BY: M. STEVEN OSBORNE
In 2019, South Korea celebrates the centennial of its March First Independence Movement. In the century since declaring its independence, South Korea has become one of the largest economies in the world and is uniquely positioned to translate its economic standing into political influence. The consolidation of trade networks across Eurasia has created an opening for South Korea to invest in countries that are young, developing, and growing. Regardless of what happens with North Korea, South Korea will have the opportunity to leave its mark on these growing regions. However, should Korean unification become a reality, the global momentum for Korea will be even greater.
In 2013, both China and South Korea articulated long term economic and infrastructure development plans. While China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has attracted the most attention, South Korea announced its own Eurasia Initiative (EI). This initiative calls for a broad array of connection building including an economic, energy, and infrastructure network from South Korea across Central Asia. The political goal of EI is to create more “room for growth” in the area north of the Korean peninsula. EI would accomplish this by improving relations between South Korea and other nations along the desired Eurasian route. This would mean better relations with North Korea as well as Russia, Mongolia, Central Asian countries, and the nascent Eurasian Economic Union.
EI has been overshadowed by other political issues which have occupied South Korean attention over the past five years. The stand-off involving North Korean nuclear capability gave South Korea little room to maneuver and strained, rather than strengthened, its relationship with Russia and China. Additionally, and more impactful to the national psyche, a presidential corruption scandal rocked the nation, resulting in the resignation of Park Geun-hye. EI was launched at the beginning of her administration and was a reflection of the international influence South Korea was aspiring to. Her downfall was dramatic and put South Korea in a temporary position of political turmoil. This hindered a robust implementation of EI.
Furthermore, the BRI has taken much of the proverbial oxygen in the room, overshadowing other regional development efforts. It has been suggested that one day people may refer to the Belt and Road region, in a manner similar to the way people refer to Europe and the Americas as “the West.” Whether this linguistic prediction comes to pass or not, it is reflective of the deep impact that the BRI is having across Asia and Europe. The attention and fanfare surrounding the BRI has had an overshadowing effect on South Korea’s initiatives as it has on other neighboring countries.
While EI, as it was originally conceived, may not come to pass, it reflects a desired policy direction that South Korea has not abandoned. EI may be implemented in conjunction with the larger BRI. In addition to joining the BRI, South Korea has been taking steps to further develop the area increasingly identified as Eurasia. In directing its attention towards the growing Eurasian system, South Korea is seeking to be a central player in the new Asian era. President Moon Jae-In stated in a recent Times of India op-ed addressed to the Indian people entitled “Unfolding an Asian Era” that an “Asian era will surely come, and our two countries will stand at its centre.” He goes on to note the significant investment and joint economic activity shared between South Korea and India. In fact, South Korea has been a significant investor in the Subcontinental and Southeast Asian growth. He further states that he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “concretely discussed our future and how our two countries will play a leading role in the era of Asia.”
South Korea has been unfortunately described as a “shrimp between two whales” due to its geographic location between China and Japan, both of whom are strong powers and have been for centuries. In that same vein, the Japanese occupation of Korea and the resulting humiliation associated with that is an ever-present issue in South Korean politics. In light of that history, President Moon Jae-In’s use of the word “leadership” should not go unnoticed. With the United States and North Korea feeling their way towards de-escalation of hostilities, South Korea is free to turn their attention towards the continent. As evidence of this, President Moon Jae-in put forward a plan to increase bilateral trade between South Korea and India to $50 billion dollars by 2030 and promised to expand cooperation in infrastructure development, energy development, and scientific research. This is in addition to existing South Korean efforts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries.
This investment has a strategic value to South Korea as it assists in addressing several issues South Korea is working through. First, South Korea is struggling to address a potential population crisis. The population is aging and this will eventually have an effect on the country’s workforce. By virtue of an imported workforce, the country is seeing an increasing number of Southeast Asians moving to the Korean peninsula. It is important to South Korea that it have a defined and workable foreign policy towards Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, South Korea’s GDP and ability to invest more money in other countries provide the right conditions for investment in developing new projects along with its neighbors. By developing stronger ties with other Asian powers, South Korea can reduce its trade dependence on the United States and China. As mainland Asian markets increasingly become consumer markets, the opportunities for South Korean manufacturers will continue to expand. In the long run, this is good for the South Korean economy.
