From the Kabul airlift to BTS at the UN: South Korea’s middle power role

(L to R) Taehyung/V, Suga, Jin, RM, Jungkook, Jimin and J-Hope of South Korean boy band BTS speak at the SDG Moment event as part of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in UN General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York, U.S., September 20, 2021. John Angelillo/Pool via REUTERS

Lost in the flurry of media coverage on Afghanistan last month was a bright piece of news featuring Afghan families, including dozens of children clutching pink or white teddy bears, exiting South Korea’s Incheon International Airport on August 26. They were part of the 391 Afghans airlifted out of Kabul by the South Korean military following the city’s fall to the Taliban. Deemed as “persons of special merit,” many of the Afghans had worked as translators, medical assistants, vocational trainers, and engineers with the South Korean government. What does the U.S. withdrawal mean for allies such as South Korea who offered support for U.S. missions in Afghanistan (and also Iraq), and more significantly, what should South Korea’s broader role be in an increasingly “multiplex world”?

The frantic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the recent passing of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 have put spotlights on the wisdom of U.S. intervention and on America’s role in the world in the 21st century thus far. This in turn has spurred further debate about the best course of action for U.S. foreign policy going forward. Whether one advocates for greater restraint or greater activism on the global stage, however, most experts seem to agree that U.S. allies can do more to support regional stability and global order.

South Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific

As articulated in a leaders’ joint statement this May, South Korea and the United States “share a vision for a region governed by democratic norms, human rights, and the rule of law at home and abroad,” and seek “a partnership that continues to provide peace and prosperity for our peoples, while serving as a linchpin for the regional and global order.” For South Korea and other key U.S. allies in Asia, such statements have meant offering diplomatic support for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. More concretely, close allies have been expected to coordinate their economic, security, and defense policies with the U.S. to deter threats from strategic adversaries (read China) and promote shared interests and values. On the Korean Peninsula, Seoul has strengthened its conventional deterrence capabilities against North Korea by boosting defense spending and developing new weapons systems as evidenced by last week’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test.

Although Seoul seeks to maintain strong ties to the U.S., its foreign policy in Asia is still circumscribed within the broader scope of U.S.-China competition. The current Moon Jae-in government has worked hard to avoid being pulled into an “anti-China” coalition. For instance, Seoul has not produced its own version of an Indo-Pacific strategy like other U.S. allies and partners including Japan, Australia, India, France, and the Associations of Southeast Asian Nations. South Korea also remains outside the framework of the much vaunted Quad, which will hold its first in-person leader’s meeting at the White House this week.

Nevertheless, South Korea’s increased commitment to infrastructure investment, development finance, and human capital in Southeast Asia and India through its New Southern Policy has been welcomed by Washington. Expectations also persist that South Korea will do more to coordinate with other U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, and join like-minded states in support of democratic rights and international norms and laws, particularly in regards to Chinese behavior in the region.

Peace, development, soft power, and global governance

Beyond the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea has sought to make a larger global imprint within and outside the scope of the U.S. alliance. South Korea contributed 3,600 troops in Iraq between 2004 to 2008, and a contingent of up to 500 soldiers in Afghanistan from 2010 to support reconstruction and peacekeeping efforts. Until last month, the Korea International Cooperation Agency operated a training institution for public officials to bolster the administrative capacities of Afghan government officials. Capitalizing on its own economic success story, Seoul has also highlighted its development model that has drawn attention from sub-Saharan African countries among other developing nations.

In Afghanistan, the absence of U.S. forces has meant the evacuation of the embassy staff of most (if not all) U.S. allied nations including South Korea. Aid and development operations have ceased given the uncertainty and dangers of Taliban rule. However, Seoul’s decision to evacuate Afghan families, at the risk of great peril and potential domestic backlash given strong anti-Muslim sentiment at home, indicates that South Koreans are willing to contribute to the greater global good in times of need. Narratives highlighting South Korea’s own past as a war-torn country with fleeing refugees in the 1950s suggest the country’s willingness to “pay it forward,” reflected in South Korea’s steady growth in its official development assistance (ODA) budget (notwithstanding decreases in 2020 related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic).

South Korea’s soft power, including the popularity of K-pop and K-dramas, also enables the country to address complex global issues such as sustainable development, climate change, and global poverty. This week, the K-Pop boy band BTS accompanied President Moon to the United Nations in their new diplomatic role as “special presidential envoy for future generations and culture.” Over one million fans tuned in to watch their dance video performance at the U.N. followed by remarks on climate change, the pandemic, and youth issues.

Defending democracy in Asia

Paradoxically, as South Korea has found ways to support stability, governance, and human security on the global stage and in far-flung places, its engagement with the perpetual humanitarian and human rights crisis closest to home in North Korea has come to a halt due to sanctions, pandemic lockdowns, and political posturing. Seoul has also remained relatively quiet as China undermines democratic principles in Asia and further abroad. Nor has the Moon government been as vocal as other neighboring countries such as Japan in defending international laws and norms in the South China Sea.

Beyond ODA, bilateral investments, and soft power, South Korea should muster its inner voice and growing (even if limited) power to speak out on behalf of marginalized people, groups, and citizens, despite geopolitical sensitivities. Addressing human rights in North Korea at home and abroad, oppression against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the curtailment of free speech and civil rights in Hong Kong under the National Security Law would strengthen South Korea’s reputation as a country willing to defend democratic principles, human rights, and international law, all of which serve an important basis for regional peace, governance, and security.

South Korea, with the tenth largest economy and defense budget in the world in 2020, demonstrates how middle powers might shoulder the responsibility in sustaining fragile regional orders, in addition to a fragmenting global order. However, as a recently developed and non-Western democratic country, South Korea must do more to leverage its unique experience to work with and encourage other Indo-Pacific countries to adhere to good governance that empower citizens, respect human rights, and support international rules and laws aimed at protecting the global commons.