In watercooler conversations about the Korean Peninsula around Washington, DC, headline-grabbing topics like North Korea’s nuclear arsenal tend to dominate. It can be easy to lose sight of long-term trends amid the flurry of day-to-day activity.
A closer look reveals important ways that Seoul has gradually stepped into a more robust role as a global partner in the past few years, ranging from crucial technological issues to greater soft power influence. While this progress is notable, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was inaugurated in May 2022, must put in place a viable strategy that will enable Seoul to assume a larger international profile with corresponding responsibilities.
South Korea Steps Out on the World Stage
Although the Seoul-Washington alliance continues to be dominated by traditional security and trade issues, South Korea has also gradually become a more active partner in a diverse range of areas including supply chains and energy. Seoul’s rise as an all-around player has key implications for global affairs and especially for South Korea’s alliance with the United States. This is particularly true as South Korean policymakers seek to navigate the increasingly volatile U.S.-China great power rivalry and as South Korea emerges as a critical hub in reconfigured post-pandemic global supply chains. In an ever more polarized world beset by worsening climate change and high-tech turf wars, South Korea’s contributions to strategically vital supply chains could prove pivotal. Being an indispensable ally is no longer just a matter of acquiring more hard power capabilities; it is also a matter of honing versatility.
Still, Seoul has a difficult balancing act on its hands. As one of the countries most affected by the U.S.-China crossfire, South Korea’s task of preserving cordial ties with both of these giants will grow more difficult. But that cannot stop South Korean policymakers from defending their country’s interests. Pressure will continue to mount on South Korea to overtly choose sides. Seoul should respond by significantly ramping up its efforts to build new supply chains that are not as dependent on China. South Korea has not yet made an announcement, but the Yoon government is likely to join the so-called Chip 4 Alliance proposed by U.S. President Joe Biden for building a more resilient semiconductor supply chain together with the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.
South Korea must also elevate its status as a role model for innovation-driven growth fueled by breakthroughs in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as artificial intelligence. With its advanced manufacturing base, South Korea can become a major global leader going into the 2020s and beyond. Such ambitions are already starting to bear fruit. During a visit to Seoul in June 2020, Keith Krach, who was then the U.S. under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, stressed the growing importance of South Korea as an economic and technological powerhouse. He also emphasized that if China put pressure on South Korea, the United States would stand by its side.
The private sector has gotten in on the act too. Less than two weeks after Yoon’s inauguration, Biden visited South Korea. During a stop at a Samsung plant, he remarked, “I’ve just seen how this plant makes the most advanced semiconductor chips in the world,” and Yoon stated that he would upgrade South Korea’s alliance with the United States “into an economic-security alliance.” In a joint statement, Biden and Yoon noted that the alliance is a “linchpin for peace and prosperity in the region” and that the alliance “has grown far beyond the Korean peninsula, reflecting the pivotal role of our countries as global leaders in democracy, economy, and technology.”
A flurry of investment deals has been unveiled in the buildup to and aftermath of this visit. At the end of his visit, Biden met with Hyundai Motors Chairman Chung Euisun, and Hyundai announced a $10 billion investment to build electric vehicles and related technologies in the United States. This built on a similar move the year before, when Samsung announced that it would invest $17 billion in a new chip-manufacturing foundry in Texas. Meanwhile, in November 2021, the SK Group announced that it would invest some $52 billion in the United States by 2030. Chairman Chey Tae-won underscored the importance of reducing carbon emissions, saying, “half of [planned investments] will be channeled into eco-friendly businesses, including electric vehicle batteries, hydrogen and energy solutions so that we will be able to contribute to U.S. emission cuts.”
Capturing Global Attention
South Korean cultural exports have also taken the world by storm. Just consider the global sensation surrounding the South Korean pop group BTS and the splash made by Squid Game, Netflix’s most-watched drama in 2021. Meanwhile, the film Parasitewon the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in February 2020, becoming the first non-English film to win the prize for the year’s best film. In another first, South Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in April 2021 for her role in the film Minari. All these indicators show the growing prevalence of South Korean pop culture, a phenomenon known widely as the Korean wave or Hallyu. However, for the Korean wave to be sustainable over the longer term, critical investments must be made in developing diverse forms of content. Moreover, cultural cachet and soft power obviously cannot alleviate hard security threats such as curbing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Even so, heightened cultural influence is another sign of South Korea’s growing international stature.
According to press accounts of a 2021 report on Hallyu by the Korea Foundation, the collective membership of worldwide fan clubs for South Korean pop culture surpassed the 100 million mark as of September 2020, adding nearly 5.5 million more fans compared to 2019. Meanwhile, the Netflix hit Squid Gamereached an estimated viewership around the world of more than 140 million. An astounding 95 percent of those who watched the show reportedly were located outside of South Korea. Despite the seemingly out-of-the-blue success of the thriller series, South Korean television shows and movies already had been on the rise. Netflix invested some $700 million in South Korean films and shows between 2015 and 2020, and the company was slated to pour more than $500 million into such products in 2021.
Think tanks in the Beltway have caught on to the growing importance and relevance of South Korean soft power. In December 2020, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was the first to report on this trend with a collection called “The Case for South Korean Soft Power.” Ten months later in October 2021, Sue Mi Terry, who currently works at the Wilson Center, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs where she noted that “South Korea has now become a global soft-power juggernaut.”
