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Overachiever

Subsumed as the world is by North Korea’s perennial sabre-rattling, the tendency has been to hyphenate the two countries of the Korean peninsula and view them primarily through a North East Asian security prism

SNS | Kolkata |

The emergence of South Korea over the past decade as a global middle power of substance has largely been overlooked by policy establishments across the Asia-Pacific. Subsumed as the world is by North Korea’s perennial sabre-rattling, the tendency has been to hyphenate the two countries of the Korean peninsula and view them primarily through a North East Asian security prism. But Seoul’s incremental approach to increasing its heft economically, militarily, and in terms of soft power projection ought to be a salutary lesson for emerging powers worldwide.

From the nearly 400 Afghan engineers, translators, and medical personnel airlifted out of Kabul by the South Korean military following the city’s fall to the Taliban last month, to the K-Pop boy band BTS accompanying President Moon Jae-in to the United Nations last week in their new diplomatic role as “special envoys for future generations and culture”, Seoul’s soft power outreach is now certainly being taken note of. But the groundwork for the manifestation of this increase in South Korea’s strategic footprint has involved a lot of non-glamorous grind. For example, the Korea International Cooperation Agency operated a training institution for public officials to bolster the administrative capacities of Afghanistan’s government till as late as last month. Seoul has also been working hard for years to propagate the institutional and policy requirements for fostering development and democracy by underlining its own economic success story in sub-Saharan African countries as well as in Asia.

On the security-military front, South Korea coordinates its policies with the USA to deter threats from China. And Seoul has strengthened its conventional deterrence capabilities against North Korea by boosting defence spending and developing new weapons systems. But the Moon administration has worked overtime to ensure it does not get pulled into an overtly anti-China coalition led by Washington. It has remained outside the Quad despite being wooed to join it, and is crafting an independent Indo-Pacific strategy while working closely and bilaterally with allies including Japan, Australia, India, France, and Asean member-states. Much like India’s Act East Policy framework, South Korea has a ‘New Southern Policy’ in place under which infrastructure investment,

development finance, and skilling human capital is Seoul’s primary focus in countries across Southeast and South Asia. Yes, some do find fault in Seoul not doing enough to resist China’s undermining of democracy and sovereignty in Asia and beyond. But, on balance, South Korea has found ways to support stability, governance, and human security globally.

The decision to evacuate the Afghans, taken despite publicly aired fears by prominent leaders of a political backlash given the anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent in the country, is an illustration of Seoul’s maturity. South Korea’s own past as a war-ravaged country in the 1950s, and specifically its concerns over the rights of refugees, experts point out, is reflected in the steady growth in its official development assistance over the past decade.