U.S. officials have recently called on South Korea to play a role in the South China Sea, and for good reason. As a middle power South Korea has an interest, opportunity, and obligation to help keep its neighborhood stable, and that means opposing coercive approaches to regional disputes wherever they arise, especially in the South China Sea.
South Korea has a long history of being victimized by great power competition. It sees itself as a recurring pawn in great power politics, giving rise to a famous proverb in South Korea that roughly translates to “In a fight among whales, it’s the shrimp’s back that gets broken (teojinda).” In Korean though, the term teojinda is an emotionally violent expression akin to bursting or breaking. This emotion-laden notion of an existence as a shrimp among whales is part of the Korean worldview and shapes its strategic culture.
Small wonder, then, that South Korea seeks to avoid any major disturbances to its foreign relations, especially with Beijing and Washington. When China proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Korea was famously caught in the middle, initially staying silent and joining only after a regional groundswell of support. When Beijing counseled South Korea against hosting the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system that U.S. Forces Korea Commander GEN James Thurman once publicly called for, South Korea bristled, but has still not rendered any kind of decision about THAAD—even though THAAD is principally about North Korea, not China. Any time its two largest foreign partners have competing preferences, South Korea gets stuck in the middle. Korean history weighs heavily on its strategic culture, and that has meant that anything seen as a strategic foreign policy choice risks becoming a hotly debated, overwrought, and ultimately paralyzed decision.