Option 5: Rethinking Middle Power Diplomacy

Since the Cold War, South Korea has never been in a lonelier position as four great powers and North Korea have appeared to bypass it in their “pivots” to or within Asia. If North Korea has pivoted to anywhere it is to Moscow, while stonewalling Seoul. The two transformative summits of mid-spring 2015 saw Abe Shinzo and Barack Obama strengthen ties, leaving Park Geun-hye on the sidelines, and Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping strengthen ties, as Park declined to attend the seventieth anniversary gala. With the South China Sea in the spotlight for Abe and Obama and Central Asia the centerpiece in Putin and Xi’s link-up of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Eurasian Economic Community, the Korean Peninsula is in danger of losing its place in the diplomatic spotlight. Pyongyang makes diplomacy difficult, other priorities rise to the top, and Seoul must scramble to have its voice heard in this environment. Shortly, Park will meet with Obama, which promises to highlight deterrence against North Korea—a pathway to greater dependence on Washington and to a degree of acquiescence toward Tokyo rather than to active diplomacy with Beijing or Moscow. At this difficult time, it behooves us to reassess Seoul’s thinking about middle power diplomacy and the central concepts it has introduced to symbolize this thinking.

Several tests of the Park administration’s diplomacy lie just over the horizon. First is her visit to Washington in mid-June, inviting comparisons with Abe’s visit just seven weeks earlier and raising the question of what kind of joint response to North Korea is feasible. Coming only a week later is the fiftieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan, anticipated to be just a prelude to the August 15 seventieth anniversary, when Abe’s statement and Park’s response will put Japan-ROK relations to the test. September 3 is the date of China’s commemoration of the seventieth anniversary—likely with Park in attendance to be tested on whether she is reinforcing or abstaining from Xi’s rhetoric about history and Putin’s likely embrace of it. Possibly at its own August 15 gala or at the October 10 celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the ruling party, Pyongyang is likely to decide to test international diplomacy as well. Critical decisions await; procrastination is unlikely in this heated environment where others are making firm choices. Facing these crossroads, middle power diplomacy is more circumscribed than many had anticipated in recent years.

South Korea’s options are narrowing, but its aspirations are not. Japan has swung sharply into the US camp with the April 2015 Abe visit to Washington, despite the static from its more intense pursuit of a separate national identity and its continued claims to have a distinctive foreign policy in Asia. Russia is veering sharply in the direction of China since the start of the Ukraine crisis, although it insists that it is the center of an entirely distinct civilization and is pursuing multipolarity. That leaves the two Koreas under increased pressure, as each is looking for ways to gain greater leverage in its dealings with the great powers. Reviewing the recent initiatives from Seoul, including those on how to maximize middle power diplomacy, this article is focused on reassessing how it thinks about its middle power status in the shifting great power environment of Northeast Asia. It covers the US-Japan-ROK triangle and the Sino-Russia-US-DPRK-ROK pentagon—two configurations in which there is need to recalibrate middle power diplomacy aware of the clashing goals of great powers.

The recent period reveals great frustrations in various countries limited in their capacity to control the course of events. South Koreans should be used to feelings of relative helplessness, squeezed among four great powers and uncontrollable North Korea, but their country’s responses at times defy one’s expectations for measured responses, cautious diplomacy, and careful calculations of Seoul’s limited agency. This article reviews concepts at the core of South Korean foreign policy in 2015, links them to national identity, and assesses their effectiveness in realizing South Korean national interests. The six concepts covered are: 1) model ally of the United States, insistent that relations are better than ever; 2) honeymoon partner with Xi’s China, basking in relations that are also called better than ever and giving Seoul a big edge over Pyongyang; 3) trustpolitik as the pathway to North Korea, maximizing the prospects of the bonanza through reunification; 4) comfort women, as the test for managing bilateral relations with Japan; 5) the Eurasian Initiative with Russia, keeping it cooperative and viewing North Korea through the lens of a trans-Korean corridor; and 6) NAPCI (the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative), a plan for regionalism, putting Seoul at the center and redolent of the Sunshine Policy, the Northeast Asian hub, and the balancer in great power relations. These concepts are, arguably, rooted in uncertain assumptions about middle power empowerment.

