The New Asia: South Korea

Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Dessouki, Tuesday 25 Jul 2023

South Korea not only aims to be an important player in the Northeast Asia region, but also a leading and proactive player in the wider international system, writes Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Dessouki


South Korea has set out its desired position in the New Asia, aiming to become a pivotal and influential player in the Northeast Asia region.

Its aspiration is to transform itself into a globally pivotal state and one dedicated to freedom, peace, and prosperity. This pursuit is the object of its hopes and ambitions, which it seeks to accomplish not in the distant future but today.

Seoul has both major and more minor aspirations in the New Asia that are dictated and influenced by the regional and international geopolitical terrain. It must confront a complex series of strategic challenges, three of which stand out as the most pressing.

The first and most momentous challenge is North Korea. The latter is steadfastly advancing in its relentless efforts to develop nuclear missile capabilities. It has adopted a hostile discourse towards the other Korean state in the southern part of the Peninsula, accusing it of plotting with the US, South Korea’s military and political ally, and Japan, the former coloniser of Korea, to overthrow the ruling Communist regime in Pyongyang.

South Korea is in a constant state of anxiety due to any unexpected actions from the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, the North Korean threats to its security are exacerbated by the fact that decision-makers in Pyongyang reject any compromise or even minimal flexibility that could alleviate the ongoing tension between the two Koreas and its repercussions on Northeast Asia, as well as on international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and halt missile tests.

The Korean crisis has become increasingly complex as negotiations between the two Koreas and the major international players come to a halt. The nuclear talks between North Korea and the US are stalled, as is the dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang. All avenues seem to be closed off, even as the international sanctions on North Korea have lost their effectiveness, given the significant advances that the country has made in nuclear and other capabilities despite them. North Korea is also now deeply involved in black-market dealings to acquire various materials.

In the face of such challenges, South Korea finds itself with limited options to safeguard its security and deter North Korea from any military action that might threaten its territory, vital interests, or citizens. The most plausible option before South Korea is to face its Northern counterpart with the nuclear card it possesses as a deterrent.

Recent surveys in South Korea reveal that 71 per cent of the population supports the development of the country’s own nuclear weapons, while 56 per cent are in favour of deploying US nuclear weapons on South Korean soil, where approximately 29,000 US troops are stationed.

The administration led by current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has chosen a pragmatic approach by strengthening its relations with the US in matters of security, the military, and diplomacy, as well as in areas like the Internet, space, and nuclear energy, alongside Japan.

South Korea has also set aside its historical disputes with Japan, and both countries now recognise North Korea as a direct threat to their national security. South Korea has moved towards closer ties with Tokyo, and the two countries describe their relationship as a progressive partnership between countries that share similar values, reflecting their willingness to move beyond the past under the urgency of present circumstances.

The second challenge facing South Korea lies in the crises that the Northeast Asia region faces due to escalating tensions between the US and China. These tensions arise from US support for Taiwan, which Beijing views as a rebellious province of China. There is also the ongoing struggle between Washington and Beijing for dominance in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

As a key partner of the US, South Korea shares the US positions, especially given the regional concerns surrounding China’s rise and its efforts to extend its influence both within Asia and beyond. But Seoul also takes a cautious approach towards China, avoiding any provocations or antagonism. The official South Korean discourse views China as the principal partner for achieving peace and prosperity in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, seeking a more robust and mature relationship based on mutual respect and reciprocity.

This discourse should not be misconstrued as weakness or fear of the Chinese dragon. Rather, it represents the pragmatism necessary when assessing the reality on the ground. China remains North Korea’s closest ally, and it holds significant sway within its ruling circles. Chinese markets are crucial for South Korean trade, and the country receives thousands of Chinese tourists each year, contributing to Seoul’s foreign-currency reserves.

On the other hand, China harbours concerns about the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, viewing South Korea as a supplier of weapons to regional countries. It fears the potential impact of South Korea’s regional influence, given its competitive prices compared to the prices of Chinese weapons.

The third and final challenge to South Korea lies in the turbulent international repercussions of the Russo-Ukrainian war, escalating tensions between the US and China, disruptions to global supply chains, climate change, and the spread of pandemics that have inflicted damage on the healthcare systems of all nations, regardless of wealth.

In order for South Korea to navigate peacefully amidst the turbulent waves of the current international situation, it must follow the courses it has charted to achieve its goals. These include enhancing multilateral cooperation and the establishment of a global economic security system, given South Korea’s ranking as the world’s tenth-largest economy, supporting security and economic cooperation with the European countries, deepening regional partnerships, and producing new defence capabilities by harnessing Artificial Intelligence technology to bolster its military capabilities.

It needs to respond decisively and swiftly to threats and dangers, intensify its diplomatic efforts on the international stage, and pay special attention to the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions within the framework of western intentions toward them. All of these efforts aim to grant a pivotal status to the southern part of the Korean Peninsula in the international arena.

South Korea does not seek to confine itself to being a regional power in Northeast Asia; instead, it aspires to be part of the broader New Asia and to be recognised as a leading and proactive player in the international system.

The writer is a former Al-Ahram newspaper correspondent in Tokyo and an expert on East Asia foreign affairs.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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