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As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, South Korea and other countries around the globe have watched the world’s two most powerful countries put the politics of their competitive rivalry over cooperation. With its image in decline, the United States has ceded the power of example, once a soft power strength that encouraged other nations to follow its lead. Though China has become more engaged in multilateral efforts, its initial moves to conceal the outbreak and peddle disinformation on the virus’s origins have undermined Beijing’s projected image of global leadership. Neither country appears interested in cooperating with the other, even in a time of such great need.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to pursue a less insular, more multilateral diplomatic agenda. In the meantime, middle powers like South Korea have stepped in to fill the global leadership void, helping coordinate fiscal and monetary policies and finance global health initiatives. Few can match the power of Seoul’s example. Even with a recent uptick in cases, South Korea’s adept handling of the pandemic has brought it international recognition that, if managed well, could prove to be a powerful source of heightened influence and soft power on Seoul’s other policy priorities.

Filling the Leadership Void

Early in the pandemic, when many authoritarian countries appeared to be handling the outbreak well, South Korea showed that democracies could respond effectively too. South Korea successfully held the world’s first pandemic-era election—a nationwide contest with historically high turnout—without a spike in cases, setting an example for many other democracies with subsequent elections, including the United States. Though not without criticism, South Korea’s pandemic response has been one of the world’s most effective models on both public health and economic grounds, and Seoul has campaigned to make its model the international standard for infectious disease responses.

Beyond its borders, South Korea has stepped up with financial assistance, medical supplies, and close consultations with foreign officials on best practices. Multilaterally, South Korea is developing one of the nine vaccine candidates for the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative and is active in pushing for the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally.

Though South Korea has made major multilateral contributions, some of its most notable work has been through bilateral initiatives that South Korean partners worldwide can more readily attribute to Seoul itself. Early in the pandemic, South Korea offered lifesaving testing kits to many countries and U.S. states struggling with testing capacity. In April, Seoul further allocated $400 million for public health in the developing world and extended the repayment timeline on debts totaling $110 million. In doing so, South Korea has constructed a positive narrative of its commitment to supporting other countries’ wellbeing.

The South Korean Example as a Source of Soft Power

South Korea’s well-executed pandemic response has elevated the country’s international image as a competent democracy and a responsible international stakeholder. When Joseph Nye coined the term soft power, he identified its three components as “culture,” “political values,” and “foreign policy (when [seen] as legitimate and having moral authority).” South Korea’s pandemic track record exemplifies the latter two components, enhancing the positive associations other countries have of South Korea.

Kathryn Botto
Kathryn Botto is a senior research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on Asian security issues, with particular emphasis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. defense policy towards East Asia.
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President Moon Jae-in has sought to capitalize on this source of soft power, even branding South Korea’s model as “K-Quarantine,” a rhetorical nod to K-pop’s widespread popularity. In his September 2020 speech at the UN General Assembly, Moon also linked South Korea’s pandemic response to much broader goals—strengthening international cooperation, fighting climate change, and promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. But converting the soft power garnered from its successful pandemic response into influence on other issues will certainly be a difficult task for Seoul.

Capitalizing on Soft Power on Global Health

South Korea’s pandemic response already has influenced global health initiatives, and its enhanced image could last well past the pandemic. But to advance other policy outcomes South Korea favors, that image must be converted into soft power on other issues beyond the pandemic. Having shown its leadership potential amid the crisis, Seoul has an opportunity to capitalize on this soft power and try to win others to its cause on other top policy concerns. This approach seems more likely to give Seoul influence on transnational issues (like macroeconomic policy coordination and climate change) where other countries already favor South Korea’s position. By contrast, increased South Korean soft power alone likely won’t be enough to win others over when Seoul goes against the grain—like by favoring a more conciliatory approach to North Korea.

For one thing, South Korea’s pandemic response could be a boon to Seoul’s bilateral diplomacy and clout in multilateral venues. The timeline below shows how South Korea’s international footprint has already grown over the years. Going forward, the pandemic has presented both opportunities and obstacles in this regard. Many aspects of Moon’s New Southern Policy, his high-profile initiative to strengthen ties with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India, have been put on hold due to pandemic restrictions. South Korea has sought to compensate by allocating more of its development assistance to these countries toward global health, though key trade growth targets will be more difficult to meet.

At the same time, South Korea may be making new inroads in multilateral formats. The G20 is once again playing a critical role in stabilizing markets and coordinating economic stimulus, just as it did during the 2007–2008 global financial crisis, and Moon has been sure to use the platform to highlight Seoul’s ambitious international commitments to global health and climate action. Notably, U.S. President Donald Trump floated the idea of expanding the G7 earlier this year to include Australia, India, and South Korea. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently invited Moon to join next year’s G7 summit in the UK, a major step even if it is not an invitation to full, permanent membership in the group. As the G7 looks ahead to the challenges of vaccine distribution and economic recovery, South Korea’s experience with the pandemic and its importance to global supply chains could prove vital. Though formally expanding the G7 is still a distant possibility, South Korea’s invitation to the meeting reflects its increasing global stature amid the pandemic. Still, the prestige of this invitation is not enough—South Korea will have to follow through on ambitious targets it has touted in multilateral formats to keep this momentum going.