At a Crossroads

South Korea stands at a crossroads in its foreign policy, awakening to the limitations of: its “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping, estrangement leading to “hate Korea” in Japan, a dead-end “Eurasian Initiative” with a Russia now interested in playing the “North Korean card,” unreciprocated “trustpolitik” with Pyongyang, and a facade of “model ally” relations with the United States when signs of trouble have been mounting. As the Obama rebalance to Asia has refocused on deterrence of North Korea, putting more emphasis on triangularity and on forging an enabling environment for closer relations between its two close allies in Northeast Asia, pressure on Seoul has been growing. In addition to TPP, the rebalance has split in two: to guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and to prevent North Korea from flexing or even further developing its WMD threat potential. Seoul is essentially spared from the first of these priorities, but it is at the center of the second, testing its bilateral ties.

The environment in Northeast Asia has been shifting.1 Abe Shinzo’s April 27-29 visit to the United States outflanked Park, adding to doubts that South Korea is the model ally. Xi Jinping’s April 22 meeting with Abe in Jakarta (putting to rest the idea that he consented to meet Abe in November only because he was hosting the APEC summit) left South Korea-Japan relations looking as if they were the weakest leg in the Sino-Japanese-Korean (CJK) triangle due to Park’s recalcitrance. While at the last minute Kim Jong-un decided not to go to Moscow for the May 9 World War II gala, Vladimir Putin’s invitation amid his push for closer ties with North Korea and Park’s refusal to attend left her Russia policy in limbo. Moreover, to close scrutiny in South Korea, Abe did not satisfy its demands for showing repentance over history during his visit to the United States. Meanwhile, Seoul’s appeal for Obama to embrace NAPCI and even co-sponsor it does not appear to be gaining traction, as the Six-Party Talks led by China remain the declared goal of diplomacy, however hard they are to realize. Thus, criticism has grown over how Seoul is pursuing middle power diplomacy and conceptualizing its national interests as it prioritizes national identity concerns.

While Park Geun-hye was on an extended tour of Central and South America, Abe’s April 22 meeting with Xi Jinping raised concern in South Korea’s media that it was becoming isolated. Most salient was Xi’s changed attitude to Abe. While some denied that Seoul was isolated, crediting it with helping to improve ties between Beijing and Tokyo, Sankei Shimbun seemed almost gleeful about what it called a “sense of danger” in South Korea owing to its isolation.2 An obsession with comparing itself to Japan is seen in this triangle, as in South Korean reactions to US responses to Japan. Equality with Japan, as if it were a middle power too, is evident in discussions of the “model ally,” the “honeymoon” with China, and, of course, “comfort women.” Fixing diplomacy with Tokyo looms as a principal test of South Korean strategic thinking.

South Korean domestic issues are compounding foreign policy challenges. In Japan, much is made of scandals weakening the Park administration3 or economic troubles from an outdated model (slowing growth rate, Japan-style deflation, overreliance on exports by large companies, a “China shock” from troubles in that country, growing pension demands when the country was late to introduce a pension system, and the difficulty of shifting to a creative economy as Park is seeking). With the cheap yen compounding the economic effects of bad Japan-ROK relations and Japanese tourists declining sharply, the two countries need to refocus on common interests for the sake of their economies as well as their security, increasing numbers are arguing.4

