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Soft power in cross-strait and inter-Korean relations

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s Oct. 2-4 visit to North Korea and Chinese President Hu Jintao’s report at the 17th Party Congress on Oct. 15 notably included attempts at applying “soft power.” Roh proposed further economic cooperation and a peace regime with North Korea. Hu avoided threatening language toward Taiwan, instead offering a peace agreement and expanded ties. Neither gesture will soon transform the security situation on the Korean Peninsula or across the Taiwan Strait. These different cases are revealing, however, about both the increasing importance and enduring limitations of soft power.

Soft power is the ability to influence by cooption or persuasion, as opposed to the use of hard power instruments such as economic pressure or military coercion. Soft power derives from a country’s positive reputation abroad, involving perceived moral authority, cultural attractiveness or model government policies. Well-known examples are the European Union’s commitment to human rights, the United States’ popular culture and Japan’s economic miracle.

Soft power is a widely lauded phenomenon. It provides nationalists with symbols of pride; at the same time, it reinforces engagers’ faith in diplomacy. The would-be targets of soft power generally prefer a competition of ideas to a contest of sanctions or missiles. For the country taking the initiative, soft power is less costly or risky to employ than economic or military means. The downside is that soft power is difficult to use, easy to lose and requires time and sustained effort to accumulate.

South Korea and China’s reservoirs of soft power have grown over the past two decades with impressive economic development. Trade relations have expanded such that South Korea’s semiconductor and automotive companies are among the world’s best and Chinese manufactured goods fill homes around the globe. Korean and Chinese cultures are increasingly popular abroad, well beyond their respective diasporas. South Korea raised its international visibility by hosting the 1988 Olympics and 2002 World Cup, and China is about to hold its coming out party with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

These interrelated trends of economic growth, social development and international integration have upgraded the reputations of China and South Korea and made the use of hard power less attractive in East Asia. National leaders now face the challenge of using soft power to achieve specific objectives within certain timeframes. Doing so is difficult because soft power does come with the levers of action that are readily available in military and trade policy. Soft power has particularly limited influence when concerned states lack political liberties, human security or freedom of people-to-people interaction.

This is why China and South Korea’s recent soft power initiatives have produced few results. China in particular has sizable soft power potential, but its ability to project soft power is hindered by its own political system. Whereas Taiwan’s democracy allows its people to be open to China’s overtures, China’s lack of democracy inhibits the mainland’s attractive power vis-a-vis Taiwan.

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