It can be difficult to tabulate the tangible returns from South Korea’s soft power, but Seoul’s stock clearly appears to be on the upswing. According to the 2021 Global Hallyu Trends report published by the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange, South Korean cultural exports topped $10 billion in 2020, a figure that was nearly 9 percent higher than in 2019. In 2021, Bloomberg revealed that Netflix reported that its business in South Korea was responsible for a $1.9 billion boost to the country’s economy. South Korea’s cultural exports pale in comparison to other leading export sectors such as semiconductors ($99.2 billion in 2020), but they surpassed other economic sectors like makeup and household appliances.
There are many reasons why South Korean cultural exports are gaining traction. These include the convergence of key factors such as heavy investments made in information and communications technology and broadband access early on as well as the government’s recognition of the importance of cultural industries starting in the early 1990s. But perhaps the most important factor was the restoration of South Korean democracy in 1987 and the way South Korean firms were thrust into global competition. Before then, decades of heavy-handed censorship; limitations on importing foreign movies, books, and magazines; and virtually nonexistent pathways for exporting South Korean cultural products stifled opportunities for building Seoul’s soft power.
The ebbs and flows of the fortunes of South Korean cultural wares in China is instructive. Initially, South Korean movies and dramas were hugely attractive in China, but the 2016–2017 controversy of China’s reaction to Seoul’s decision to host a U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system escalated to China’s banning of South Korean movies and dramas. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, noted in 2016 that banning South Korean shows “reflects Chinese placing love for their home country before popularity of entertainment stars.” In August 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced new regulations that severely restricted “marketing activities to stimulate fan consumption,” a move that further dampened South Korean album sales in China. In hindsight, cracking down on South Korean cultural exports to China not only heightened anti-Chinese sentiments in South Korea but also may have pushed South Korean content providers to expand into non-Chinese markets.
South Korea and the Global Commons
South Korea’s March 2022 presidential election was a litmus test for the country’s leaders and voters alike. To succeed, South Korea must become a stronger liberal democracy, do more to help mitigate major global challenges, increase its foreign aid offerings, and become a genuine innovation hub by incubating start-ups that master the emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
South Korea faces a tall order to sustain and strengthen its global competitiveness, a task for which two elements are particularly relevant. First and foremost, there’s a widely shared perception in Washington that South Korea is not doing all it could to help check China’s rise. U.S. officials often don’t fully appreciate what a delicate balancing act Seoul must strike to maintain productive ties with China—not only to cultivate economic exchanges but also to ensure as much support from Beijing as possible for denuclearizing North Korea, although no substantive progress has been made yet. A major challenge for the Yoon administration is formulating more effective diplomatic and political discussions with the White House on these matters.
In addition, South Korea must be more proactive about speaking out against human rights violations in North Korea and other authoritarian states in Asia. During the tenure of Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in (2017–2022), Seoul made every effort to downplay or ignore North Korea’s human rights abuses in order to foster inter-Korean dialogue. In this context, South Korea passed a law in December 2020 banning activists based in South Korea from sending leaflets decrying North Korean abuses across the border. As a Reuters report noted, “The change was approved despite efforts by opposition lawmakers to block the super-majority of the ruling party [at the time] of [then p]resident Moon Jae-in, who [was] keen to improve cross-border ties.” With the change in government in May 2022, however, the conservative Yoon administration has stressed the importance of speaking out to condemn North Korea’s human rights violations. In July 2022, Yoon appointed a Korea University professor named Lee Shin-hwa as envoy for North Korean human rights. The post was created in 2016 but had been left vacant for much of the Moon administration.
Meanwhile, changes to South Korean press freedoms in a recent National Assembly bill were quite worrying. The bill would have significantly raised the courts’ ability to penalize reporters and media outlets by levying steep fines or even the threat of prison time, which would have seriously undermined press freedom. While the bill did not receive much attention in Washington, it faced criticism from several major media organizations, including the International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders, and the World Association of News Publishers. After a UN representative expressed concerns about the legislation and domestic sentiment about the law grew increasingly negative, the Democratic Party—which will continue to hold a large majority in the National Assembly until the country’s next general election in April 2024—eventually withdrew the bill at the eleventh hour in December 2021. However, the prospect of such legislative change itself seriously undermined another pillar of South Korea’s democracy and international standing.
In recent years, South Korea has grown markedly as a rising economic and technological powerhouse, as one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies, and as a pivotal security partner. While there is much to celebrate about Seoul’s growing stature, it also faces major challenges including a worsening security environment, demographic headwinds, rising social welfare costs, and the mounting effects of the sharpened U.S.-China rivalry. But if the past three to four decades are any guide, there is good reason to be cautiously confident that South Korea can surmount these difficulties and emerge as one of the United States’ most valued allies in the post-pandemic era.
For South Korea to increase its value as an important global player, the country’s new president must exhibit strong leadership. Although South Korean exports, soft power, and growing international acclaim are all necessary ingredients for making South Korea a key global partner, what really matters in Washington and other major capitals is a consistent message from Seoul in favor of greater international engagement, heightened responsibility for contributing to the global commons, and a commitment to speaking out more forcefully on the importance of freedom and democracy.