In contrast, Sankei Shimbun is redoubling its insistence that the “history war” must be won. As Abe was preparing to arrive in the United States, it charged that the Korean embassy there was lobbying with lots of money against Abe and that talk of coercion against the “comfort women” or “sex slaves,” abetted by publishers such as McGraw-Hill, fuels the struggle on the battleground of the United States.5 Another Sankei article noted that in March the home page of Japan’s foreign ministry and its Diplomatic Bluebook had removed the phrase earlier used for Japan-South Korea relations conveying that they share fundamental values. The very newspaper that is doing its utmost to stir animosity against South Korea, which serves to reduce prospects for finding common ground or for trilateralism, Sankei even wrote that anger in Japan is due to distorted and unrestrained coverage of Japan in the Korean media, leading to hate Korea emotions, calls on the street to sever diplomatic relations, and a popular attitude of “leave South Korea.”6 Such hyperbolic rhetoric in both countries works against strategic thinking, but Yomiuri Shimbun, while focusing on the division between Seoul and Washington on THAAD, is now taking a more strategic outlook, as it points to rising concern about China in Seoul amid steps to overcome its recent unease with Washington.7 It has begun to convey some optimism about relations.

The strategic need for trilateralism is gaining in Tokyo and Seoul. This was affirmed in the first trilateral deputy foreign ministers meeting on April 16, which agreed on strengthening cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear weapons/missiles. Aware that South Korean voices have warned against the remilitarization of Japan and fearing an adverse reaction to the new US-Japan defense guidelines, Washington led by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken has worked energetically to repair Japan-ROK relations. This meeting was a big part of that effort, especially to damp down the backlash in Seoul from Abe’s visit to Washington. A Yomiuri Shimbun article saw the Obama administration picking up where it left off in April 2014 with the trilateral summit, including Blinken’s February 2015 trip to Seoul and Tokyo, Wendy Sherman’s expression of anguish that month over South Korea’s repeated criticism of Japan over history, Ashton Carter’s April 8 interview with the same newspaper urging a forward-looking posture from Seoul, and Admiral Samuel Locklear’s April 16 testimony before a Senate committee suggesting unhappiness with South Korea’s attitude toward THAAD. Yomiuri argued that increasingly the object of Washington’s dissatisfaction has shifted to South Korea with voices even saying that it should not forget that for security it depends on the United States.8 In this year of successive Asian leaders visiting Washington, US efforts are helping to shift thinking in Seoul and to bring a more sober approach to its diplomatic calculus.

Insistent on Middle Power Diplomacy

Usually, the label “middle power’ conjures up notions of power balances, resisting the urge to behave in the manner of a great power while looking for support against one or another great power. South Korea turned to the United States to balance the Soviet Union in the Cold War as well as to deter North Korea, and the discussion has now turned to how much it is seeking to hedge against China in its alliance with the United States while again deterring North Korea. Yet, “middle power” also suggests an identity, not as evocative as “great power” but still indicative of a state that seeks a greater role than a “small power.” In the Cold War, South Korea was generally seen as a “small power,” bandwagoning with the United States without other options, but with its “economic miracle,” successful nordpolitik toward Moscow and Beijing, and newfound confidence amid the dynamic changes across Asia, it embraced the label “middle power” as a rationale for more a more active foreign policy. Many proposals Seoul has advocated reflect the optimism that, as a middle power, it can be a hub, a balancer, a global symbol and meeting site, a source of regional initiatives, and even a moral conscience toward one great power. Yet, at the same time, Seoul is cautious in facing three other great powers, revealing limitations it recognizes in not being a great power. Its middle power identity weighs heavily on its foreign policy choices.

Associating with other middle powers,9 Seoul has begun discussing this standing with Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and Australia in a new MIKTA grouping. Compared to Australia and Indonesia, at least, South Korea seems to be playing in a different league—directly challenging Japan, striving to reshape Sino-US relations, promoting a regional framework NAPCI under its leadership, and attempting to steer others’ diplomacy with the dangerous state of North Korea. Once having whetted its appetite more than a quarter century ago with nordpolitik and become emboldened with its Sunshine Policy, it is still pressing for a more active role than is customary for a middle power, despite being tied down militarily by the North Korean threat.

This is increasingly problematic when China and the United States are competing more vigorously than before, Russia is shifting from an economic to a geopolitical focus on North Korea, and Japan is reverting to a great power strategic outlook in place of a great power economic outlook in the late twentieth century and more than a decade of inward-looking distraction from balance of power thinking. The scope for boldness from Seoul is narrowing, especially as the US “rebalance” is reaffirmed.

