Last Friday I spoke at the Korean Association for International Studies’ conference on “Sino-US Relations and the Korean Peninsula.” I spoke on a panel entitled “The Future of Sino-US Relations and Korea’s Security Strategy.” I was requested to write about Korean foreign policy and the Sino-US relationship. This was a challenging mission, as I am not a Korean. It required a mental displacement, and one of my arguments – that a united Korea will probably ‘finlandize’ – created a stir. My paper’s title is the name of this post. Below is the first part of my short oral presentation. Here is part 2 and part 3; if you want the whole thing, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“As I sat to write a paper about Korea’s foreign policy toward with the United States and China, it struck me that the central trouble Korea faces in dealing with these two very large states is the asymmetry of national power. And indeed, this asymmetry applies to Korea’s whole neighborhood. Korea, as I argue in the paper, has possibly the worst political geography on the planet. It is surrounded by three much larger powers – three great powers no less – with little chance to catch-up to those powers, economically or militarily. As such, much of Korean foreign policy must focus on retaining freedom of movement against the encroachment of larger, nearby powers, or as I entitled my paper, Korea must carve autonomy out of a very tough neighborhood.
This will be a struggle, and it is a struggle Korea frequently lost in the past. Today, the greatest threat to Korean autonomy is China, and its greatest guarantor is the United States. With Japan and Russia both stagnating at the moment, China and the US will dominate Korean foreign policy choices for the foreseeable future.
So I want to begin my paper with 2 basic IR theory insights. First the Republic of Korea is a middle power. Second, small and middle powers are frequently pulled into the orbit of larger powers.
First, Korea as a middle power. I provide some basic statistics in the paper on Korea’s neighborhood that bear repeating. These numbers are all drawn from the CIA World Factbook, which is updated every 2 weeks. SK’s population is 49.6 M. By contrast, Japan’s population is 127 M, Russia’s is 140M, and China’s is a staggering 1.3 B. That means Japan is 2.5 times Korea’s size; Russia almost 3, and China 26 times Korea’s population. If we include the 23 M N Koreans, Japan and Russia are still twice Korea’s size, and China is still 18 times bigger. Economically, Korea’s GDP (not PPP-adjusted) is $900B; Russia’s is $1.8T, China’s is $4.3T,and Japan’s is $4.9T. So Russia is twice Korea’s size; China is almost 5 times, and Japan almost 6. NK’s GDP is a crushing $26B, so its addition would not change these proportions much.
This is not to denigrate the miracle on the Han. Korea’s GDP per capita exceeds both China’s and Russia’s, and the rapidity with which Korea raced from African levels of poverty in the 40s to the OECD in the 90s is remarkable. Nevertheless, my point is that Korea is comparatively small, and downright tiny compared to China. As Kim Il Sung said, Korea is a shrimp among whales, and this is the central challenge to Korean foreign policy.
My second IR insight – that small powers often gravitate toward bigger ones – is aggravated in the Korean case, because that gravitation is even more likely to happen if, 1. those larger powers are great powers, and 2. if those larger powers are direct neighbors. Both of these conditions apply to Korea, and perhaps uniquely, Korea abuts 3 great powers. Not even Mongolia or Poland faces such harsh geography. Imperial Germany used to refer to the ‘ring of steel’ around it before WWI. Korea is in similar but worse position. Germany, a great power itself, could contemplate a breakout, and one may read WWI and WWII as German attempts to crack its encirclement. Korea has no such opportunities. It is simply too weak to pursue military resistance.
The great threat then to Korea is its domination by its much larger neighbors. Frequently large states intimidate, encroach, or otherwise bully smaller neighbors. Indeed, they may even absorb them outright. Korea’s own history gives us many examples of this dynamic. In the Choson dynasty period, Korea was a reliable vassal in the Sinocentric order. In the late 19th C, as Chinese power receded, Korea fell increasingly under the sway of Russia and especially Japan. In 1910, it was absorbed completely, and the Japanese pursued thoroughgoing japanification, including the elimination of the intelligentsia, restrictions on language and culture, and even encouraged the taking of Japanese names. Although Japanese power was smashed by 1945, it was locally replaced by the expansion of Soviet, Cold War power. And unfortunately for Korea, Japan rebounded quickly too. By the 80s of course, China’s rise had begun, so even as the USSR imploded, Korea’s entrapment continued. Throughout its history, its 3 larger neighbors have risen and fallen, but never fallen simultaneously. Korea seems doomed to a rotating list of hegemonic local threats. Today, although Japan and Russia are struggling, Korea faces the looming threat of China.”