Why South Korea Isn’t Asia’s Switzerland

I recently returned from my usual summer stay in South Korea, teaching international affairs at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. Every time I visit that remarkable peninsular nation, I am struck by two things, vastly in contrast.

The first is its prosperity and the people’s very clear economic purpose to drive forward to an even better life. The second is its strategic and military insecurity, its acute sense of precariousness, its daily awareness that military power counts. But this time the fact of this dichotomy — the economic well-being of South Korea, and its apprehensions about war and disaster — was greater than I had ever noticed before.

The prosperity was, well, right in your face. From the squeaky-clean Incheon International Airport to the ultra-high-class shopping stores in central Seoul, it was clear that money, money, money was the game. I don’t think I have seen so many Bentleys in any one place. But there are also impressive Korean-designed cars (not available outside the country, to my knowledge) that look the clear equivalents of the largest BMWs and Mercedes.

This is no longer a country making cheapo kitchenware, but a land that is heading to the top, even if, in the less pricey suburbs and the countryside, there is a lot of semi-disguised poverty for an older generation lacking a degree and a business suit.

The South Koreans are immensely and intensely proud that they will be the hosts of the G-20 summit meeting in November. South Korea’s super-productive economy is already overtaking the gross domestic product of many a European state. It is forecast that by 2050 South Korea will have the second-highest gross domestic product per capita in the world, above that of Germany, France and Japan. It is headed to be the Switzerland of East Asia, so to speak.

But that, alas, is where the comparisons dry up. South Korea cannot possibly be the Switzerland of its region because, geographically and geopolitically, it is not like, or in the same place as, the Swiss Federation. South Korea does not have the same conditions of security that come from being a country of high mountain ridges like Switzerland or, for that matter, Norway and Scotland, in an increasingly pacific-minded European continent.

The Republic of Korea lies next to what surely must be one of the maddest and most unpredictable political regimes in the world. And “next to” really means that, on a fine day, one can probably glimpse the demilitarized zone from a tall office building in downtown Seoul. Hence the massive media interest in the recent visit to Busan of the giant aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington, and the combined American-Korean naval maneuvers — a reassurance to the South and a warning to the North (and a not-too-subtle message to China as well).

As if Seoul did not already have the constant headache produced by its erratic neighbor, it is also glumly aware that it lies at the intersection of where four much larger powers have declared strategic interests, namely, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Right now, none of those big nations wishes to change the status quo, and ironically, the potential aggressive lunacy of North Korea — or its potential implosion — may be keeping them talking with one another much more than they would otherwise do.

Still, the blunt fact is that South Korea’s geopolitical (and thus economic) future is much more dependent on the actions of other, larger states than it is upon its own impressive endeavors. So long as the “Big Four” stay in harmony, South Koreans are free to follow their path to wealth. But they are genuinely concerned about the regional consequences of the rise of China (even if that can never be mentioned for fear of upsetting Beijing), hate the idea of leaning toward Japan, don’t think much of Russia’s current capacities in the region, and are anxious about America’s willingness to stay in East Asia over the next decade or two — “Yankees, don’t go home!”

South Korea’s geographical dilemma, as I have had to point out repeatedly to my anxious hosts, is not new to world politics. For hundreds of years the Low Countries of Western Europe were often referred to as a “cockpit” — that is, a fighting ground over which the greater nations strove for control. It would be hard to count how many times Flanders has been invaded, for example. Further east, Poland-Lithuania offered another such place of battle, contested by Russians, Swedes, Austrians and Prussians. The Lombardy plain, full of rich and vulnerable cities, was another obvious battleground. Then toss in Palestine, or Lebanon. The list is very long.

This is no consolation, however, to policymakers in Seoul; in fact, all such historical analogies just make one’s listeners feel more insecure. It is no fun to be reminded of how many times since the Peloponnesian War powerful nations have quarreled over the fate of smaller, strategically placed societies. This explains why South Koreans are so anxious to maintain the six-party talks over the North’s future, because having all four of the big East Asian players at the card table is important. Jaw, jaw, as Churchill famously said, is better than war, war.

Yet at the same time, the Republic of Korea’s large army stays alert, and its naval build-up continues.

These casual reflections from Seoul this summer lead to one broader reflection. In our wondrously and preposterously divided world of 194 nation-states, it is fairly easy to subdivide them into certain categories: the really Great Powers, the medium powers, the prosperous aging states (think of Italy), the war-torn states and the desperately impoverished states in Africa, plus the lucky states (think of New Zealand).

But there is also perhaps another category, that of the smaller, prosperous trading-states, which, like South Korea, unfortunately find themselves located next to more powerful neighbors and in parts of the world that seem prone to conflict — Kuwait, the Emirates, Singapore. Just where do they get their security from?

To the founding fathers of the United Nations, the answer to that question was obvious: Security would come from a regulated international system in which the Great Powers, simply because of their heft, would have to do most of the heavy lifting, have to provide the bulk of the peacekeepers, and have to admit to their greater responsibilities (their price, after all, for getting a Security Council veto).

Small countries are inherently “consumers” of security because, in an unequal world, they usually can’t defend themselves; they thus rely upon the international system.

But since 1945, it is only rarely that the Great Powers have recognized their collective responsibility, and thus given assurance to the smaller nations that they can thrive in peace. More often, the powerful nations of the globe — Russia, China, the United States — behave egotistically, and when they do so, the smaller countries worry, as well they should.

Which is why South Korea, for all its prosperity, peers into the 21st century with a strange mixture of economic optimism and physical insecurity. And it is not alone.

Paul Kennedy, a professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.