Complicating South Korea’s options as a middle power is not only its aspirations to become a united state, absorbing North Korea, but also the calculations of the great powers about North Korea, reunification, and the legacy of 1945-1953 in the region.

China and Russia do not so much view North Korea as a “rogue state,” a threat to the security of the region, and a failed economy with an atrocious human rights record, but as a buffer state in a balance of power and civilizations established after World War II, a besieged state in a seemingly post-Cold War environment where the United States and its allies refused to normalize relations and allowed a state of insecurity to linger, and a fortress against the unwelcome extension of a rival civilization and alliance system closer to their heartlands.10 Given these perceptions of North Korea, it follows that South Korea is seen not just as a middle power maneuvering among four great powers, but as an unnatural state, whose future is held hostage to events in North Korea and decisions by all of the great powers. This puts South Korea in the position of a middle power with very limited scope for diplomacy in its backyard—not as serious as the situation that prevailed until the end of the 1980s but closer to it than South Koreans, emboldened over 25 years, are prepared to acknowledge.

Caught in a Trilateral Framework with Japan as well as the United States

trustpolitik, this comes none too soon. In 2005-2007 and again in 2012-2014, Seoul lost its balance, despite legitimate grievances with Tokyo. Recovering that balance may await Abe’s August 15 statement, but a process of three-way coordination involving Washington appears to have limited the negative fallout from Abe’s failure to satisfy some of South Korea’s demands in his visit to Washington and to be in operation for Park’s visit to Washington too. Following the lead of the Obama administration in managing tensions with Abe is a positive sign that the Park administration is coming to realize the limitations of a middle power sandwiched among four great powers.

The challenge of balancing national identity and national interests in relations with Japan has yet to be resolved. One approach would be to see the two as zero-sum and suppress national identity in order to pursue the national interest in security, above all. Another would be to refocus national identity away from historical memories toward universal values. Some combination of the two is recommended by Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder in their book, The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: Security and the United States.11 They propose a grand bargain between Seoul and Tokyo with strong support from Washington as the option the Park administration should follow in foreign policy. This requires not only reaffirming the US-ROK alliance but recognizing the urgency of the trilateral framework with Japan. Yet, in their bargain South Korea receives a huge national identity bonus in the form of Japan relinquishing claims to Dokdo, making refocusing on security much easier.

A decision of this importance should be couched in clarity in about, at a minimum, five foreign policy themes: 1) the nature of the regional order in East Asia: 2) the nature of South Korean power in relation to that of the other countries active in the region; 3) the hedging options most suitable for a country with this degree of power in this regional order; 4) the regional identity options most consistent with South Korea’s national identity; and 5) the realistic implications of these choices for reunification in the foreseeable future. Consideration of these themes can have a sobering effect. In contrast to earlier thinking, the regional order is divisive, South Korean power is limited, light hedging is more problematic, alliance regional identity is superseding Asia-centered identity, and chances for reunification are low. These are the realities that now make it urgent for Seoul to turn toward Washington and Tokyo as well.

Japanese sources are grappling with how to overcome the causes of troubled ties. An article in Yomiuri Shimbun on May 3 blamed citizens’ movements for the state of Japan-South Korea relations. Equating the tents of demonstrators angry about the Sewol ferry disaster in the center of Seoul with the organized protests outside the Japanese embassy every Wednesday, it charged that the political influence aroused through democratization in 1987 along with the positive reporting in the media of this sort of citizen consciousness and the history textbook preoccupation with the theme of “comfort women” has complicated bilateral relations, and Park Geun-hye has played on these emotions by insisting on restoring the honor of these women. Given the US improvement in relations with Japan, Park’s foreign policy has reached a deadend, the article concluded shortly after Abe’s visit to Washington had ended.12

