Home News and Politics South Korea Unleashes Middle Power Revival School – You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

South Korea Unleashes Middle Power Revival School – You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

South Korea Unleashes Middle Power Revival School – You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

South Korea and the Middle Power Revival School

Published October 3, 2023

Two decades ago, South Korea was rarely considered a middle power. Today, it is widely recognized as one. But how did this transformation occur, considering the vague nature and limited academic recognition of the middle power concept?

The answer lies in South Korea’s impressive economic growth. From being an “economic basket case” to an “economic miracle” between the 1960s and the 1990s, by the late 1980s South Korea had a strong case to be labeled a middle power, as noted by Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant. However, it took another decade for a new generation of academics to embrace the label.

The scholars of the 386 generation, who were born in the 1960s, studied abroad in the 1980s and 90s, and returned to a more globally focused Korea in the late 1990s. They brought back new thinking on international relations and a keen interest in Australia and Canada as middle powers. This generation of scholars eventually rose to positions of power, both in academia and policy-making, which led to government support for exploring the middle power concept in Korea.

However, the middle power concept underwent changes and adaptations as it entered Korean usage. Three main approaches emerged in South Korea’s academia:

  1. Adoption: Some scholars directly adopted and applied the middle power concept to South Korea. This implied that South Korea needed to further develop its diplomatic behaviors associated with middle powers, such as engaging in global public goods and taking on greater international responsibilities.
  2. Adaptation: Others adapted specific aspects of the middle power concept to Korea’s circumstances, as Australia and Canada did during the Cold War. This suggested a more flexible and responsive approach to being a middle power, positioning South Korea strategically between various actors.
  3. Reinvention: Some scholars sought to reinvent the middle power term to suit East Asia and Korea’s unique historical and contemporary conditions. They emphasized South Korea’s capacity to act as a node in various networks, enabling interactions and showcasing its influence.

Consequently, different presidential administrations in South Korea pursued their own interpretations of middle power diplomacy, leading to some foreign policy discontinuity. Nonetheless, there remains a unanimous agreement that South Korea is, without a doubt, a middle power.

Dr. Jeffery Robertson is Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock


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