Winning the “Seoul” of the Indo-Pacific: Perth USAsia Centre’s visit to South Korea

27 Nov 2019
Winning the “Seoul” of the Indo-Pacific: Perth USAsia Centre’s visit to South Korea
Along with our CEO, Professor Gordon Flake, I spent three days in Seoul, South Korea after a brief visit to Tokyo, Japan. The purpose of the visit to Seoul was straightforward. Of all the countries the Centre works on, South Korea is the least invested in the concept of the Indo-Pacific region. The Centre’s objective was to help change how policymakers in Seoul understand the concept.

The Centre met with the following organisations to discuss the Indo-Pacific concept and South Korea’s views of it as a policymaking framework:
  • Seoul National University
  • Seoul Forum for International Affairs
  • The POSCO Research Institute
  •  the Asan Institute
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Among the individuals who engaged with the Centre during the visit were two former Prime Ministers, a former Foreign Minister, and five former Ambassadors.

Professor Gordon Flake at Seoul National University​.

South Korea grappling with the Indo-Pacific concept

Within South Korea, two issues stand in the way of its adoption of the concept for policymaking.
  1. South Korea’s status as a middle power limits its ability to engage with such a broad and dynamic region while the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea looms over the peninsula. To many, the North has become a black hole, pulling the country’s limited diplomatic resources away from its global and regional pursuits.
  2. Another issue Korean policymakers have with the Indo-Pacific concerns its framing. The view from Korea is that the Indo-Pacific region is too focussed on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, which includes the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. This makes it easy to dismiss the Indo-Pacific as an anti-China containment initiative. South Korea is correctly reluctant to adopt a regional policy framework that either excludes or demonises China. Recent remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have only served to support this view.
To convince South Korea to engage with the concept, one has to dispel these ‘myths’ about the Indo-Pacific. 

South Korea: more than a middle power

For centuries, Korea defined itself by its geopolitical circumstances, using the proverbial “a shrimp between two whales” to describe its tenuous existence between the civilisations of Japan and China. South Korea’s economic emergence after the devastation of the Korean War propelled it into the ranks of the G20. The nation’s sense of capability is yet to catch up.

South Korea has outsized influence and soft power to bring to bear in the Indo-Pacific region. It has an advanced economy epitomised by the high-technology capabilities of its chaebol industrial conglomerates.

Over the decades, South Korea emerged as a major exporter, and many of its brands are now household names here in Australia and elsewhere: Hyundai, Kia, and Samsung to name a few.

The truth is South Korea is not a shrimp, and no less equipped to engage with the Indo-Pacific region than other countries who have adopted the regional outlook. According to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, South Korea sits in a comfortable 6th place in the overall power category.

In any other context outside of Northeast Asia, South Korea would top the ranks. A thought experiment used in our meetings to prompt discussion went like this: if South Korea were on the continents of Africa or South America, how would it see itself? How would it compare to other powerful countries on those continents?
By most measures, South Korea would come out on top.

Without diminishing the urgency of the situation on the Korean peninsula, South Korea has a strong impetus for engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. It has an opportunity to enhance its economic cooperation with growing economies in Southeast Asia. If it can help countries in the region fill their infrastructure gaps, South Korea can contribute to economic growth and integration and in turn drive demand for Korean high technology.   

Beyond the “Quad”

South Korea is wary of isolating China. U.S. President Donald Trump’s emphasis of the Indo-Pacific as a security strategy to contain China is met with consternation in South Korea. Security is a major component of the Indo-Pacific strategies of many countries in the region, Australia included, but it is not exclusively a reaction to China.

Security dialogues like the Quad are only part of the broader set of security cooperation mechanisms within in the Indo-Pacific. They are not the justification for the Indo-Pacific itself. These mechanisms include the East Asia Summit (EAS), which has met since 2005 and has risen to become a key piece of the regional architecture that includes China.

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is also an important platform for security dialogue in the Indo-Pacific. It has facilitated discussion of security issues and developed security cooperation measures since 1994. Like the EAS, the ARF also includes China.

However, while many policymakers dwell on the security dimensions of the Indo-Pacific, economics also provides a healthy domain for cooperation within the region.

An economic justification for the Indo-Pacific region

A less emphasised component to the Indo-Pacific is its economic element. South Korea is perhaps most open to engagement with the Indo-Pacific on its economic grounds. The economic justification consists of two main problems, which also serve as an agenda for Indo-Pacific economic cooperation:
  1. The “noodle-bowl” problem and trade diversion. Several bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) criss-cross the region. All have their own sets of rules, tariffs, and preferences, making it difficult for businesses with complex supply chains to utilise the FTAs.
The noodle bowl also causes a phenomenon known as “trade diversion” in which trade flows are redirected to fit with the tariff preferences within FTAs rather than underlying patterns of comparative advantage and economic complementarity. Trade diversion has serious implications for major trading economies like South Korea. The main remedies to this problem absent progress on WTO negotiations are the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes South Korea, and the CPTPP, which does not.
  1. Infrastructure gaps. Non-tariff trade costs between South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) and Northeast Asia remain far higher than the costs of tariffs. Much of this is due to high transportation costs, which can be reduced through improved infrastructure and connectivity. Indonesia, although it is closer to Northeast Asia, similarly suffers high trade costs with its trade partners due to its infrastructure gaps.
South Korea’s advanced technical capabilities and industries are well-positioned to help the region close its infrastructure gaps. Many Indo-Pacific countries like Japan and China have launched national programs to address this problem, however, South Korea is yet to join with an initiative of its own.

Final thoughts

There are signs South Korea will warm up to the Indo-Pacific concept. The Perth USAsia Centre was able to have in-depth and frank conversations with influential South Korean think tanks, research institutes, diplomats, and strategists inside and out of government. All expressed their concerns with the Indo-Pacific concept but generally held an openness to its utility as a policymaking framework.


Kyle Springer
Kyle Springer
Senior Analyst
Kyle Springer is the Senior Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. He provides high-level program assistance and develops the think tank and external outreach programs of the Centre. Kyle also directs the Centre's Indonesia programs and convenes policy workshops focussed on Australia-Indonesia relations.
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