Kimura Kan analyzed the challenge of resetting ROK-Japan relations in a transitional period, where power relations between them have changed dramatically from what was a vertical to what has become a horizontal relationship with both in the G-20 (no longer only Japan in the G-7). Japan, a latecomer to the advanced countries, has come to face South Korea, the frontrunner of the developing countries, symbolizing the breakdown in the divide between those once distinct categories. Following their normalization of relations, Korea rose from 20 to 40 percent of Japan in population and 5 to 25 percent in GDP, jumped to 70 percent in military expenses paying far less for personnel costs, and is on the verge of catching Japan in exports by the mid-2020s. Despite recent “hate Korea” books that foresee Korea’s economy crashing and its society as unstable, Kan sees no such thing. Not only is Korea becoming Japan’s equal, readers may surmise, it has lost dependency on Japan (40 percent of its trade in the decade after normalization to 7 percent) and has little sense of military dependency in contrast to the case of the US role for South Korea. Thus, long-standing feelings of humiliation, from the time when Japan used its stronger position (making Korea lose face), can now be expressed. He adds, Korea’s trade dependency of 100 percent of GDP, contrasted to 25 percent for Japan, means that the fact that 25 percent of Korean trade is with China magnifies the impact compared to 20 percent of Japan’s trade with China, making it easier for Japan to strongly resist China. With South Korea importing labor unlike Japan and losing the sense that Japan’s development path is its own (despite demographic similarities), Kan advises Japanese that forging an equal relationship will require rethinking past assumptions about this relationship.13 Similar advice is required for the Korean side.

Hedging: China and Russia

Seoul has shied away from heavy hedging against China. This is viewed as strategic because the immediate threat from China in the South China Sea is rather distant, as opposed to the serious danger on South Korea’s border from North Korea, for which China’s ambiguous role has made it more of a strategic partner than a rival. This is in contrast to Japan’s heavy hedging or even balancing against China, and to the maritime states in Southeast Asia more inclined to heavy hedging than to light hedging.14 One salient test in 2015 is whether Seoul will join the THAAD program as Washington desires. It is depicted as solely a response to North Korea’s threat and of no relevance to questions of hedging against China, but Beijing has made it into a litmus test of Seoul’s military intentions. Another test is Seoul’s embrace of defense trilateralism with Washington and Tokyo, which similarly is designed to counter the rising danger from Pyongyang but arouses deep suspicions in Beijing. Decisions on how much to hedge against China are inextricably linked to questions about options for a middle power facing an array of great powers that prioritize both security and territorial interests fundamental to the South’s very existence and national identity. Beijing’s cynical use of North Korea to raise Seoul’s hopes as a middle power while actually striving to limit its options should no longer cast a shadow on strategizing.

South Koreans have tended to exaggerate their diplomatic opportunities. Take the example of Russia. After cutting a favorable deal at the end of Gorbachev’s tenure in office, they assumed over nearly a decade that Seoul would marginalize Pyongyang since it had the economic wherewithal of vital importance to Moscow and to its aim of developing the Russian Far East. They should have been shocked in 1997 with the sharp deterioration in bilateral relations, as Russians expressed disappointment in the deal they had made, but reinvigorated pursuit of Russia under the new strategy of the Sunshine Policy obviated any need to reexamine the past. Over the following decade Russia left the impression that it was just grateful to be part of the Six-Party Talks and would be looking ahead to their successful resolution for opportunities to link its economy through North Korea to South Korea. Although Moscow’s pursuit of Pyongyang at times seemed too ardent to be explained by such modest ambitions and from about 2004 its outlook on the resolution of the nuclear crisis should have raised warning flags, confidence in Seoul’s ability to manage Russian involvement did not appear to be affected. The more assertive Russian posture toward the crisis in 2010—refusing to brand North Korea the aggressor—, in 2011—conducting a summit with Kim Jong-il despite his conduct—, and from 2012-2013—intensifying its contacts with Kim Jong-un as part of Putin’s more aggressive foreign policy moves—did not dissuade Park Geun-hye from launching her Eurasian Initiative. Even in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and the spreading Russian narrative that a new cold war has begun in Asia too, in which North Korea is a critical part, South Korea seemed to be optimistic that Moscow remains centered on economic reintegration projects and denuclearization as the necessary step for them. Little attention is being paid to calls in Russia to bolster North Korea against the threats to it and to prioritize regional security in a manner unwelcome in Seoul. Moscow now views Seoul from the angle of a new cold war in which Seoul sides with Washington—not a basis for optimism.

