Grand Strategy for South Korea? An Overview

All countries need a grand strategy. This is particularly true for the countries located in Northeast Asia. For the Republic of Korea (ROK), the nation’s geopolitical position, the limits of its hard and soft power, and the division of the Korean Peninsula make it very difficult to formulate a practical or feasible grand strategy. Under the current circumstances, South Korea is limited in the range of key strategic options it can pursue. Formulating a grand strategy, and more importantly implementing it, is a challenging task for any country. Even countries that are more powerful and occupy a stronger geopolitical position may find their ability to implement a grand strategy to be limited. The reasons can be attributed to any of the following: strategic planners’ limited ability to know and accurately predict events and circumstances; false reasoning for intellectual, ideological, or psychological reasons; goal displacement by institutions or regimes; unexpected or unplanned outcomes; or rejection of the grand strategy as a result of unanticipated needs and/or obstacles that arise.

Despite the difficulties, it is clear that South Korea must continue to engage in deep strategic thinking for both the present and future. For the ROK, creating strategies is highly important. A broad survey of strategic issues shows that South Korea may not have much of a choice when it comes to maintaining its alliance with the United States, actively engaging and cooperating with the rest of the world, or pursuing a balanced policy of accommodation or assertiveness toward its neighbors. However, the country may have a greater range of decision-making options on specific issues and in certain areas. For example, one might foresee greater flexibility in South Korea’s strategy for dealing with the competitive relationship between the United States and China, its troubled relationship with Japan, or its relations with North Korea.

Regardless of the limitations and obstacles that may arise, South Korea must continue to develop its strategic thinking because the process of formulating and reassessing strategies will inevitably produce policies with a higher degree of consistency and predictability. This, in turn, will enable South Korea to earn respect and trust from other countries, build greater coherence and confidence in the country’s actions and anticipated reactions, and tackle larger key tasks such as unification. Finally, it will also contribute to achieving greater understanding and unity among domestic constituencies within South Korea.

The Regional Landscape: South Korea and the Major Powers

The most pressing strategic issue for South Korea is how to position itself among the four most powerful nations in the region: the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. Therefore, to understand South Korea’s strategic thinking it is necessary to review the regional security landscape and several major developments that impact peace and security in Northeast Asia.

The first development is characterized by the rise of China and the emergence of what China describes as a “new type of major power relations.” In other words, the geopolitical realities of the region, and the potential for conflict and cooperation, are highly influenced by the two powers, the United States and China. With its growing economic power and military capabilities, China has begun to challenge the US-dominated status quo and actively seeks to undermine parts of the international order that have existed since World War II. China seeks to reduce, if not end, the dominance of the United States especially in the Asian region. China is also determined to bring an end to US-led alliances in Asia, which it calls Cold War relics. It has backed the establishment of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and has offered the countries in the region an alternative to infrastructure loans from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), in effect, directly challenging the power and influence of the United States in the fields of finance and banking on both the regional and international levels. As a result, the conflict of interests between the United States and China is rapidly growing, and the two nations are increasingly in competition for regional influence despite the need for cooperation in other aspects of their bilateral relations.

The second development is the growing tension and expansion of disputes between the United States, on the one hand, and China and Russia, on the other. In particular, the recent tension resulted from China’s attempt to bring the South China Sea into its sphere of influence using confrontational tactics and strategy. China’s actions, including trying to establish control over a new artificial island by reclaiming and building a military transport runway on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, faces strong opposition by the United States, Japan, and neighboring Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines. The recent tensions with Russia have developed out of its actions vis-à-vis Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine resulted in the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia, specifically against Russian individuals and companies, by Western countries to which Russia responded in kind.

A third major development is the warming of relations, which some describe as a new honeymoon, between China and Russia. Their growing disputes with the United States, and Russia’s increasing isolation from the West, have brought China and Russia closer together. The two countries have embarked on ambitious oil and gas deals together, and their newly reinvigorated relationship prompted Russia to sign an agreement promoting China’s New Silk Road initiative, after an initial response that was lukewarm at best. They have also concluded a significant arms purchase agreement, enabling China to acquire large amounts of advanced military hardware from Russia. In this marriage of mutual convenience and needs, China seems to be getting the more advantageous end of the deal. Russia has committed to supplying China with low cost energy to meet growing energy demand, and Beijing has also seized the opportunity to purchase weapons that make up some 60 percent of its arms imports.

