A South Korean Perspective of Multilateralism in Northeast Asia

A South Korean Perspective of Multilateralism in Northeast Asia from East-West Center on Vimeo.


(Washington D.C.) June 23–South Korea continues to experience great economic success, is involved in major international and regional institutions and is now poised to take on a greater leadership role. President Lee Myung-bak is eager to promote a new South Korean foreign policy which features a multi-layered global approach and addresses security and non-security issues. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, South Korea is realizing the importance of simultaneously making contributions to the international system, engaging the entire Asian region and playing a leadership role in Northeast Asia. Dr. Seongho Sheen, visiting fellow, East-West Center in Washington, discussed the possibility of increasing South Korean influence through the comprehensive “New Asia Initiative.”

The end of the Cold War was an awakening moment for South Korean foreign policy. Relations that had chilled during this period were re-established and it became a national goal to become more internationally-aware. Narrowing in focus, South Korea also began to focus on Asian regionalism and building a Northeast Asian community under the Kim and Roh administrations. However, momentum for such initiatives was lost as the country began to focus on re-engagement with North Korea from the late 1990s to 2008. Current president Lee’s “New Asia Initiative” seeks to combine the international, regional and sub-regional approaches into one multilayered initiative so that a diverse range of new and old challenges can be met.

Dr. Sheen noted that President Lee’s ambitious goals included promoting peace on the Korean peninsula, prosperity in Asia and global justice. To achieve these goals in Northeast Asia, he explained that the Lee administration would continue to maintain its strong alliance with the United States, while bolstering its strategic partnerships with other key countries such as China and Russia. South Korea would also continue to participate in the trilateral summit with China and Japan and the Six Party Talks.

South Korea is also attempting to broaden its cooperation with the other parts of Asia, even reaching out to South and Central Asia. Dr. Sheen noted that there has been an increased willingness for the Republic of Korea (ROK) to contribute to the dialogues in the existing regional institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). While regional initiatives have been more economic in nature, the ROK is becoming more involved in discussions on climate change, terrorism, non-proliferation and energy security.

Additionally, South Korea believes that there is much it can contribute to the global framework and has become involved in various international peacekeeping, anti-terrorism and anti-piracy initiatives. The Lee administration is marketing ROK soft power, South Korea’s potential to become an economic hub for FTAs and its reputation as an “honest broker” in promoting Asian interests. Dr. Sheen explained that Lee may be successful in some of these campaigns but that there are limitations as well. He argued that the “New Asia Initiative” is comprehensive but does not yet have a clear vision. South Korean initiatives may also be challenged by South Korea’s relatively-small economic size, the possibility of future economic instability, changing leadership, a lack of domestic support and the ever-lingering North Korean issue. Dr. Sheen believes that if the North Korean issue can be solved multilaterally through the Six Party Talks, there is an opportunity for South Korea to develop a key leadership role in what may become a regional organization.

While ROK foreign policy initiatives are diversifying, the composition of the country’s citizenship is diversifying as well. There are now one million foreign workers in South Korea; many are from Southeast Asia. Dr. Sheen explained that the combination of foreign workers and their families living within the country and the growth of inter-racial marriages is literally changing the face of South Korea. He argued that the ROK government would continue to accommodate foreigners and citizens’ changing interests because he viewed this as an opportunity for South Korea to prove that it is a cosmopolitan country with a modern mind-set.

Seongho Sheen is an associate professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University and is currently a visiting fellow at the East West Center in Washington. Formerly, he was a fellow at the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) with the Brookings Institution, an assistant research professor at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), Honolulu, Hawaii and a research fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA), Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Sheen’s main research interests include international security, U.S. foreign policy, Northeast Asian politics and the Korean peninsula. Currently, his research focuses on rapid demographic changes in Northeast Asia and their implications for security and geo-politics in the region, as well as the US and nuclear politics in Northeast Asia. Dr. Sheen received his Ph.D. and M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and his B.A. from Seoul National University.