The evidence suggests South Korea will be a major player in an international Asian system, with or without unification with North Korea. However, unification would allow a united Korea additional advantages in its bid to help lead a new Asian system. Because access to the mainland is blocked by North Korea, South Korea has had to effectively operate as an island nation for the past 70 years. Trading partners are accessed through maritime routes, but overland routes have largely been impassible. Unification of some sort would add an entirely new dimension to South Korean capabilities. It is estimated that should South Korea gain rail access to continental Asia, it could decrease its export logistics costs for trade to Europe by 30% and it would also have access to emerging Central Asian markets via an overland route. Additionally, the North Korean economy could benefit from opening up its economy and reunification, which could make it a contributor to united Korean efforts across Eurasia.
The prospect of unification has often been dismissed as a pipe dream. The dynamics on the Korean peninsula are viewed as far more intractable than what existed between East and West Germany during the Cold War. Even many Koreans are concerned with the expense and effort that will be required in order to make unification a reality. However, the recent rapprochement between North and South Korea and intensified efforts at building bonds between the two countries are giving the prospect of unification new life.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated at the Eurasia Group’s G-Zero Conference in Tokyo that his impression was that there was political momentum within South Korea for a “sort of confederation” with North Korea. He identified it as a trend he was looking at over the next couple of years. Prime Minister Rudd was correct to see the trend lines running towards unification.
Of course, unification is not a guarantee nor an immediate option. South Korea must be cautiously optimistic in light of its previous experience with the “Sunshine Policy” of the Kim Dae-Jung administration. This effort saw South Korea engage in cultural exchanges and economic investment in North Korea, only to see hostilities return. It is certainly possible that Kim Jong-Un will do as his father did and back away from “Sunshine Policy”-style overtures after some economic benefits have been realized.
However, when one looks at the larger historical narrative, the ideological boundaries that serve as the basis for the division of the peninsula are no longer as relevant as they once were. The BRI is often touted as reviving the “ancient Silk Road,” but the principles behind it are reviving much more than that. Koreans are united by a common culture, language, and heritage. The division has resulted in the peninsula being treated as a “shrimp among whales” and unification could, over the long term, prove more advantageous to Koreans both on the peninsula and around the world. As nations as diverse as China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and India are rediscovering their imperial and national legacies, a unified Korea could have a greater seat at the table in a new Eurasia.
Korean involvement in Eurasia is also indicative of a larger reality. Parag Khanna, the author of The Future is Asian, has pointed out that the Asian era is not completely about China. While the Chinese certainly have a commanding role to play in the unfolding of this new system, other Asian nations are playing a large role in the development of the region covered by the BRI. South Korea and Japan are joining China in investing in developing nations, and it is possible that more countries along the Belt and Road route will try their hand at exerting power and influence abroad.
There has been much hand-wringing in the United States over the prospect of a large Chinese Empire stretching across Central Asia and into Europe. The BRI is often viewed with suspicion because of this concern. One point that Khanna makes adamantly is that the BRI and the new system it is inaugurating is not a one country endeavor. That is why the participation and strengthening of countries like Korea, India, and the ASEAN countries are important for the United States. If these powers participate in developing these New Silk Roads and have a seat at the table in a new system, they will serve as important balancers within that system. Additionally, with a greater number of participants, the United States may find opportunities to link Eurasian development to its own initiatives.
If Eurasian consolidation continues, this will indeed be a historic moment. Powers that seize the opportunity presented by this moment in history will reap the rewards of doing so. One may be surprised to see previously small and oppressed powers rise to the occasion. Countries like South Korea, or a United Korea, will play a role in this new system and the story that unfolds from it.
Steven Osborne is an attorney with Adams and Fisk, PLC. He holds a Juris Doctorate from Liberty University School of Law and a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Policy from Liberty University. In addition to his legal practice, he is involved in foreign policy analysis and advocacy with a focus on domestic and international politics, economic opportunity, and human rights.
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