Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2009

Shrimp amongst Whales? Assessing South Korea's Regional-power Status

David Shim

August 2009

German Institute of Global and Area Studies


Recent developments in South Korea's foreign and security policies as well as major structural adjustments in the military alliance between the United States and South Korea indicate a new self-understanding on the part of South Korea in terms of playing a more assertive role in regional and even global affairs. Alongside its involvement in the so-called Six-Party Talks-a multinational framework to disarm a nuclear North Korea-South Korea's civil-military engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon demonstrates that the government's foreign policy posture is not only focused on Northeast Asian affairs but is also intended to engage in other international security hot spots. However, although it has considerable material resources and capabilities-in neorealist terms constituting the power base of a state actor-South Korea is widely seen as a minor player in world politics. By means of a specific set of indicators-pretension, endowment, influence, recognition-this paper seeks to answer the question of whether South Korea is a regional power. The methodological approach used to evaluate its position will be based on analytical frameworks and typologies compiled from the literature on regional powers. Following the introduction of this approach, different concepts of the term regional power and the selection of the methodological instruments are presented. The subsequent section analyzes the selected set of indicators with regard to South Korea's potential status as a regional power. The concluding chapter evaluates the findings and raises further questions related to the regional-power concept.