Recent international headlines highlight the spectacular success of Korea’s globalization campaign better than any academic study: “K-Pop madness sweeps Vietnam,” “Dresden opens Korean Plaza,” “Korean Online Comics Go Global,” “16 new King Sejong Institute branches to be built in four continents,” “Bibimpab, Kimchi await you in Milan,” “Saemaul Undong becomes a global development model,” “Korea tops Global Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Development Index.”
Once a war-torn backward economic basket-case unable to feed its illiterate and poor people, Korea lifted itself by the bootstraps in the past half a century to join the world’s exclusive trillion-dollar economy club, boasting over $33,000 GDP per capita and one of the world’s most dynamic, technologically advanced and export-oriented economies, which has a competitive advantage in electronics, shipbuilding, automotive, petrochemicals, metal and machinery products, maintains the world’s lowest unemployment rate and sixth largest foreign exchange reserves of $375 billion and has a highly educated workforce that manufactures such global household brand names as Hyundai automobiles, Samsung electronics and LG home appliances. Korea is a global leader in green growth, patent activity and drug development, IT innovation, biotechnology and robotics.
Once a recipient of foreign aid in the total amount of $12 billion, ranging from emergency relief to structural readjustment programs, Korea joined the Development Assistance Committee, the international donor’s club, in 2010. It is now one of the world’s major Overseas Development Assistance donors, serving as a bridge among developed, emerging and developing countries, sharing its experience of democratization and economic development, and leading the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.
Once deprived of national identity when its people were facing death if they dared to speak their native language, use their proper names, and wear their traditional dresses and customary hairstyle, let alone play their national music and teach their local traditions, now Korea has become an Asian cultural hub and thought leader. It is setting global trends and making billions of dollars from the export of cultural and educational products — with the Korean wave, hallyu, conquering the world and Korean music, television, film, cuisine, arts and styles increasingly shaping mankind’s cultural tastes and artistic preferences, personal likes and dislikes. Korea once suffered from a debilitating brain drain, but, today, its highly competitive educational system, world-class research and development facilities and enviable quality of life act as a powerful magnet attracting the world’s best and brightest: Korea is an education destination of choice for over 100,000 innovation-oriented international elite students.
Once fairly xenophobic and obsessed with safeguarding the purity of their blood, 50 million Koreans have now embraced almost 2 million foreign immigrants who came to Korea in search of the “Korean Dream” and regard the “land of morning calm” as their home second to none, thanks to President Park Geun-hye’s policy of promoting multiculturalism. The Korean diaspora abroad numbers almost 7 million people, including 2.34 million in China and 2.1 million in the United States. From U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Koreans and Korean-Americans hold critical leadership roles in global institutions, too.
Once a “hermit kingdom” isolated even from its closest neighbors, Korea has now become a vibrant hub of global commerce and multilateral diplomacy. Its annual trade volume was worth more than $1.075 trillion in 2013, exceeding the $1 trillion mark for the third consecutive year. In the past several years, Korea formed free-trade zones with its principal trading partners, hosted the Seoul G20 in 2010 and Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, and stands ready to successfully host the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Once a subjugated colony deprived of any say or rights, Korea has now become a fully sovereign, free, open and democratic society, independently promoting human rights and individual freedoms in all corners of the world. Korea was ranked first in terms of government transparency and accountability in the “Government at a Glance 2015” survey, recently published by the Organization for Economic and Social Development. Once a lure for proselytizers of all sorts who wanted “to enlighten the barbarians in the Orient,” Korean missionaries now constitute a major force in the worldwide spread of Christianity, Buddhism and universal ecumenism, and the global fight to defend religious freedoms and traditional family values.
In the past two decades, Korea became a major contributor to international security through increased participation in peacekeeping in Africa, antipiracy in the Indian Ocean, post-conflict stabilization in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterproliferation in Asia and other activities designed to safeguard global stability. Korea, a midsize country, understands the need to protect the global commons, in contrast to some of its outsized neighbors who have global aspirations but act provincially, obsessed with their internal politics and nationalistic dreams.
Once known as “a small shrimp sandwiched between big whales,” Korea wants to be recognized as a significant player in world affairs and strives to maintain balance with its much larger neighbors known for their heavy arm tactics — China, Japan and Russia. Despite China’s traditionally strong gravitational pull, Korea wants some breathing space and seeks to leverage its position by using a global platform and its reliance on the U.S. security alliance and strategic partnerships with Europe, Australia, India and others. Korea stands to capitalize on the global power shift from the declining West to the rising East.
Korea is positioning itself as a global power and a potential catch-all solution provider vis-a-vis the intractable problem that the international community has with the nuclear North Korea that flouts international obligations, threatens international peace and security, and deprives its own people of elementary rights and human conditions. Convincing skeptical neighbors that the cause of freedom and human dignity will prevail, the victory over the North Korean totalitarianism is inevitable, and the enlarged Republic of Korea is the global power to be reckoned with and the only viable successor state in the Korean peninsula is what global Korea is all about.
Alexandre Mansourov is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute in The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also CEO of Great Falls Solutions International, LLC, which provides strategic and investment advice and problem-solving support to leading global businesses, government agencies and civilian organizations.