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[Robert J. Fouser] South Korea between power blocs

Jan. 14, 2022 - 05:31 By Robert J. Fouser
As fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine mounted, political unrest exploded in Kazakhstan last week, prompting the Kazakhstan government to invite Russia troops into the country to suppress the dissent. Russia is suddenly wielding power and influence in ways reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. The situation is a reminder that power and influence in the world remain in the hands of a few nations that have dominated world affairs for centuries.

Since 2016, US New & World Report has published a survey of the best countries. The list was developed in cooperation with BAV Group and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and is based on a variety of metrics and surveys of people worldwide. At the top of the overall Best Country list for 2021 were Canada, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. South Korea ranked 15th, sitting between Singapore and Italy. Among the top five, Germany and Japan emerged as major powers in the late 19th century, but the others are middle powers known for a high quality of life.

The rank of nations in the Most Powerful Country category includes five attributes: leader, economically influential, politically influential, strong international alliances, and strong military. The US ranked 1st, followed by China, Russia, Germany, and the UK. All these nations have been major powers since the 19th century, and China, Russia, and the UK for centuries. Except for Germany, all are nuclear powers with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. South Korea ranked 8th in this category between France and Saudi Arabia.

The category of Most Influential Country focuses on five attributes, some of which overlap with those in the power category: leader, connected to the rest of the world, influential culture, politically influential, and strong international alliances. The US ranked 1st followed by the UK, China, Russia, and Germany. South Korea ranked 13th between Canada and India. Compared to the 2020 survey, the UK jumped over China to 2nd place, largely because of its historical ties to former colonies that span the globe.

After the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the US dominated world affairs. For a time, it looked as if an integrated Europe with its newly minted common currency would become the prime rival of the US. By 2010, it became clear that China was on a trajectory to overtake the US and the largest economy in the world, putting it into a position to challenge US dominance. Russia, meanwhile, had recovered from a long economic slump after the fall of the Soviet Union and had begun to exert its influence over nearby areas.

By 2021, the top five nations had organized themselves into main blocs: US/UK/Europe and China/Russia. The US/UK/Europe bloc is closer because of tight alliances such as NATO and historical connections. This group is bolstered by alliances with South Korea, Japan, and a wide range of nations, such “Best Country” Canada and powerful India, with historical ties to the bloc. The China/Russia bloc is looser, but united in its desire to counterbalance the influence of the US/UK/Europe bloc. Their immediate focus is nearby areas, which explains Russia’s threats to invade Ukraine and China is slowly increasing pressure on Taiwan.

South Korea sits between the two blocks. Geographically, it sits right next to the China/Russia bloc, but through its alliance with the US and proximity to Japan, it has aligned itself with the US/UK/Europe bloc. Historically, China has by far exerted the most foreign influence of the Korean Peninsula, but South Korea’s ties to the US/UK/Europe bloc are strong and deep. China is now South Korea’s largest trading partner, but its relations are centered on trade. Relations with Russia are important, but much more limited. Economic, political, and social structures have much more in common with the US/UK/Europe bloc than the China/Russia bloc.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on the US/UK/Europe bloc. People are angry and uncertainty is in the air. The rise of China looks like it will continue. None of this, however, means that the US/UK/Europe bloc will collapse in favor of the China/Russia bloc. Indeed, the real story of the five powerful and influential countries is their historical duration. They have changed sides over time but have remained on top.

South Korea has benefited from its alliance with the US/UK/Europe bloc and, recently, its economic ties to the China/Russia bloc. It has done so because it has kept its alliance with the US/UK/Europe bloc firm while welcoming amicable relations with the China/Russia bloc. Hopefully, the next president will continue the approach that has served the nation so well over the past 30 years.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.