South Korea between the great powers

  • Themes: South Korea

South Korea rests between two great powers, China and the United States, and its foreign policy must navigate the economic, political and security dynamics of an increasingly polarising world.

An American and South Korean soldier stand at a border outpost.
An American and South Korean soldier stand at a border outpost. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

A centuries-old, symbolic depiction of South Korea portrays it as a shrimp between two whales, China and Japan, whose ‘back is broken’ when two whales fight. Indeed, during the 16th century, Japan’s invasion of South Korea served as a stepping stone to take on China. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) was fought primarily over control of South Korea, leading to Japanese annexation over a decade later and Japanese exploitation of the populace and the country’s resources during the Second World War, which South Korea unwillingly entered as part of the Japanese Empire.

The South Korea of the present, however, has little to do with the South Korea of the past. It is a country that leads globally in high tech, a G20 member with the world’s 13th largest economy, and a military comparable with France, Japan, and the UK, and a strong, increasingly export-oriented defence industry. It is a nation whose culture has gained worldwide popularity, with its movies, music, cuisine, literature, and fashion conquering younger and older tastes from Hanoi to Berlin, becoming known as the Hallyu, or Korean Wave.

At a high level, South Korea’s foreign relations are often described through the prism of its northern neighbour’s menace, and its relationships with China and the US. These create a triangle of influence, with the US remaining the biggest security guarantor of South Korea and China the North. China and the US are also South Korea’s largest trading partners. In 2023, South Korea exported $150 billion worth of goods to China and $112 billion to the US. For a long time, it benefitted from China’s business and US protection at the same time, without the need to take sides on the most crucial matters. This is a position not unique for a country in East and South-east Asia, but it is one that will become increasingly difficult to maintain in the future.

Good relations with China have also been used as leverage on North Korea. China has kept the otherwise uncontrollable regime in check, though that has not always been effective. South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2016, mainly aimed at providing security for US troops stationed in Pyeongtaek, faced heavy backlash in Beijing and to some extent soured the bilateral relationship. It showed that China, equally interested in deterring the North, is also interested in maintaining the status quo in terms of security on the peninsula.

The decision also showed a willingness of South Korea – or simply a lack of choice – to adapt to its guarantor’s strategic interests of containing China’s military expansion in the region with its air defence system. The system, finally installed at a former golf course in the south of the country, does not protect Seoul’s metropolitan area. The decision was explained on the basis that it’s military, not civilian, targets that would be attacked first during the conflict. This did not help to garner support in South Korean society, with many people arguing that THAAD itself could become a target in case of any US-China conflict, soon drawing South Korea into the war. ‘For the South Korean government, agreeing to deploy THAAD is tantamount to raising tigers and bringing wolves into the house… dangerous coercion will inevitably bring dangerous consequences,’ opined China’s People’s Daily, indirectly voicing Chinese Communist Party sentiments.

South Korean diplomacy asserts a much tougher stance on historical politics. In 2002, China initiated the North-east Project, a historical research project conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, exploring the history of lands situated outside of current China’s territory through the theory of a greater Chinese state in the ancient past. The project has been criticised as promoting a Chinese nationalistic approach to the history of South-east Asia. In South Korea, it has been viewed as China’s attempt to incorporate parts of Korean culture and history into its own. It was followed by South Korean diplomatic actions, including the summoning of the Chinese ambassador by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to protest against the project, and concluded in a verbal agreement between vice foreign ministers, establishing common understanding on some historical facts. While the diplomatic actions have been successful, the historical views spread by the project took root in Chinese society and resulted in actions such as a popular food vlogger calling, and hashtagging, kimchi as a #ChineseCuisine.

South Korea took an even tougher stance on the subject of ‘comfort women’, as Japanese sex slaves during the Second World War have been called. In South Korea, the view of comfort women as forced into sex work in Japanese military camps is considered a historical fact and a source of major national trauma backed by numerous testimonies. Each time Japan denies this phenomenon, arguing that prostitutes have always followed armies, including the Japanese one, it is treated in South Korean society as a slap in the face.

The issue of comfort women and forced labour on behalf of Japan during the Second World War even spilled into the domain of high-tech, in which both countries cooperate closely. South Korea has long been on the so-called White List of countries to which Japan supplies chemicals and components with dual-use (civilian and military) potential. After a conflict over forced labour and comfort women intensified between the two countries, following the ruling of South Korean courts obliging Japanese companies to pay compensation, South Korea was excluded from the list. Japan argued that it was due to the re-shipment of controlled items from South Korea to North Korea and Iran, but this allegation has never been proven. According to one study, the trade dispute resulted in a $1 billion loss for South Korea but also a $346 million loss for Japan, which had a problem with finding new markets for its highly specialised products. South Korean memory chip producers were especially affected.

It took four years to reinstate South Korea on the White List. South Korean foreign policy did not play a part in that; Japan realised that they were also losing with this approach. In the wider context, Chinese and North Korean security and economic threats brought the two countries together, but the historical grievances were never truly addressed, and they may reignite once again at a less fortunate moment.

The risks relating to China not only brought the neighbours closer together, but always worked as a unifying factor in the otherwise turbulent and divisive domestic political scene. This is the opposite to what took place in Taiwan, where the approach toward China sowed even more division. Interestingly, subsequent left and right governments always shared similar views on policy towards China, since the very beginning of South Korea’s democracy in 1987.

There is a long-lasting consensus on building a security alliance with the United States and commercial relations with China. Even President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of an anti-communist dictator, signed a Free Trade Agreement with China in 2014 and hosted Xi Jinping on his first diplomatic visit. If there is a rift across the political scene towards foreign policy, it is in relation to its neighbour in the north. Right-wing parties are tougher towards the North, at the same time blaming progressives for too soft an approach, or even communist sympathies. The difference stems from a different perception of the North – an enemy and threat to be annihilated or an estranged brotherly nation to reconcile with and eventually unite.

North Korean issues take away a lot of oxygen from South Korean politics. Provocations and dangerous actions of the North Korean regime never cease. At the time of writing, it is large balloons carrying trash over the border and bursting all over Seoul. While the North does not seem to present an existential threat to the South anymore, it keeps it on its toes in matters of security. First and foremost, it acts as a real roadblock forbidding South Korea from spreading its wings and showing more agency and initiative on the international stage.

For a country such as South Korea, there are still a number of easy wins in the area of foreign policy. One is to readdress its relationship with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose countries could further benefit from South Korea’s support in the domains of security, high-technology, education, and healthcare. The benefits of such tighter co-operation will be far from one-sided. ASEAN comprises diverse and fast-growing economies, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. Taking high technology as an example, South Korea could benefit more from co-operation in semiconductors with Malaysia, a strong player in semiconductor packaging and testing, and Singapore with a thriving semiconductor start-up scene. Indonesia, with its rich nickel resources and developed mining and refining base, could become a closer partner for the South Korean battery industry. Meanwhile, the relationship in this domain is dominated by China.

South Korea’s foreign policy has evolved significantly from its historical ‘shrimp mentality’ to a more assertive stance on the global stage. Its rise as a technological powerhouse and a cultural phenomenon has allowed it to navigate international relationships more confidently. Challenges remain, however, particularly in balancing its relations with major powers and addressing historical grievances with Japan. Moving forward, South Korea can capitalise on opportunities to deepen ties with its southern neighbours and enhance its humanitarian contributions, further solidifying its role as a key player on the global stage. This evolution would reflect a dynamic approach to foreign policy, striving to align historical experiences with current aspirations and responsibilities of a global middle power.


Lukasz Bednarski