Lost in the whirlwind of media coverage on Afghanistan last month, brilliant news featuring Afghan families, including dozens of children holding pink or white teddy bears, has rolled out of the international airport in Incheon in South Korea on August 26. They were among 391 Afghans flown from Kabul by the South Korean army after the city fell to the Taliban. Considered “people of special merit”, many Afghans had worked as translators, medical assistants, professional trainers and engineers with the South Korean government. What does the US withdrawal mean for allies such as South Korea who have offered support to US missions in Afghanistan (and also in Iraq), and more importantly, what should be South Korea’s broader role in a “More and more multiplex world”?
The frenzied withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the recent passing of the 20th anniversary of September 11 has highlighted the wisdom of US intervention and America’s role in the world in the 21st century so far. This in turn stimulated debate over the best course of action for US foreign policy in the future. Whether advocating greater restraint or more activism on the world stage, however, most experts seem to agree that U.S. allies can do more to support regional stability and world order.
South Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific
As stated in a joint leaders’ statement in May, South Korea and the United States “share a vision of a region governed by democratic standards, human rights and the rule of law in the country and abroad ”, and seek“ a partnership that continues to bring peace and prosperity to our peoples, while serving as a pivot to regional and global order. For South Korea and other key U.S. allies in Asia, such statements meant offering diplomatic support to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. More concretely, close allies are expected to coordinate their economic, security and defense policies with the United States to deter threats from strategic adversaries (read China) and promote shared interests and values. On the Korean Peninsula, Seoul has strengthened its conventional deterrence capabilities against North Korea by increasing defense spending and developing new weapon systems, as evidenced by the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test last week.
Nonetheless, South Korea’s increased commitment to infrastructure investment, development finance and human capital in Southeast Asia and India through its New Southern Policy has been hailed by Washington. South Korea is also expected to do more to coordinate with other U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, and join like-minded states in supporting democratic rights and standards and international laws, especially with regard to Chinese behavior in the region.
Peace, development, soft power and global governance
Beyond the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea has sought to make a larger global footprint inside and outside the reach of the US alliance. South Korea sent 3,600 troops to Iraq between 2004 and 2008, and a contingent of 500 troops to Afghanistan from 2010 to support reconstruction and peacekeeping efforts. Until last month, the Korea International Cooperation Agency operated a civil servant training institution to strengthen the administrative capacity of Afghan government officials. Capitalizing on its own economic success, Seoul also highlighted its development model which has caught the attention of sub-Saharan African countries among other developing countries.
In Afghanistan, the absence of US forces resulted in the evacuation of embassy personnel from most (if not all) of the US allies, including South Korea. Aid and development operations have ceased due to the uncertainty and dangers of the Taliban regime. However, Seoul’s decision to evacuate Afghan families, at the risk of great danger and potential internal reaction given the strong anti-Muslim sentiment among them, indicates that South Koreans are ready to contribute to the good. global common when needed. Accounts highlighting South Korea’s past as a war-torn country with fleeing refugees in the 1950s suggest the country’s willingness to ‘pay it forward’, reflected in Korea’s steady growth. South of its official development assistance (ODA) budget (despite the decreases in 2020 linked to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic).
South Korea’s soft power, including the popularity of K-pop and K-dramas, also enables the country to solve complex global issues such as sustainable development, climate change and global poverty. This week, K-Pop boy group BTS accompanied President Moon to the United Nations in his new diplomatic role as “the President’s special envoy for future generations and culture.” More than a million fans tune in to watch their video dance performance at the UN, followed by remarks on climate change, the pandemic and youth issues.
Defending democracy in Asia
Paradoxically, as South Korea has found ways to support stability, governance and human security on the global stage and in remote places, its closest engagement in the perpetual humanitarian and human rights crisis home in North Korea has been on hiatus due to sanctions, pandemic lockdowns and political positions. Seoul has also remained relatively calm as China undermines democratic principles in Asia and abroad. The Moon government has also not been as loud as other neighboring countries such as Japan in defending international laws and standards in the South China Sea.
Beyond ODA, bilateral investment and soft power, South Korea should muster its domestic voice and growing power (albeit limited) to speak out on behalf of individuals, groups and communities. marginalized citizens, despite geopolitical sensitivities. Address human rights in North Korea at home and abroad, the oppression against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the restriction of free speech and civil rights in Hong Kong under the Law on national security would strengthen South Korea’s reputation as a country willing to uphold democratic principles, rights and international law, all of which form an important basis for regional peace, governance and security.
South Korea, with the world’s tenth largest economy and defense budget in 2020, shows how middle powers could take responsibility for maintaining fragile regional orders, in addition to a fragmented world order. However, as a newly developed and non-Western democratic country, South Korea needs to do more to take advantage of its unique experience to work with and encourage other Indo-Pacific countries to adhere to good governance that empowers citizens, respects human rights and supports international rules. and laws to protect global commons.