A sustained response to climate change is another major South Korean priority. As leaders worldwide look for paths to economic recovery, their plans could prove either conducive or detrimental to the cause of transformative climate action. As the world’s eighth-largest carbon emitter in 2018, South Korea has striven to ensure that 45.9 percent of the country’s July 2020 economic recovery plan (worth a total of 160 trillion won or $133 billion) is allocated for green projects, making it one of the world’s greenest recovery plans. Despite the pandemic, South Korea also announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2050.

But the results of Seoul’s efforts have often not lived up to the rhetoric. South Korea has promoted “green growth” for over a decade, yet the South Korean economy remains heavily reliant on coal and carbon-intensive inputs for industry and energy, and the country is beset by corporate interests that have often interfered with green policy initiatives. These heavily entrenched aspects of South Korea’s economy call for structural change. Even so, the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for bold policy choices, and if South Korea can pull off both economic recovery and emissions reductions, the country may yet prove its leadership potential on climate action.

One of Moon’s highest diplomatic priorities remains attracting international support for his conciliatory North Korea policy. Yet garnering such international support would involve convincing key partners to break with the status quo. While Moon sees increased economic cooperation between the two Koreas as the key to peace, the United States and the UN Security Council have imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on North Korea since 2006. Moon expected the pandemic to allow Seoul to start bridging the divide with Pyongyang by offering cross-border pandemic assistance. Instead, North Korea has shown almost no interest in such cooperation. So while South Korea might enjoy more international influence on certain transnational issues like climate change, any added soft power Seoul can muster is highly unlikely to persuade other countries to dramatically change their approaches to North Korea.

Conclusion

Until now, countries have been judged by how well they have mitigated the spread of the virus and how well they have prevented loss of life. Going forward, the world faces the new challenge of vaccine distribution. If South Korea can demonstrate its political values and sound foreign policy through its commitment to equitable vaccine distribution at home and abroad, Seoul could further enhance its soft power. Focusing on equitable vaccine distribution in developing countries through multilateral initiatives will also enhance South Korea’s image as a committed global partner.

Over the long term, whether South Korea’s pandemic response can move the needle on other policy priorities is an issue-specific matter that will depend on circumstances on the ground. If South Korea can demonstrate a strong and green economic recovery, keep a steadfast commitment to equitable vaccine distribution, and add value in multilateral organizations, that success would go a long way toward helping Seoul make the most of its heightened influence and quest for greater soft power amid the pandemic.

 

A Timeline of South Korea’s Rise to Global Leadership

South Korea has come a long way in the past seventy years. In the aftermath of the Korean War, much of the country’s international engagement involved development and reconstruction aid. But as its economy experienced a meteoric rise, South Korea not only went from a net-aid recipient to a net-donor country but also transitioned from an authoritarian regime to a democratic government, gaining prominent roles in international institutions in the process. Seoul’s experience makes it a bridge between developing and developed countries and a crucial partner for countries transitioning to democracy. South Korea’s growing prominence on the international stage, detailed by this timeline of noteworthy events, demonstrates its enhanced global stature.

1948
December 1948

The UN General Assembly passed Resolution 195, recognizing South Korea (the Republic of Korea) as a legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula and granting it observer status.

1950
July 1950

The UN Command was established to repel the North Korean invasion.

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December 1950

The UN Korean Reconstruction Agency was established to support South Korea in recovering from the Korean War.

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1953
July 1953

The Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed, ending outright hostilities between the warring parties.

1955
1955

South Korea became a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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1987
October 1987

South Korea transitioned to a democratic government.

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1988
August 1988

Hungary established official diplomatic ties with South Korea.

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September-October 1988

South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics.

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1991
April 1991

The South Korean government established the Korea International Cooperation Agency.

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August 1991

South Korea and North Korea became full members of the UN.

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1993
November 1993

South Korea hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

1996
1996

South Korea became a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

1997–1999
1997–1999

The Asian financial crisis destabilized economies in much of East Asia.

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September 1999

The G20 was established with South Korea among its founding members.

2002
May–June 2002

South Korea hosted the World Cup jointly with Japan.

2007
January 2007–December 2016

Ban Ki-moon served as the eighth secretary general of the UN.

2008
February 2008

Lee Myung-bak became president of South Korea and launched his Global Korea foreign policy, marking a rhetorical shift in South Korea’s foreign policy from being regionally facing to globally oriented.

2009
May 2009

South Korea inaugurated World Friends Korea, an overseas volunteer program similar to the U.S. Peace Corps.

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2010
January 2010

South Korea became a member of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.

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November 2010

South Korea hosted the G20 summit.

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2013
September 2013

South Korea joined Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey in establishing a multilateral consultative platform of middle-power countries known by the acronym MIKTA on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

December 2013

The headquarters of the UN’s Green Climate Fund opened its doors in Songdo, South Korea.

2018
February 2018

South Korea hosted the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

2020
February 2020

Parasite won four Oscars, becoming the first South Korean and first foreign-language film to win Best Picture.

August 2020

The single “Dynamite” by the boy band BTS became the first song by a South Korean act to reach the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

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