Some observers argue that the simultaneous US antagonism towards the two major world powers will push them to build a new political and military alignment if not alliance. But others assert that, because of the unequal nature of relations between Beijing and Moscow and the lack of trust between them, the chances of their forming a closer relationship, much less an alliance, are quite limited. Joseph Nye, for example, recently stated that it is likely Russia will not be able to manage an alliance with China because “Russia’s economic and military power has been in decline, whereas China’s has exploded.” Another reason cited as precluding closer ties is the demographic imbalance between the sparsely populated Russian Far East and the densely populated Chinese territory across the border. A third factor that supposedly prevents closer ties is Russian unwillingness to become excessively dependent on China. Finally, experts argue that there is a fundamental lack of strategic trust and abundance of mutual suspicion, which will exclude the possibility of building a lasting partnership.

Whatever the case may be with the Sino-Russian coalition, the continuing development of a stronger relationship will have a negative effect on US ability to cooperate closely and productively with them in dealing with such critical issues as the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles threat. It will also affect the US ability to work with the two countries on trust building and the establishment of a regional peace mechanism.

A fourth factor that affects the regional situation is related to the US policy of “rebalancing to Asia.” The Obama administration has characterized its policy towards the Asia-Pacific region as that of “rebalancing,” which means assigning a higher priority for political, economic, and security resources committed to the region. The main driver appears to be the geopolitical realities of a rapidly rising China and the perceived need to respond. One of the fundamental elements of the policy is to strengthen relationships with allies and partners, including emerging powers such as India and Indonesia. These strategic plans are being implemented even as the United States continues to undertake greater belt-tightening in its military budget.

Recently, the United States has been strengthening its alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea. It has assigned more resources to the region because of the perceived dynamism, opportunities, and challenges. The policy has attempted, with some success, to embed the United States in the emerging political, security, and economic architecture, including the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The policy even seeks to establish a more extensive and structured relationship with ASEAN. Rather than “containing” China, the United States has tried, with limited success, to maintain a positive and stable relationship with Beijing. A strategic policy that furthers cooperation and manages tensions in this bilateral relationship has been seen as more favorable than one that fosters competition and conflict. However, in the course of implementing the rebalancing policy, the United States has been forced to turn its attention and to expend energy elsewhere in the world, such as the Middle East and Europe. Subsequently, the continuing troubles in these parts of the world have made it difficult for the United States to pivot away from those regions.

The rebalancing policy has also encountered difficulties due to Chinese suspicions of US intentions toward the region—China thinks the real US objective is to maintain its position of supremacy in Asia and contain China. Russia, on its part, has also reacted to the US policy by “turning to,” if not “rebalancing to,” the Northeast Asian region. Russia must also deal with a rising China seeking to impose its will on territorial issues, and intensifying maritime and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Moscow sees Beijing being prepared to use its growing economic leverage to counter American influence and expand its own sphere of influence. A number of China’s neighbors likewise see the country’s rising power as a threat and believe that China will utilize its military to enforce its territorial claims. They think that China will use its growing economic leverage to diminish their response options and so they have sought out American reassurance and support. This, in turn, has persuaded Beijing that the United States is orchestrating a plan to create increased regional opposition toward China in an effort to isolate and contain the country.

With regards to Japan, the United States sees Prime Minister Abe’s government cooperating closely to implement its rebalancing policy. Japan has revised the interpretation of its Peace Constitution to make “collective self-defense” possible. The government has agreed on new “defense guidelines,” enacted through legislation in the National Diet, which will allow the use of Japanese forces beyond the defense of the archipelago proper. The New US–Japan Defense Guidelines adopted in April 2015 state that: “The Self-Defense Forces will conduct appropriate operations involving the use of force to respond to situations where an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs.” Japan is also collaborating closely on a ballistic missile defense (BMD) project, and it has been working in tandem to denounce China’s territorial expansion schemes in the South China Sea.

The United States regards Japan as a much more willing partner to deal with disputes with China rather than another close ally, South Korea. It has adopted this perspective because South Korea takes a somewhat less confrontational approach towards China. Even though South Korea has also been strengthening its alliance with the United States on a range of issue areas, it has taken a more circumspect approach than Japan in disputes between the United States and China for several understandable reasons. One is that, as a divided country facing the North Korean threat of conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), South Korea regards China as a key country with which it must actively pursue coordination. Second, it wishes to find the most effective and pragmatic way to deal with the Chinese challenge without unnecessarily and excessively antagonizing Beijing. Third, because of the enormous economic interdependence with the PRC, South Korea is much more vulnerable to Chinese economic pressure than Japan is. Finally, it believes that the best way to maintain peace, harmony, and cooperation in the region is to find common ground and interests, to engage in dialogue and trust-building rather than side-splitting, and to diminish mutual suspicions and harsh rhetoric. The United States, from its perspective, has a distinct need to maintain closely coordinated alliance relationships with both Korea and Japan to counter China’s rising power and the North Korean threat. At the same time, it must acknowledge and respect their respective policies towards China and North Korea, making it difficult to carry out a comprehensive “rebalancing” policy and often straining relations among the three countries.

