Moon Over Vietnam and UAE: South Korea’s Unlikely Rise to Global Power

 Paul D. Shinkman
  26th-Mar-2018

South Korean President Moon Jae In begins a week-long trip to Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, where his investment in local issues will attest to Seoul's growing influence as an irreplaceable international mediator and diplomatic force.

The six-day voyage represents a seemingly unusual order of events for the leader of a regional power in the Pacific rim, but it comes at a time of massive geopolitical consequence for South Korea. Moon has successfully brokered a summit for next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, tas well as a potential follow-on and hugely consequential meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump, whose yet unclear policies toward the Korean peninsula have taken on an air of unpredictability.

The itinerary of Moon's trip hints at his desire to secure South Korea's place as a deal-maker among regional allies that can stand up to China's growing military and economic power at a time when the U.S. is perceived as shrinking from the region. And it may serve as an opportunity to advance his ambitions for peace on his native peninsula.

"South Korea is becoming a bigger power," says Gi-Wook Shin, director of Stanford University's Korea Center and Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, offering a colorful analogy for Seoul's place in its neighborhood. "In the past, South Korea was a shrimp among whales, surrounded by big powers like Japan and China. Korea is no longer a shrimp, now it's a dolphin."

Indeed, Moon's upcoming trip demonstrates South Korea's increasing investments in hard and soft power. In Vietnam, Moon plans to meet the Korean head coach of the Vietnamese national football team, according to The Korea Times, before a groundbreaking ceremony at the Vietnam-Korea Institute of Science and Technology. Other meetings during his three-day stay will focus on bolstering economic and diplomatic ties with the burgeoning southeast Asian power that has historically eschewed reliance on Beijing for security or trade.

The underlying purpose of the trip rests on two key tenets: South Korea is quietly bolstering alliances with like-minded countries at a time when the region feels the swelling power of Beijing and, perhaps more practically, Vietnam is a critical ally of North Korea's – one Pyongyang looks to for inspiration, according to some experts.

At this time of heightened tensions, Moon increasingly serves as the fulcrum for talks between Kim and Trump, and perhaps others – Moon floated the idea on Monday of restarting trilateral talks between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.

"Moon does appear to want to raise the visibility of South Korea as a mediator and a diplomatic force, not only in the Asia-Pacific region but the world as a whole," says Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. "He doesn't want to become overly dependent or submissive to China, but he also understands that China is and will continue to be South Korea's most important trading and economic partner."

"Moon certainly doesn't want to disrupt relations with China, but he wants to cultivate ties with countries that can counterbalance China," Armstrong adds.

The second stop on Moon's trip also shows off South Korea's increasing influence in world matters. At a time when Moon has stated he wants to move away from a reliance on nuclear energy, the president will visit the oil-rich United Arab Emirates to participate in an opening ceremony for a new nuclear reactor at Barakah fueled by South Korean technology. South Korea won a bid to cooperate on the plant in 2009, and since then the unlikely allies have forged new partnerships in their defense and healthcare industries.

"The UAE is Korea's second-largest trade partner in the Middle East. Of 25,000 Koreans in the region, about 13,000 are in the UAE," a Korean official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Korea Times. "We aim to develop the strategic partnership to a special strategic partnership."

Moon deserves credit for his efforts to find diplomatic solutions to the Korean peninsula's military problems, as well as the symbolic bridges he's tried to build across the Demilitarized Zone, Armstrong says. "His vision is for a much more globally visible Korea."

And for the South Korean leader, that issue dominates everything he pursues in his foreign policies.

"At the end of the day," Shin says, "that will be the core of his diplomacy or his agenda.

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