n a fight between whales, the shrimp is the one that gets hurt.” This Korean idiom describes South Korea’s regional standing over the past decade—always caught in the collateral damage of superpower tensions. South Korea’s unfortunate positioning is best seen in the case of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment and the U.S.-China trade war. THAAD cost South Korea over $6.8 billion of economic revenue due to China’s retaliatory tourism restrictions.
Furthermore, due to the trade war, South Korea recorded negative growth during the first quarter of 2019 for the first time since the financial crisis; semiconductor exports have fallen by 30.6% since last year. Both the U.S. and China are currently pressuring South Korea to take a stance on President Trump’s Huawei ban. For the second time in two years, South Korea’s economy is being adversely affected by forces beyond its control.
Ultimately, the Moon administration has decided that South Korea can no longer afford to match its foreign policy to the needs of its allies, as doing so makes the country too vulnerable to external influences. As such, President Moon is slowly reorienting South Korea’s fundamental positioning in the Asia-Pacific by forging a regional foreign policy independent of great power interests through diplomatic and economic diversification. Doing so is not only preferred, but necessary for South Korea’s long-term strategic and economic well-being.
The economically oriented New Southern Policy explicitly details an effort to reduce reliance on major powers, aiming to “deepen networks with ASEAN countries in service of South Korea’s strategic autonomy.” The policy’s core principle of people-centered diplomacy emphasizes socio-cultural initiatives as the principal drivers of the South Korea-ASEAN relationship. By reinforcing positive sentiments through public diplomacy, the Moon administration has demonstrated its commitment to creating a sustainable long-term economic strategy with ASEAN countries. President Moon has been making state visits to Southeast Asia, and South Korea is hosting the inaugural summit of Mekong countries this November. Results are tangible: trade with ASEAN has risen 7.6 percent, and the number of two-way visitors increased by 10 percent since the policy’s enactment in November 2017.
In contrast, the more security-oriented New Northern Policy aims to utilize economic and infrastructure cross-border projects between Northeastern countries to provide North Korea alternatives to nuclearization. Earlier this year, Russia and South Korea signed the “nine bridges” plan, which include specific joint economic projects and a future trilateral partnership with North Korea when the denuclearization issue is resolved. This April, Moon also spent eight days traveling across Central Asia, obtaining “guarantees” from three states he visited for 24 projects worth $13 billion. Although denuclearization is evidently a large barrier to this policy’s success, the Moon administration’s impressive outreach reflects its assertive efforts to lay a diplomatic groundwork for future peace and prosperity on the peninsula.
Moon’s two regional policies are located within a larger peace platform known as the Northeast Asia Plus Community of Responsibility (NAPCOR), representative of the administration's integrative, long-run vision for Asia-Pacific foreign policy. With NAPCOR, the country is seeking a permanent pivot away from over-reliance on superpower interests. Circumventing the U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence by directly engaging with Central Asia and Russia and avidly promoting ASEAN outreach, South Korea is managing the perceived uncertainty of U.S.-China-Asia policy by forging its regional role through long-term economic cooperation and diplomacy.
Ultimately, in slowly peeling itself away from overpowering alliance interests and establishing an independent agenda, South Korea can protect itself from whiplash in great power conflicts and play a much more significant role in shaping the emerging regional security order. The country’s middle power status gives its strategy perspective an edge: South Korea’s expansive policies can hardly be seen as a threat to the geopolitical order. In the coming years, the Moon administration should continue to capitalize on South Korea’s growing soft power reputation as it makes efforts to forge the country’s own robust foreign perspective.
However, South Korea must also maintain stable relationships with other regional powers. President Moon’s intent to deepen cooperation between the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and New Southern Policy is evidence that he is aware of this necessity. But, the fast deterioration of South Korea’s relationship with Japan recently has the potential to jeopardize the delicate strategic network of the region. Continued historical disputes and the escalation of financial conflict are leaving South Korea economically vulnerable and less equipped to move forward with other policy priorities. Therefore, South Korea must temper its existing relationships to protect itself from setbacks in its long-term vision of prosperity. A balanced forward-looking, instrumental foreign policy toward the rest of the region will allow South Korea to swim separately from the whales and reorient itself as a significant middle power in the Asia-Pacific.