Turning back to the larger strategic picture in the region but related to this last point, a fifth development has to do with the troubled and deteriorating relationship between the two closest US allies, Japan and Korea. Close neighbors, the two throughout history have had a checkered relationship of competition, cooperation, and sometimes occupation. The most recent example of this troublesome past was the Japanese colonial domination of Korea for 35 years in the first half of the twentieth century. Seventy years after the end of World War II, and Korean liberation from Japanese occupation, they have yet to throw off the shackles of the past and move beyond the legacies of pervious historical misdeeds and grievances.

In particular, the two countries still dispute the factual record as it relates to “comfort women,” or those young women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in the occupied territories before and during WWII. Seoul and Tokyo still have not agreed on a permanent resolution to this dispute because they are unable to find a satisfactory method for compensating the comfort women victims. There have been previous attempts, but Japanese complain that Koreans are never satisfied with Japanese apologies and keep moving the goalpost for a final resolution. Koreans complain that Japanese apologies are never sincere or sufficient and that Japanese leaders keep making statements that are offensive to and dismissive of Koreans. From the US standpoint, quarrels between its two Asian allies are a vexing problem, adversely affecting the collaboration not only between them but also among all three countries. It also tends to make Korea and China strange bedfellows, both of which have unsettled grievances toward Japan. It has been 50 years since Korea and Japan normalized their diplomatic relations. There is still hope in both countries that Koreans will adopt a more generous and magnanimous frame of mind to forgive past historical misdeeds, and the Japanese will undertake a more sincere and deeper reflection of the past and present situation to resolve the issue of accountability. If this happens, the two countries may finally be able to establish common ground for greater understanding, cooperation, and lasting friendship that will enable them to move beyond the past.

Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program and the erratic, unpredictable behavior of its new leader Kim Jong-un present a peculiar dilemma to South Korea and its neighbors. This has increased the security risk in Korea as it has also raised the possibility of sudden change in North Korea and possibly on the Korean Peninsula as a whole. It has also driven the United States to strengthen US–South Korea alliance capabilities. Still the unresolved question is how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which has become ever more intractable over the years. Since Kim Jung-un’s assumption of leadership, North Korea has not only codified in the preamble of its constitution that the DPRK is a nuclear weapons state, but it also officially adopted a two-track byongjin policy for simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the economy. In the face of North Korea’s continued provocations and adamant refusal to engage in real diplomacy, there is among the Six-Party Talks countries a palpable sense of fatigue and resignation. Nonetheless, the recent Iran deal that provides for lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for curtailing the development of a nuclear weapons program seems to have given some renewed incentives and expectations for the possibility of a deal on the North Korean nuclear issue.

As North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is looking increasingly dangerous in magnitude and capabilities, it may now be the time for the United States and others to reexamine their “strategic patience” approach, which is tantamount to a recipe for inaction. Whether by returning to the Six-Party Talks, which have been stalled since 2009, or other means of diplomatic engagement, the United States and South Korea should seek to coordinate with the other concerned powers, i.e., China, Russia, and Japan, to work to roll the North Korean nuclear program back. Failing to limit the DPRK’s nuclear development now means that its program will only get exponentially more dangerous in the years to come.

It has been a quarter century since the Cold War ended. East Asia has moved from a period when relations were primarily dominated by the US-Soviet bipolar power structure to a unipolar situation in which the United States maintained control over the region through its hegemonic position. Recent years have brought about another shift, which can be described as an emerging G2 structure, plus an evolving balance of power. East Asia today has a situation in which the continental powers of China and Russia are on one side, and the United States and Japan, essentially maritime powers, are on the other, with South Korea leaning heavily towards the maritime coalition and North Korea remaining isolated but leaning towards the continental one. However, this divide is not like the one the world experienced during the Cold War bipolar period. There is still time to seek cooperation among all the powers on a range of issues and create a regional architecture for peace, security, and prosperity. It would be in Korea’s interest if trust can be built not only between the United States and China but also between Russia and the United States, between Japan and China, between Japan and Korea, and even between North and South Korea. All these actors are heavily interdependent on one another economically, a fact which both necessitates and enables countries to seek cooperation and peace in the region.

Strategic Choices

Where does the newly emerging regional security landscape leave South Korea? What role can and should it play. The following is a summary of the various strategic options that South Korea may pursue split into as many as eight different threads, in some cases with overlapping and conflicting policy prescriptions.

