Global Insight: South Korea growing in influence

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South Korea’s growing influence makes it a country to keep an eye on, Professor Robert Patman says.

This week’s tragic crushing deaths in the capital, Seoul, and the first-time firing by North Korea of a missile south of the two countries’ disputed maritime borders puts the spotlight on South Korea’s expanding place in the world, the University of Otago foreign affairs specialist told Global Insight.

On Monday, 156 people were killed when a stampede occurred among a hundred thousand mostly young people gathered in the Seoul nightlife district, Itaewon, for Halloween celebrations.

Those killed included at least 26 foreign nationals.

Fans of K-pop band BTS watch a live streaming online concert at a cafe in Seoul. File photo: Reuters
Fans of K-pop band BTS watch a live streaming online concert at a cafe in Seoul. File photo: Reuters
"[South Korea] has become . . . a very attractive destination for tourists . . . because [it] has become very influential in terms of popular culture," Prof Patman said, pointing to South Korean global phenomena such as K-Pop boy band BTS, the movie Parasite and TV series Squid Game, which are giving the country growing cultural influence.

"In terms of ‘soft power’ it has become something of a super power."

Democratic South Korea’s international role has been constrained by its troubled relationship with communist North Korea, Prof Patman says.

This week, for example, North Korea test-fired at least 23 missiles, including one that landed in the sea 26km south of the disputed border — the first time that has occurred.

Despite that ongoing tension, Prof Patman believes South Korea might be poised to become a middle power with more active, multi-lateral involvement.

"One step in this direction is South Korea’s decision to apply to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

"I think it’s a country to watch in the next 10 years," Prof Patman says.