South Korea’s Persistent Dream of Regionalism

Posted January 4, 2008

Categories: Articles, Korea

Northeast Asia is a critically important locus of geopolitics, but it lacks a regional security structure. The Six Party Talks – involving the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia – offer one potential model for regional collaboration.

But the talks are stalled at the moment, with North Korea balking at a U.S. plan for verifying its nuclear programme. Despite this speed bump along the way toward North Korea’s denuclearisation, many scholars and regional experts still have hope that the countries in the region will eventually agree on a framework that can address a wide range of traditional and non- traditional security threats.

The hopes for a regional security system are perhaps strongest in South Korea, which has long sought an arrangement to constrain the power of its large neighbours – China and Japan.

With China’s regional influence growing and Japan poised to become a “normal” military power, the hopes that South Korea has invested in such a regional security structure have only increased.

“Unlike the Cold War period, the security environment in Northeast Asia is fluid and uncertain,” explains Young Jong Choi, a professor of international relations at the Catholic University of Korea and keynote speaker at a Sasakawa Peace Foundation panel in Washington, DC on Oct. 2.

“Even a properly working U.S.-South Korean alliance will not take care of South Korea’s concerns. Deepening bilateral relations with China, North Korea, and Japan offer only a partial solution given South Korea’s partial leverage over those countries.”

“Given these changes in the regional security dynamic,” Choi continues. “There is good reason for South Korea to go regional. A regional structure can provide stability to the security environment in Northeast Asia. It can provide breathing space for South Korea and also boost the country’s self-esteem.”


South Korea’s interest in “middle-power diplomacy” – the active, multilateral efforts of a mid-sized country – can be traced back to the mid-1960s, when authoritarian leader Park Chung-Hee created the Asian and Pacific Council.

South Korean president Kim Dae Jung pushed for the creation of an East Asian grouping of nations, and his successor Roh Moo-Hyun made the Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative a foreign policy priority. Choi attributes the attractiveness of regional politics in part to South Korea’s presidential politics.

“South Korea has a five-year single-term presidency,” he observes. “It’s not enough time to carry out a domestic agenda. Foreign policy is an attractive alternative to increase the popularity and legitimacy” of South Korean leaders.

Choi views Roh Moo-Hyun’s efforts as a failure because his “diplomacy was geared toward enhancing autonomy from the United States. South Korea under Roh Moo-Hyun didn’t just passively avoid U.S. support but actively challenged key U.S. interests.

This was driven in part by a desire to dilute U.S. influence on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia.” He adds, “South Koreans must realise that middle power activism can succeed only if the United States is behind it.” He was dismissive of Roh’s attempts to remake South Korea’s position in the region into one of a “balancer”.

“I don’t think Roh Moo-Hyun meant ‘balancer’ in traditional political science terms,” argues Derek Mitchell, the director for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think he meant that South Korea is in a unique position and can play an arbiter role. Given the rise of China, the end of the Cold War, and the lowering of tensions on the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s strict alignment with the United States exposes it in a way that it doesn’t want to be exposed.”

During the last five years, much of the talk of Northeast Asian regionalism has become subsumed within the Six Party Talks. One of the working groups created within this negotiating framework is devoted to a Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism.

“This mechanism is based on success in the denuclearisation task,” explains Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and a former George W. Bush administration official involved in the Six Party Talks.

“We went back to international relations theory when coming up with this mechanism: if you want to build a regime, you have to get an agreement on the norms, rules, and principles many of the actors have about security. We are still trying to create a set of principles that all six parties can agree on.”

Mitchell worries about focusing on a regional security structure rather than the agenda that such a structure would tackle.

“We need to think about practical outcomes,” he observes. “We have tremendous agenda in the region – climate change, energy, maritime security – and we shouldn’t just create an artificial structure to deal with it. We shouldn’t rush to build something.”

“The Six Party Talks is not a structure in search of an agenda,” Cha replies. “Part of the idea is that when you bring the group together, they develop greater transparency. They develop habits of negotiation that are helpful for dealing with other issues. We saw this happen in practice.

“We came together in Beijing, and the primary issue was North Korea. But we had side discussions on Burma, on bringing together the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. The forum allows for other sorts of side discussions to take place. This is part of what successful institutions do.”

Traditionally the U.S. has addressed security issues in the region through bilateral alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and others. It has not shown as much interest in regional structures as South Korea has.

“This lack of interest of the U.S. in regional issues led to a decline in U.S. influence in Asia,” reports Young Jong Choi.

“The United States has not only been uninterested in regional institutions, but it also discouraged initiatives that excluded it. The United States thought that bilateral alliances would do. The United States needs to find a regional institutional structure to complement its bilateral alliances.”

From his experience dealing with the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in Dec. 2004, Victor Cha similarly sees multilateralism and bilateralism as complementary.

“The tsunami showed that the bilateral alliance system is a lot more resilient than people think. People would refer to these alliances as dinosaurs, anachronisms of the Cold War and not the direction the region is going.

“But the tsunami showed that you could use these eight bilateral relations in important ways to address regional needs. It’s not necessarily a zero-sum relationship between bilateralism and multilateralism. We couldn’t form a multilateral response to the tsunami without that bilateralism.”

Inter Press Service, October 3, 2008

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