Examining the Motivation Behind the Republic of Korea’s Pursuit of Hard Power-Oriented Diplomacy
This paper relays some of the findings of an experiment conducted during the final year of my undergraduate degree in Seoul, South Korea. The Korean Peninsula is of the utmost strategic importance to the United States. Having been historically isolated and falling within the Chinese sphere of influence, the Korean Peninsula experienced a period of external conquest at the turn of the 20th century when the rapidly industrialized Japanese joined the Western powers in challenging the Sino-centric political order than had been in place for thousands of years.
I became increasingly interested in Korea after reading the memoirs of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Finding out what the considerations of Cold War-era policies were towards Korea carried a strong personal significance for me. I was born in Havana, Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed. During this time, Cuba found itself isolated and more financially unstable than at any other point in history. As a consequence of the changing global order, Cuban authorities launched a campaign of intense censorship and an increase in the crude political repression that was commonplace during the Cold War. Having escaped from Cuba, I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate Cubans alive. When I arrived in the United States in 2008, I discovered opportunities that I never thought possible such as the study of International Relations and Political Science. During my undergraduate studies, the works of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski stroke a chord in me. Both of these American policymakers had at one point been refugees of tyranny and had found a new home in the ideas that the United States projected abroad.
Cold War era policies have surely provoked plenty of valid criticism. In retrospect, many of the interventions carried out by the United States in the name of countering the Soviet Union had disastrous consequences for the people of Third World countries – especially in Latin America. But in this world of great-power competition and an outrageous disregard for human rights, South Korea became the exception. Despite starting as an autocratic repressive state, South Korea quickly industrialized, modernized, and democratized within 43 years. Today, South Koreans enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world and possess a powerful arsenal of soft power in the music and entertainment industry.
Despite South Korea’s rapid advancement in development, human rights, and democracy, the legacy of Japanese colonialism and the fissure of Cold War politics remain embedded in Korean politics like a flu – sometimes in the background and sometimes at the center, but never fully disappearing. This makes security concerns especially volatile because the intersection of Korean security and the memory of Japanese colonization could widen the rift between two of the United State’s most important allies. The intersection of these two things is best exemplified by the dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, a set of islands standing roughly between Korea and Japan and claimed by both countries. The islands, named the Dokdo Islands by Korea, has become a major political issue rallying Koreans from all backgrounds in support of the continued Korean military presence on the islands.
I found out about the issue of the Korea-Japan island dispute at the same time that the United States was conducting meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and while China was strongly condemning the presence of US defensive Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea. I measured, through a series of polls, the attitudes of the Korean public towards their neighbors in the context of various military postures South Korea had taken at the time. This was done in order to understand what the Korean public saw as the most pressing foreign policy goals of the country. The result could help inform approaches to US-Korea and US-Japan relations in an age where East Asia has become a region of primary interest.