Brendan Howe is a professor at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
From September 25 to 27, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be attending the United Nations (UN) Development Summit in New York, where she will be giving the keynote address. Much of the summit will focus on the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The SDGs are a set of proposals that look to build on two high profile international governance agendas:  international development cooperation, dominated since 2000 by the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire at the end of 2015; and  twenty years of environmental cooperation since the landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). In 2014, the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) forwarded a proposal for the SDGs to the Assembly, with intergovernmental negotiations on the post–2015 development agenda lasting from January to August 2015. Following the negotiations, a final document entitled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” was prepared for adoption in the upcoming development summit. This conference marks an opportunity for South Korea to pursue areas of niche diplomacy in which the country has already had a major impact as a middle power.
Middle powers such as South Korea lack the capacity to influence global discourse across every dimension of international governance. As such, to maximize their relevance, middle powers need to pursue “niche diplomacy,” concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having, rather than trying to cover the entire spectrum of international governance. Doing so allows middle powers to “punch above their weight.” To a great extent, middle power activism is about visibility on the international stage, but being a middle power is also about playing by the rules of the global normative consensus and demonstrating a willingness to be a good global citizen. Thus, conference diplomacy and agenda setting are also vital roles played by middle powers. Middle powers have greater capacity to influence international discourse and policy than small powers, but a more limited capacity for independent action than great powers.
As noted in a recent Council on Foreign Relations book, Middle-Power Korea: Contributions to the Global Agenda, development cooperation has played a central role in South Korean policy initiatives aimed at influencing international governance, reflecting both the national interest and an operational niche within which South Korea can punch above its weight. Since joining the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1996 and the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2010, South Korea has worked assiduously to boost its aid and to contribute to global development efforts. By the time of the first DAC peer review of South Korea in 2012, the country had tripled its official development assistance over the preceding five years to $1,325 million per year.
South Korea has also been active in international debates and global processes regarding global development. The country hosted the G20 summit in 2010 and played a leading role in expanding the G20 agenda to include development issues. During the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4) at Busan in 2011, South Korea paved the way to enhance the partnership between DAC members and recipients.
At the same time, the Republic of Korea has been at the forefront of “green growth” initiatives. President Lee Myung-bak founded the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) in 2010. The institute later evolved into a treaty-based international organization in 2012 at the Rio+20 Summit. In January of the same year, the GGGI, the OECD, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the World Bank signed a Memorandum of Understanding to formally launch the Green Growth Knowledge Platform (GGKP). The platform aims to enhance and expand efforts to identify and address major knowledge gaps in green growth theory and practice and help countries design and implement policies to move toward a green economy. This approach reflects that of the Knowledge Sharing Partnership (KSP) flagship program through which Seoul has endeavored to share South Korean experience and expertise and to export the South Korean development model since 2004.
Hence, the upcoming UN Development Summit marks an opportunity for South Korea to continue its previously successful niche diplomacy and agenda-setting in these fields. At the same time, Seoul must be careful not to undermine its middle power diplomacy by pushing too hard in pursuing South Korea’s own national interests, failing to build sufficient consensus among the summit partners, having an inconsistent internal policy, or lacking coordination among Korean government agencies.
For more on South Korea’s growing role in global development, please see Brendan Howe’s chapter in Middle-Power Korea: Contributions to the Global Agenda.