased; Beijing considers the Peninsula its sphere of influence. Korea’s emergence as another Asian great power may also hamper China’s drive for hegemony in East Asia. Japan would hardly welcome Korea’s great power transformation. Japan’s relationships with both the North and the South are precarious and Tokyo does not want another strong competitor in Asia. The United States has a stake in the emergence of a strong counterweight to China, but Korea becoming a great power may terminate or at least transform the US–Korean bilateral alliance. Washington is likely to support the unification only if the new Korea remains pro-American.

Russia seems to be the only Northeast Asian power which has no reservations about the Korean unification. A united Korea would remove a flashpoint near Russian borders. Korea as a great power would also be instrumental in balancing China’s potential hegemony and guarding against a possible recurrence of Japanese imperialism. The unified Korea’s surging economy could also increase demand for the Russian Far East’s commodities.

For a long time, Korea was a pawn, often a victim, caught in great powers’ rivalry. Now it has a chance to acquire great power status for itself. Whether this chance is realised depends partly on the other major powers, but largely on the Koreans themselves.

Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor and Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

The full version of this essay is available here.

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