Winter Olympics put spotlight on paradox of South Korean power

Winter Olympics put spotlight on paradox of South Korean power
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The war of words between Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent months has virtually drowned out the voice of South Korea, which has an existential stake in the avoidance of full-blown conflict on the Korean peninsula.

But the opening inter-Korean peace talks in advance of South Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month have provided South Korean President Moon Jae In with a rare opportunity. To take full advantage, Moon must overcome his country’s geographically and geopolitically precarious position in between not only the United States and North Korea, but also constrained by regional rivalries between China on the one hand, and Japan and the United States on the other.

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The history of the Korean peninsula for over a century has been one of victimization resulting from Korea’s relative weakness as a small country surrounded by major powers. South Korea’s economic transformation has enabled the country to punch above its weight on the global stage, opening opportunities for Korean contributions in a variety of international settings, including the hosting of the Winter Olympics.

But despite South Korea’s success on the global stage, its options to shape its regional environment remain constrained because the country finds itself stuck in a bad neighborhood. Rather than passively accepting its geostrategic fate as a victim in a bad neighborhood, South Korean leaders have consistently tried to use their growing capacities as a self-described “middle power” to establish greater control over their own circumstances.

First, South Korea’s leaders have for decades consistently tried to establish multilateral cooperative security institutions in Northeast Asia, both to promote greater regional cooperation and to encourage larger neighbors to cooperatively pursue common interests rather than unilaterally pursuing regional self-interest. While these efforts have thus far not shown success, institutionalization of regional-based cooperation would provide a form of restraint on great power unilateral actions that would disadvantage South Korea.

Second, South Korean diplomacy benefits from diversification of relations with countries beyond South Korea’s traditional focus on diplomacy with the four major powers of the United States, China, Japan and Russia. South Korea’s role as a leading economy and as a participant in the G20 financial gatherings have enabled the country to draw in new actors to Korean peninsular affairs while providing South Korea with a basis for expanding its partners internationally.

Third, South Korea has tried to make networking an asset by hosting a variety of multilateral meetings and by providing diplomatic leadership on nontraditional security issues such as global health, climate change and nuclear security. These efforts have raised South Korea’s profile globally, but have not allowed the country to fully escape the constraints it faces regionally as it is hemmed in by rising rivalries.

For this reason, while the security alliance between the United States and South Korea has evolved into more of a partnership based on South Korea’s growing capabilities, the alliance remains an essential instrument for South Korea to overcome its relative weakness in the context of the immediate threats posed by a nuclear North Korea and the long-term security implications of China’s rising influence.

Moon’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea for negotiations on North Korea’s Olympic participation underscores the delicacy and constraints of South Korea’s diplomatic position, while illustrating South Korean efforts to surmount rising geopolitical tensions. Moreover, South Korea’s desire to successfully host the world for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang still depends on the cooperation and participation of North Korea so that it does not become a spoiler of South Korea’s effort.

But while desiring to make a breakthrough with Pyongyang that will sustainably lower inter-Korean tensions, Moon is constrained by the need for solid coordination with the United States. Because these efforts require the support of the United States, Moon lavishly praised Trump for his contributions to the reestablishment of inter-Korean dialogue. The hosting of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has provided a brief window to ease Korean peninsula tensions.

But South Korea’s President Moon still must find a way out of its constrained strategic environment and punch above his country’s strategic weight in order to achieve long-term gains. To do so, Moon must translate the opening of a temporary channel for dialogue with Kim Jong Un’s isolated regime and the accompanying momentary pause in North Korean nuclear and missile testing into a window for nuclear dialogue between the United States and North Korea, all while maintaining solidarity of the alliance with the United States on which South Korean security still depends.

Scott Snyder is a senior fellow in Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This column draws from his new bookSouth Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.”