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South Korea has long found itself in the unenviable position of being a midsized power in a tense neighborhood of geopolitical titans. Many South Koreans rightly ask whether the country’s soft power can help Seoul transcend, even partially, the geopolitical fate Northeast Asia has given it or at least blunt the sharpest edges of the region’s hard power calculations and geopolitics. Soft power has inherent limitations, but it can serve as a conduit for expanding South Korean influence on some critical transnational issues. Combating climate change; cultivating sustainable macroeconomic growth; and reaffirming universal values like human rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press all come to mind.

But for all its uses, the limits of soft power are real. Sandwiched as South Korea is between some of the world’s most powerful states—China, Japan, Russia, and the United States—soft power won’t be able to sway Seoul’s neighbors on all thorny geopolitical issues. Even if South Korea accumulates more soft power, it’s unrealistic to expect Seoul’s soft power to alleviate crucial geopolitical tensions such as the accelerating U.S.-China rivalry. While South Korea must keep its expectations for soft power modest, it shouldn’t overlook the potential benefits of soft power either.

Over the past several years, Chinese pressure on South Korea has grown. Beijing insists that Seoul shouldn’t forge deeper military ties with the United States—South Korea’s most indispensable ally. China also asserts that South Korea should minimize, if not stop, security ties between Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. Of course, the main reason South Korea continues to have a critical alliance with the United States is North Korea’s expanding threat portfolio, including its burgeoning nuclear weapons program. And so long as China continues to coddle and provide a lifeline to North Korea, Pyongyang’s asymmetrical threats against South Korea, as well as those against the United States and Japan, will only increase. Credible deterrence and defense capabilities remain the linchpins of South Korean security.

But soft power could help South Korea carve out the kind of diplomatic and multilateral spaces that are likely to become increasingly prominent in the post-pandemic world to come. This is true in at least four areas:

  • the rising importance of societal resilience and nimbleness in terms of addressing transnational threats;
  • the increasing relevance of hybrid power as advanced technologies, adaptable markets, social cohesiveness, and proactive policymaking come into play;
  • the heightened salience of local South Korean policy solutions that can be adapted regionally and globally and thereby enhance the country’s global brand; and
  • the growing premium being placed on South Korea’s complementary, middle-power status as a robust democracy

As Seoul’s international standing has increased significantly with its relatively successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic, South Korea’s soft power has also garnered wider recognition. Since the 1970s, South Korean hard power has grown on the heels of the country’s accelerated economic growth, an element of the country’s national story that has received the lion’s share of the attention to date. In the 1970s and 1980s, rapid South Korean advances in ship building, automobiles, steel manufacturing, and consumer electronics symbolized the country’s coming of age. A June 6, 1977, Newsweek cover story in the international edition entitled “The Koreans Are Coming” captured the prevailing mood. In a 2020 report, the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute ranked South Korea and other Asian-Pacific countries on a range of metrics. These included (among others) comprehensive power, military capability, economic capability, diplomatic influence, and cultural influence. Seoul ranked in the middle of the pack across the board (see table 1).

Table 1. Ranking Asian-Pacific Powers
Rank Comprehensive Power* Military Capability Economic Capability Diplomatic Influence Cultural Influence
1 United States United States China China United States
2 China China United States Japan China
3 Japan Russia Japan United States Japan
4 India India India India India
5 Russia South Korea South Korea South Korea Australia
6 Australia North Korea Russia Russia Malaysia
7 South Korea Japan Singapore Australia South Korea
8 Singapore Australia Taiwan Singapore Thailand
9 Thailand Pakistan Australia Vietnam Singapore
10 Malaysia Singapore Indonesia Indonesia Russia
Source: Lowy Institute, Asian Power Index: 2020 Key Findings, 2020, https://power.lowyinstitute.org/downloads/lowy-institute-2020-asia-power-index-key-findings-report.pdf.

*This table includes four of the eight measures that comprise the Lowy Institute’s comprehensive power ranking.

South Korea’s transition from decades of authoritarian rule to democracy in 1987 added a new dimension to the country’s national tale. Although all sectors of South Korean society opened up after democratization, the country’s artistic and cultural spaces really flourished. In 2020, for instance, the South Korean movie Parasite won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Meanwhile, K-pop began to gain global attention in the 2010s, as shown by the popularity of the singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video and more recently with the astounding success of the boy band BTS: as this success has grown, South Korean soft power has begun to receive serious attention.

There is little doubt that South Korea’s soft power is on the rise. According to Brand Finance’s 2020 “Global Soft Power Index” report, South Korea was ranked fourteen out of sixty listed countries. (Figure 1 below highlights the report’s top thirty rankings.) Former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon noted in the report’s introduction, “In today’s era of increasing nationalism, uncertainty, and transnational challenges, I am of the view that soft power is now more important than ever.” Similarly, the University of Southern California’s “Soft Power 30” report creates composite scores of countries’ overall soft power. It does so by combining data in six areas (government, digital, culture, enterprise, engagement, and education) and polling data in seven areas (cuisine, tech products, friendliness, culture, luxury goods, foreign policy, and livability). In the report’s 2019 edition, South Korea ranked nineteen of thirty with a total score of 63 out of 100. Among countries in Asia, Japan came out on top with 75.7, followed by South Korea (63), Singapore (61.5), and China (51.3).

Two major lessons can be gleaned from the pandemic and the world’s greater receptiveness to South Korean soft power. First, soft power provides South Korea with a starkly different image than China, as Seoul presents itself as an open and democratic society, albeit one where traditional norms and cultural heritage co-exist side-by-side. Unlike China’s binary worldview of itself versus the rest of the world, South Korea provides a new model of what a twenty-first-century Asian country can look like: an advanced economy mixed with an ancient civilization that is at once irrevocably democratic, technologically innovative, and culturally vibrant. Second, while there are definite constraints on how much South Korea can emphasize human rights in the conduct of its foreign policy, Seoul should play a much more important role in bringing to light the abysmal human rights record of its northern neighbor, North Korea. As a liberal democracy, South Korea has the duty to speak out on, promote, and help preserve human rights.

Chung Min Lee
Chung Min Lee is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program. He is an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security, defense, intelligence, and crisis management.
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In the early 1970s, as South Korea’s so-called economic surge known as the Miracle on the Han River was about to take off, it would have been impossible to imagine the place the country has taken today on the world stage. Soft power will never replace hard power. But used adroitly, it can provide South Korea with advantages that some of its much more powerful neighbors don’t have. These advantages could prove timely, as South Korea faces enormous challenges including a rapidly aging society, one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and rising youth unemployment. Of course, the country also confronts sobering geopolitical challenges too.

But overall, South Korea is in a much better place now than it was in the early twentieth century when it lacked power—hard, soft, and everything in between—and had a society and leadership that failed to make fundamental adjustments. South Korea won’t ever be able to fully compensate for the weight of geopolitics on its national fortunes, but if Seoul can harness and make good use of all facets of its hybrid power (including soft power), it can surely improve its outlook going forward, even if only on the margins.