Expanding South Korea’s Security Role in the Asia-Pacific Region

A CFR Discussion Paper

March 01, 2017

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South Korea

Defense and Security

Political History and Theory

Overview

South Korea, or the Republic of Korea (ROK), is a Northeast Asian power with a global presence, yet its geopolitical influence in Southeast Asia is rarely exercised. This limited profile contrasts sharply with South Korea's activity on and around the Korean Peninsula. While President Lee Myung-bak (2008–2013) solidified Global Korea, a policy of expanding South Korean contributions globally, President Park Geun-hye focused more on the peninsula and Northeast Asia. Park's impeachment requires renewed focus on maintaining stability on the peninsula until the domestic political situation stabilizes, but over time, Seoul should flex its regional muscle as a middle power.

South Korea is so firmly ensconced in Northeast Asia that when the United States launched its pivot to Asia in 2011, South Korean experts held that it had little to do with South Korea. The U.S.-ROK alliance remained focused on the peninsula, and South Korea's status as a Group of Twenty nation cast it as a more globally minded nation than one focused on Asia. From antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden to peacekeeping and stabilization operations, trade in electronics and high-technology products, and combating climate change, pandemics, and proliferation, South Korea has remained prominent in international politics.

However, in Southeast Asia, South Korea's role tends to have little resonance. South Korea's security activity in Southeast Asia lags behind because for many years it could leave Southeast Asian security to the United States and others to manage and more recently because South Korea probably wishes to avoid a confrontation with China. While South Korea, like China and Japan, depends heavily on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it has relied on the United States to guarantee the free flow of commerce in that vital semi-enclosed body of water linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. At the same time, as Asian maritime tensions have escalated in recent years, Korea has sought to avoid becoming enmeshed in the middle of a major-power contest between its primary ally and its top trading partner.

South Korea still depends on the United States for immediate security and on China for trade. The need to balance between these goals of security and economy has been a factor constraining South Korea's appetite for clashes with either major power. Surely, if South Korea sought security entanglements with Japan or with South China Sea claimants in Southeast Asia, that would catalyze Beijing to pressure Seoul. However, South Korea could play a larger role in the wider region, particularly if it were able to place its national interests over the voiced concerns of China. Managing a rising China and coping with rising maritime tensions might seem like security challenges of choice to decision-makers in Seoul who have to concentrate on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile provocations. Nevertheless, South Korea has much to lose if it does not help Southeast Asia address regional flash points such as disputes in the South China Sea.