Toward global leadership
The author is a senior writer on international affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has stepped into office as a global crisis is looming following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He also steps into office as South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) in nominal terms is projected to be $1.805 trillion this year, according to an International Monetary Fund (IMF). It would rank 12th after Brazil at $1.833 trillion and Russia at $1.829 trillion.
Korea’s economic power is higher in terms of GDP per capita. In nominal terms, the IMF estimates Korea’s per capita GDP to reach $34,994 this year, higher than Italy’s at $34,777 and lower than Japan’s at $39,243. In terms of per capita GDP reflecting purchasing power parity (PPP), South Korea’s comes in at $53,051, more than Japan at $48,814 and just behind the Britain at $55,301 and France at $56,036. No president of South Korea has experienced its PPP income surpassing Japan’s. South Korea is no longer a developing or middle-income country. It is an advanced country in terms of economic and military power and democratic maturity.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on Feb. 24 poses a challenge to South Korea and the rest of the world. The post-Cold War peacetime of 30 years since the crumbling of the Soviet Union in February 1991 has come to an end, opening up a Pandora’s Box of challenges for the global community. Traditional values, order, customs and beliefs have been upset, calling for a new order and international structures.
The military front requires reforms in both hardware and software. Combat operations and weaponry must be reexamined. The conscription and reserve system, training, defense industry supply and logistics systems also need re-evaluation. Semiconductors, where South Korea excels, rose to strategic importance for governments as the power behind missiles, drones, surveillance satellites, aircraft and warships.
International relationships must also be realigned. Foreign policy and alliance must overcome the traditional paradigm to redefine allies and potentially hostile countries. Economic security must take into account energy and food security. The crisis with Russia, a major supplier of petroleum and gas, have caused an energy crisis drastically different from the past oil crises of 1973-1974 and 1978-1980. South Korea’s competitiveness in nuclear reactors could become more valuable.
The new government should not be engrossed with regional issues in North Korea and East Asia, but instead find its new role given the reputation of South Korea in a broader global context. It must shift from a passive middle-income country and take initiative as an advanced country.
It must set an alarm system for crisis to preemptively discover, analyze, predict and respond to various dangers on the global level. The government must collect study the Ukraine crisis for lessons for Korea’s future response.
The world is experiencing more diverse conflicts, such as Islamic extremism, nationalism, and autocracy in the post-Cold War era compared with simpler Fascism versus anti-Fascism and capitalism versus communism in the past. In the aftermath of the pandemic, globalization will sunset to some extent, while nationalism and fractionalism among certain cultures and blocs and isolation could rise.
An era of neo-ideological contests from deepening conflicts between free democracies and autocracies has come forth. The cooperative international polices led by the United Nations feebly exist on hopes of weaker countries. In reality, the world is led by global powers. Traditional values and truth can be rejected or amended to please the interests of powerful nations or a strongman. Russian invasion of Ukraine, China’s threat to invade Taiwan and North Korea’s nuclear threats are some of the examples.
South Korea’s foreign relations need a full makeover to keep current.
Diplomacy for business, not values, had been thought to be the role of the president. But South Korea’s scale, value and activity range are such that it should not restrict its role to business. It must look beyond the Korean Peninsula and economy and lead diplomacy on values. It must set its reputation as a democracy, market economy, and cooperative global player upholding individual freedom and rights. It must take up that responsibility and role if it wants to act as a global initiator with a clear voice and behavior based on the Korean identity.
Korea must establish a system to collect, study and respond to the crisis related to the Ukraine war. The new government must start its first year setting diplomatic strategy for global leadership. There is no free lunch in global relationships.