Given the line-up against Seoul’s strategic interests in the region and the way the threat from North Korea is being handled, there no longer seems to be an alternative to drawing closer to the United States in a deterrence strategy. Differentiating the tension over the South China Sea from that over North Korea may continue for now, but Beijing may decide to link the two arenas, conditioning cooperation in one with the attitude of Washington and Tokyo on the other. This would leave Seoul in a bind, where it would have to accept the connection between the two as well. As Moscow is linking Ukraine and North Korea, signs of bipolarity reminiscent of the Cold War era are growing. Even if this trend is still unclear, Seoul’s options are being narrowed.

Revisiting Six Core Concepts

In the second half of the twentieth century, Seoul was well aware that Tokyo was the principal US ally in East Asia. Somehow, the idea took root, especially in the halcyon years of Lee Myung-bak’s relations with Obama when the DPJ was wavering on its ties to Washington, that Seoul is the model ally or, at least, that it is equal to Tokyo as a US strategic partner. This was buttressed by the notion that its values are closer to US values, its social networks are more interwoven into the fabric of US society, and personal chemistry between leaders is better than between Abe and Obama. As US-Japan defense ties strengthen and China’s challenge intensifies, the strategic case for Japan’s greater importance becomes more obvious. South Korea’s role remains substantial, given North Korea’s growing threat capacity, but it is more constrained.

The good feelings generated by the Park-Xi summits never should have been viewed as a honeymoon. After all, there has been no Sino-DPRK divorce despite strains in their relationship. Thinking otherwise raised unrealistic expectations that Seoul had more leverage than it really did. Sober calculations of what Beijing desires for the future of the peninsula as well as the region are a necessary starting point for acting in a manner befitting a middle power facing not only a rising superpower, but also a revival of a Sino-Russian strategic consensus on North Korea at the South’s expense.

Trustpolitik repeated the illusion of South Korean leaders since Roh Tae-woo that a deal could be struck between the two Koreas and then endorsed by great powers. Neither economic assistance nor agreement on regime security comes anywhere near meeting the objectives of Pyongyang nor reckons with its expectations that it can maneuver among the great powers. Fraternal ties do not help. Middle power status does not impress, when great powers all claim a stake in peninsular changes.

The comfort women issue poses a challenge not only to Japan’s revisionists, but to its long-standing national strategy for both normalizing relations and “reentering Asia.” Making it a litmus test for ROK-Japan relations was an invitation to an identity clash and dealt a serious blow too to the security role for both countries in East Asia. Each then becomes even more dependent on the United States, while damaging its own standing in that allied country by transferring the battleground in the “history war.” This approach inflates the significance of national identity, stirring emotions in both countries, without soberly reflecting on strategic trade-offs before a middle power.

Park’s Eurasian Initiative is another example of overreach, appealing to Russians whose aims are directly at odds with South Korea’s. Whereas Seoul hopes to enlist Russian support for infrastructure and transshipments through North Korea to awaken Pyongyang to the benefits of denuclearization and economic openness, its counterparts in Russia are emphasizing the importance of thwarting pressure on the North Korean regime, increasing its confidence through economic growth, and eventually obliging South Korea to accept a process of reunification that removes US bases and the alliance and supports Russia’s idea for a regional security framework.

