chapter  4
23 Pages

South Korea and East Asian regionalism: Policies, norms and challenges


South Korea has systematically engaged with East Asian regionalism only since the post-Cold War era. During this period, South Korea (hereafter Korea) has undergone two significant policy shifts in its regional activities – first towards Northeast Asia, and later towards the wider East Asian region. Korea developed its modern regional foreign policy with the commencement of the Sixth Republic under former president Roh Tae-woo in 1988. However, at that time the primary focus of Korea’s regional policy was on the integration process in Northeast Asia. Even though Korea launched an official dialogue with ASEAN in 1989, its main diplomatic concerns focused on relations with the surrounding powers, namely the United States, China, Japan, and the former Soviet Union, and the impact of those relations on its ties with North Korea (DPRK). Korea’s regional horizon was forcibly broadened as it came to terms with

the fallout of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. For Korean policy makers, it was not until this event that the underlying enmeshment of ties between Northeast and Southeast Asia was substantially recognised. Korea’s attention to and interest in East Asian regionalism were further stimulated when the heads of all regional states gathered later that year to discuss ways of healing the economic wounds of the crisis-ridden countries and of preventing the recurrence of a similar crisis in the future. The resulting formulation of ASEAN Plus Three (APT), comprising all thirteen regional states, further advanced Korea’s engagement in East Asian regional affairs. The 1997 crisis was significant for Korea’s regionalism policy because of

the profound effect it had on the structure and distribution of power in the region. It did not take long before Korea realised its comparatively reduced status in regional processes, especially as compared to the rise of China. Until the mid 1990s, for instance, Korea was regarded as the most likely state capable of mediating between China and Japan, because of its economic advantage over China and good political ties with Japan.1 However, the rise of China, coupled with Korea’s economic setback, undermined its ability to influence regional events – either in Northeast or in Southeast Asia. The

more recent incorporation of India, Australia and New Zealand into regional dialogues via the East Asian Summit (EAS) has had similar implications for Korea’s future policy impact in East Asian regional affairs. Korea is now clearly a middle power in a region where a number of

greater and lesser regional powers coexist. As such, it could be expected that Korea’s foreign policy would undergo the adjustments and reforms necessary to enhance its regional position and status. However, this does not seem to be the case, as the Roh Moo-hyun administration promoted a policy platform designed to transform the country into a hub nation of Northeast Asia. It has yet to develop a policy with an inherently larger regional orientation towards East Asia. It has also yet to present an overall and comprehensive official foreign policy for developing relations with Southeast Asia. Although Korea has been an active participant in a number of ASEAN-related multilateral dialogues and has successfully developed a framework for free trade with Southeast Asia, it has not come up with a policy framework that will allow observers to understand its underlying fundamental interests, goals and strategies. This chapter argues that Korea needs to have a policy commensurate with

its changing status and profile in order to contribute in any meaningful way to the fruition of East Asian regionalism. Korea’s desire to make constructive contributions to the cause of East Asian regionalism was well manifested in its initiatives to found the East Asia Vision Group (EAVG) and the subsequent policy body known as East Asian Study Group (EASG). These groups were both initiated by former president Kim Dae-jung. Furthermore, in 2003 his successor Roh Moo-hyun claimed to turn the country into an economic hub of Northeast Asia. What is paradoxical about these initiatives is the lack of consistent policy support by the government, successor administrations often refusing to follow their predecessor’s policies in this regard. Roh’s government, for instance, halted backing for various ongoing activities, including financial support to the EAVG and EASG, leaving them to continue in name only. Roh’s government remained passive and inactive over the idea of a hub, mainly because of its obsession with domestic political reform issues. Nevertheless, it is expected that president Lee Myong-bak will try to do better in regionalism diplomacy, following his inauguration in February 2008. The purpose of this chapter is not to focus on the reasons underlying

Korea’s failure to develop an appropriate regional policy, but to examine what policies have been enacted and what it would take to develop a sustained regional foreign policy in future. This chapter comprises five sections. The next section reviews the evolution of Korea’s regionalism policy in order to better understand the driving forces behind it. Following this, the third section briefly deals with the Roh administration’s position on the issue of East Asian regionalism. The fourth section takes a realistic look at Korea’s current position in the larger framework of regionalism (within East Asia) and examines the potential role for middle powers in order to provide a

theoretical framework for Korea’s case, which is dealt with extensively in the following section.