South Korea’s Growing Soft Power

If geography is destiny, South Korea was dealt a weak hand, and it has had a difficult history of developing sufficient "hard" military power to defend itself. But South Korea has the economic and cultural resources to produce significant soft power, allowing it to design a foreign policy that will give it a larger role in global governance.

CAMBRIDGE – When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met in Thailand last month, South Korea was an important presence. Quietly, South Korea has moved away from being defined by its problematic North Korean neighbor, and is becoming an important middle-ranking power in global affairs. A South Korean is Secretary-General of the United Nations; Seoul will host next year’s G-20 summit; and the country has just reached a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

This was not always so. If geography is destiny, South Korea was dealt a weak hand. Wedged into an area where three giants – China, Japan, and Russia – confront each other, Korea has had a difficult history of developing sufficient “hard” military power to defend itself. Indeed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, such efforts failed and Korea became a colony of Japan.

After World War II, the peninsula was divided along the lines of Cold War bipolarity, and American and UN intervention was necessary to prevent South Korea’s subjugation in the Korean War. More recently, despite its impressive hard-power resources, South Korea has found that an alliance with a distant power like the United States continues to provide a useful insurance policy for life in a difficult neighborhood.

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