At the core of the idea for NAPCI is a South Korean led process of regionalism, whereby the great powers set aside differences and leave room for a middle power to find common ground among them. North Korea would not be welcome unless it shifted course abruptly; therefore, this is 5+1 or 6 if Mongolia were included. Since China has repeatedly rejected 5+1 proposals, there is little room for optimism that this proposal will see the light of day. As for matters not related to North Korea, the scale of five or six countries is unlikely to overcome problems that bilateral or trilateral relations find intractable. There is scant reason to expect that China’s tensions with Japan or the United States or Russia’s tensions with these countries would be easier to handle in NAPCI, and nobody imagines that the Japan-ROK problems are suited to this multilateral forum. In any case, the image of the Six-Party Talks as the desired format either to incorporate North Korea or to coordinate responses to it leaves little space for NAPCI. Why would China, which has benefited from hosting these talks, relinquish its leadership? It is not that the great powers outright reject the proposal for NAPCI, but they have low expectations that other states will take it seriously and show no confidence that a middle power can steer the others ahead.


In the existing circumstances of ever-greater North Korean threats and a deepening divide over security between Washington and Beijing, Seoul’s options are limited. It is in need of recalibrating relations with Tokyo and Beijing in a multilateral context. This means greater appreciation of its dependence for security on Washington, but also more strategic use of ties to Tokyo to bolster deterrence and shape US policies in the region. The contours of the region are being clarified; a response is needed.

Seoul has gone from humiliating deference toward Tokyo, revealing a dependent small power facing a great power, to overconfident antagonism toward Tokyo with insufficient regard to regional dynamics and its limitations as a middle power. It has also transitioned from a sense of virtual helplessness in relations between Beijing and Washington or even Pyongyang and Washington to an exaggerated sense of empowerment—again paying insufficient heed to the limitations of its real leverage. There are circumstances when a middle power has reason to take the lead with the great powers, but it is essential to recognize that they will prove transient and are already passing in Northeast Asia. The interlude of nordpolitik (when Moscow and Beijing were weakest), the Sunshine Policy (when Pyongyang was most amenable to the diplomatic track), an aspiring hub or balancer (as optimism about regionalism was at its peak), and the driving force of NAPCI (when Sino-US tensions appeared to be manageable) is ending. The great powers are behaving in a more traditional manner, security is far overshadowing economics as security dilemmas intensify, and national identity clashes are exacerbating divisions over national interests.

South Korea is a vital US ally with distinct national interests, whose voice needs to be taken seriously on critical issues, not only those concerned with North Korea. US sensitivity to its concerns is important to make Park Geun-hye’s visit a success. Given the unparalleled threat from North Korea, keeping the highest priority for this alliance is an abiding US priority. Trustpolitik, NAPCI, the Eurasian Initiative, and engagement of China for help with North Korea are all well intentioned. If they were to succeed, this would undoubtedly be welcome news in Washington. The desire to be a model ally of the United States is also something positive. Thus, doubts about the prospects for success on noble ideas in today’s circumstances are not a reason to question the merits and promise of the alliance. It remains essential for both states.

1. For South Korean media coverage of events in April, see Country Report: South Korea prepared by Han Minjeong, The Asan Forum 3, no. 2 (2015).

2. Sankei Shimbun, April 26, 2015, 8.

3. Sankei Shimbun, April 18, 2015, 9.

4. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 9, 2015, 13.

5. Sankei Shimbun, April 18, 2015, 2; Sankei Shimbun, April 24, 2015, 3.

6. Sankei Shimbun, April 12, 2015.

7. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 10, 2015, 9.

8. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 18, 2015, 3.

9. “Five Middle Powers Call for Denuclearization of N. Korea,” Yonhap News, May 22, 2015.

10. See the summaries in “Country Report: China” and “Country Report: Russia” in The Asan Forum, various issues of Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 (2014 and 2015).

11. Brad Glosserman and Scott A. Snyder, The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

12. Yomiuri Shimbun, May 3, 2015, 7.

13. Kan Kimura, “Tenki o mukaeta Nikkan kankei no kongo,” Toa, April 2015, 10-22.

14. Cheng-chwee Kuik’s introduction to this Special Forum introduces his analysis of hedging, including a comparative perspective on South Korea.