South Korea's New Diplomatic Strategy

South Korea's New Diplomatic Strategy

Is there a grand strategy or value in South Korea that guides the nation’s foreign policy?

Back in 2008 when former President Lee Myung-bak said he would promote “value-oriented” diplomacy during a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, the media response back home was like he had just stepped into a minefield. For South Korea, emphasizing “values” in its foreign policy is increasingly seen as a liability, rather than an asset. Even some conservative media outlets with a pro-American leaning at that time expressed a concern that Lee’s open emphasis on democratic values might antagonize some countries with different values, notably, China.

China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. Seoul has been careful not to offend its big neighbor. President Lee’s underscoring values in such an open and public fashion therefore was seen as a self-limiting foreign policy posture in today’s world where the US is increasingly retreating from its traditional leadership.

In addition, as time has passed, there were also nuanced shifts in the very word of “value” as to what it would mean. In short, it became to indicate less about “democracy” or “human rights,” but more about “market economy” or “livelihood” ― two words that are also compatible with non-democratic countries, such as China. It also reflects awareness in South Korea that China, which has become the growth engine of the world economy, is to be reckoned as an economic magnet to lure, rather than one to shun.

For the past seven decades, South Korea’s foreign policy has been predominantly anchored to its Cold War-era benefactor, the United States. For South Koreans, “America” soon became more than another nation. It has become a socio-political “black hole” for nearly everything that was touted as “advanced,” ranging from technology to culture, a role model for a political institution, as well as a beacon for moral leadership in Seoul’s orientation in international relations.

In fact, South Korea’s diplomatic footprints reveal that its foreign policy is less steered by certain values or philosophy, but more by its orientation toward a dominant power in the region. South Korea gravitates toward the country at full gallop, trying to emulate the nation as a “role model” in an all-around way, including absorbing its world views and foreign policy. China in the past. America now. This is the most pronounced feature of South Korea’s foreign policy.

It reflects a sense of desperation for survival that has gripped the nation amid its tumultuous history that sustained more than 900 foreign invasions. It also explains why there seem few indigenous Korean values that underlie Korea’s modern foreign policy thinking.

“Hongik Ingan” is the original founding philosophy of Korea, referring to “benefit broadly the human world.” Often it is regarded as the unofficial national motto and also seen as a generic expression of South Korea’s world view. Scholar Han Seung-jo argues that the “Hongik Ingan” spirit is the very source of South Korea’s soft power and therefore should represent the values of South Korea’s foreign policy.

Today, South Korea, as the world’s 11th economy and 12th military power, has retooled itself from an aid-dependent backwater to a modern, high-tech powerhouse. This changed status thrusts it into searching for a new identity and new foreign policy strategy that can guide the nation forward in the world.

South Korea’s foreign policy has been experimenting with some new identity roles. For instance, a few years ago, it began to pose itself as a “middle power.” It also explored an emerging new role as a “balancer” between the U.S. and China in East Asia.

However, before South Korea settles on any new diplomatic strategy for the future, it must first decide whether or not it wants to overcome the relics of the Sino-centric world order from the past. Korea’s pre-modern history, for nearly two thousand years, had been heavily influenced by China-centered worldview. Naturally, many Koreans retain an affinity for the Chinese culture, but then they also feel threatened by China’s aggressive behavior, including the recent economic retaliation over THAAD.

Historian Lee Sam-sung of Hallym University argues in a book that Koreans’ “excessive immersion” in the past in the Chinese world order diminished their sense of reality of the world. “By expanding Sino-centrism to the metaphysical and cosmological level, Koreans were unable to recognize the forces that are outside the Chinese order and to create logic or a behavioral model that would seek coexistence with them.”


Seong-Hyon Lee, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul.

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