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.”
South Korea has impressive soft-power potential. Sometimes, Koreans compare their country of 50 million to a neighbor like China or a superpower like the US and believe that they cannot compete with such giants.
That may be true in the domain of hard military power, but it is not true of soft-power resources.
Many countries that are smaller than South Korea do well with soft power. The political clout of countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian states is greater than their military and economic weight, owing to the incorporation of attractive causes such as economic aid or peacemaking in their definitions of their national interest.
For example, in the past two decades, Norway, a country of only five million people, has taken a lead in peace talks.
Similarly, Canada and the Netherlands have enhanced their soft power not only by their policies in the UN, but also by overseas development assistance. Such legitimizing policies are readily available to South Korea.
Moreover, in terms of attractive values, South Korea has a compelling story to tell. In 1960, it had approximately the same level of economic wealth as Ghana, one of the more prosperous of the newly independent countries in Africa.
Today, the two countries are vastly different. Over the next half-century, South Korea became the world’s 11th largest economy, with per capita income reaching more than $15,000.
It joined the OECD and is an important member of the G-20. It has become the home of world-famous brands and a leader in the adoption of the Internet and information technology.
Even more important, South Korea also developed a democratic political system, with free elections and peaceful transfer of power between different political parties.
Human rights are well protected, as is freedom of speech. South Koreans often complain about the disorderliness of their political system, and the Hansun Foundation Report rated South Korea 16th among the G-20 in the efficiency of legislative activities, and 17th in political stability and efficiency.
According to the survey, “The low standings are not surprising, given habitually violent clashes between governing and opposition parties over sensitive bills and unending bribery scandals involving politicians.”
Nevertheless, while improvement in these areas would certainly enhance South Korea’s soft power, the very fact of having an open society that is able to produce and discuss such criticisms makes South Korea attractive.
Finally, there is the attractiveness of South Korean culture. The traditions of Korean art, crafts, and cuisine have already spread around the world.
Korean popular culture has also crossed borders, particularly among younger people in neighboring Asian countries, while the impressive success of the Korean diaspora in the US has further enhanced the attractiveness of the culture and country from which they came. Indeed, the late 1990’s saw the rise of “Hallyu,” or “the Korean wave” – the growing popularity of all things Korean, from fashion and film to music and cuisine.
In short, South Korea has the resources to produce soft power, and its soft power is not prisoner to the geographical limitations that have constrained its hard power throughout its history.
As a result, South Korea is beginning to design a foreign policy that will allow it to play a larger role in the international institutions and networks that will be essential to global governance.
Joseph S. Nye teaches at Harvard and is the author of The Powers to Lead and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.