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.
In a recent survey of G-20 nations published in the newspaper Chosun Ilbo , the Hansun Foundation ranked South Korea 13th in the world in terms of national power. South Korea ranked 9th in hard power resources but performed more poorly in terms of soft power. In the newspaper’s words, “state of the art factories, high-tech weapons, advanced information communications infrastructure are the key components that a country must have for stronger international competitiveness.” But for these “hard power” ingredients to become true engines of the country’s growth and prosperity, they must be backed by more sophisticated and highly efficient “soft power.”