1. Tilting: Because Korea is a peninsular country, there has been a debate as to whether its course should be that of a continental or a maritime power. Leaning towards becoming a maritime country would mean aligning itself more closely with the United States and by extension with Japan, whereas identifying itself as a continental power would mean placing heavier weight on relations with China and Russia. Given the need to maintain amicable relations with all four, tilting is probably neither realistic nor practical.

2. Balancer: Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003 to 2008, advocated that Korea be the regional balancer between China and Japan, a role somewhat akin to that which the United Kingdom played in the European balance of power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This policy was criticized at home as being unrealistic and pretentious, but it reflected the growing sense of self-confidence in a more assertive Korean nation and the desire to reclaim ownership of foreign relations.

3. Equidistance: This is a policy that is similar to that of a balancer, except that it does not call for Korea to “tilt” in either direction on regional issues in order to keep regional relations balanced. Given the multiplicity of issues that require joining forces with one or the other nation, this strategy may be impractical for Korea to pursue in any consistent and meaningful way.

4. Hedging: This is a policy, at a minimum, of cultivating a fallback position and, arguably, ultimately going with the prospective winner. Thus, hedging is a policy that is more dynamic and flexible than a policy of either maintaining a balance or equidistance between countries. As such, it could be seen by friends and adversaries alike as being opportunistic, unreliable, and untrustworthy. It is a strategy that is likely to subject the country to greater pressure from outside powers that want to influence the policies of the country employing the strategy. An example is when South Korea adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on THAAD. The only possible advantage of a hedging strategy would be that the country does not need to be tied to a particular power or group of countries and, thus, would retain a degree of flexibility and freedom of choice. But the cost of flexibility far outweighs its benefits.

5. Bridge: This is a policy based on the assumption that Northeast Asian countries should minimize conflict and maximize cooperation, and that Korea could be a link to and a harmonizer among the major powers. Since Korea is situated between the major powers, not only geographically but also in economic development, temperament, and cultural flow, the proponents of this strategy will argue that Korea needs to and can play the bridging role among the powers. Clearly, however, given the large gap in interests and objectives of the powers, there are limits to the bridging role that Korea could play even if it chose to do so.

6. Equal Competitor: This is a policy predicated upon the belief that South Korea has reached a level where it can stand on equal footing with its neighbors and deal with them as equals. It does not assume that Korea is indeed equal in economic prowess, diplomatic clout, or population, but argues that Korea’s growth has now put it at a level where it is not a shrimp amid whales. The argument for this policy is also a reflection of growing Korean self-confidence and self-esteem.

7. Community: This policy is based on the belief that the three Northeast Asian nations have enough shared interests and commonalities that they can form a community. Community building can start with integration and cooperation in economics (a three-country free trade agreement (FTA), for example), the environment, and cultural exchanges. Such a community could be built on the shared culture and common interests of the countries of the region.

8. Status Quo (Balance of Power): According to this view, the current situation in which South Korea and Japan are allied with the United States, and China is aligned with Russia and supportive of North Korea, is an acceptable power configuration in Northeast Asia, even if not the most preferable one. In this configuration, China maintains strong economic relations not only with the United States but also with Japan and South Korea. This view assumes that while China remains the largest trading partner of Korea, Korea will be closely tied with the United States and with Japan, militarily and in security and political relations. It also assumes that even as China’s economic and military power grows, its economic interdependence with other countries will continue to dictate a cooperative Chinese policy with the other Northeast Asian states.


The above review of South Korea’s strategic options shows that the country may have a range of choices when it comes to determining policy in different issue areas. When examining strategy in the context of the broader regional security landscape, however, the picture becomes less clear. One can see that the formulation of a grand strategy is nearly impossible because South Korea’s different policy prescriptions are extremely difficult or impossible to establish and maintain. None of the choices are clearly exhaustive, mutually exclusive, or permanent. The United States, China, South Korea, and Japan have different interests in and perspectives on a range of major issues, but that should not prevent South Korea from pursuing the development of strategic thoughts and plans. The policy options discussed above are possible choices, but South Korea does not need to choose only one right now. Rather it is important to think about and discuss when, in what sequence, in what combination, and which strategic option(s) to choose. In order to survive, navigate, and thrive in this turbulent neighborhood, Korea will have to adopt varying mixtures of the above alternatives according to the needs and dictates of time and circumstances. This should drive strategic thinkers in South Korea and other countries in the region to diligently create new options or to reassess those strategies already in place. The increased reliability and consistency of policies formulated out of this strategic thought process will lead to greater trust building and cooperation among countries in the region.

As important as which strategic option(s) to choose is in what way and to what extent the strategy is formulated and how the policies are pursued. A strategy needs constancy without being rigid, flexibility without being void of direction, and thorough without being extreme. The leader(s) creating such strategies and policies should have convictions and principles but needs to remain open to communication and opposing views.