Korea, the Iron Silk Road and the Belt and Road Initiative

Soft Power and Hard Power Approaches

by Ralph M. Wrobel (Volume editor) Bernhard Seliger (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection 236 Pages
Series: Emerging Markets Studies, Volume 9


Korea as a “middle power” in the last decades saw a growing importance, partly through greater economic clout, partly through greater cultural and soft power (“K-pop”), and partly through collective action in institutions like G 20. However, recent instability in Northeast Asia, plus growing trade conflicts and political conflicts in the region and worldwide, endanger this position. Moreover, the tremendous rise of China in economic, geo-political and cultural terms overshadowed the Korean development. However, also here the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative seems to dominate the headlines, as well as the policy fora and practical business decisions. Therefore, this book discusses an urgent, indeed pressing topic: how can middle powers like South Korea and Germany benefit from closer economic and political linkages across the Eurasian landmass, in particular the Belt and Road Initiative dominated by China.? Should they rather jump on the bandwagon or should they follow distinct own initiatives, either in their region or inter-regionally?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Table of Contents
  • Part I: Geopolitics of the Belt and Road Initiative
  • Korea and Germany as endpoints of the New Silk Road: Opportunities for cooperation (Hans-Ulrich Seidt)
  • Belt and Road in the new geo-political competition: China, the United States, Europe and Korea (Duyeon Kim)
  • Road and Belt, Iron Silk Road and Russian-Chinese geopolitical cooperation and competition (Artyom Lukin)
  • China’s BRI diplomacy: What it means to India and India’s rise (Jagannath Panda)
  • Part II: Both Koreas and the Belt and Road Initiative
  • Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin policy: Support or obstacle for economic convergence on the Korean Peninsula? (Ralph M. Wrobel)
  • The Iron Silk Road and North Korea: Is there any chance to move forward? (Bernhard Seliger)
  • South Korea, China and the Road and Belt Initiative: Economic and political factors (Anastasia Barannikova)
  • Part III: Destinations of the Belt and Road Initiative
  • Duisburg and its port, endpoint of China’s Silk Road – Opportunities and risks (Werner Pascha)
  • China in Africa: Competitor of the EU? (Joachim Ahrens & Katja Kalkschmied)
  • Part IV: Soft power approaches of the Belt and Road Initiative
  • From connectivity to sanctions and from soft to hard power approaches: How the European Union and South Korea have been responding to the US-China competition (Tereza Novotná)
  • The prospects of cultural exchange to foster the economic relationship between the EU and Korea (Joohyun Go)
  • Trade effects on happiness in Asia (Alexander Heß & Christoph M. Hindermann)
  • List of authors
  • Series index

Hans-Ulrich Seidt

Korea and Germany as endpoints of the New Silk Road: Opportunities for cooperation

1. Introduction

Thirty years after the end of the cold war the world now realizes that it has entered a new era. It is characterized by great power competition, conflicting grand strategies and disruptive events. Three weeks ago, we witnessed such a disruptive moment when the Suez Canal was blocked by a huge container ship. According to the German tabloid “Bild Zeitung” ordinary citizens suddenly realized that they were directly affected. The headline “Our summer is in danger!” Bild (2021) demonstrated that Western consumers will become interested in geopolitics and strategic infrastructure when their supply of garden equipment is under attack.

This conference will look far beyond individual interests. Your objective is to analyze and better understand the political dynamics and strategic risks the world is facing. Together you want to identify the prerequisites for a peaceful and prosperous future – not only for Korea and Germany as endpoints of Eurasian infrastructure, but for the whole international community.

Let me at the start of the conference share with you some thoughts that came to my mind when I read your program and reflected on previous experiences. I remembered observations of transformation and change during my years in Korea. These souvenirs were followed by concerns about competing strategies in Beijing and Washington. But in the end a rather bleak outlook on increasing risks and current threat assessments was balanced by positive perspectives of Korean-German cooperation.

2. Experience of transformation

The decline and fall of the former Soviet Union and the rise of the People’s Republic of China fundamentally changed during the last thirty years the equation of power on the Eurasian landmass. At the same time the supremacy of the United States, which enjoyed in the decade before the turn of the century the privilege of nearly uncontested global leadership, was challenged by failed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis of 2008 and increasing domestic tensions (Farrow 2018). And all over the world the rapid ←11 | 12→development of modern communication technologies has put into question accepted traditions, political routines and ideological concepts.

The impact of transformational trends can be observed in a diverse and fragile international system, in changing patterns of social cohesion and human behavior. I was able to study this phenomenon together with my Korean students when I was teaching as guest professor at Chonnam National University in Gwangju/Korea a couple of years ago. In a situation of reverse mentoring the students, representatives of the generation called “the millennials”, taught me how they were perceiving, living and embracing transformational processes.

As bright young people they were confronted with all the consequences of a changing society. They were well aware that their expectations of life were not only determined by individual decisions, but were also linked to historical events and social developments. They talked about their family’s experience in Gwangju and Chonnam province, a part of Korea that in the local perception was often neglected and even discriminated by the political center. They welcomed the opportunities of liberal democracy, an open society and modern infrastructure, but at the same time they critically reflected about the consequences of demographic change and technological progress. And they felt that their individual future was inextricably linked to a broadly connected global community and, in particular on the Korean peninsula, to an aggregate of collective desires and disappointments.

As capital of Chonnam province, the south western region of the divided peninsula, Gwangju is hopeful to become one day like the city of Busan one of the end points of the railroad system that will connect the Eurasian landmass from the Atlantic to Korea, a country that exemplifies the dramatic, often tragic events and profound changes that took place in East Asia since the beginning of the 20th century. Standing one cold winter morning at the counter of Pyongyang train station, I thought about the impact of these changes on the Korean nation. From a friendly lady I received my ticket for the train that would bring me to the Chinese city of Dandong and from there to Shenyang with its huge BMW plant. The ticket was printed in Korean, Chinese, Russian and German. From my interpreter I learned that in Pyongyang you can even buy a ticket for a train ride to Berlin. But will it ever be possible to buy a ticket for Gwangju or Busan via Seoul and cross the demarcation line on the 38th parallel by train?

Horizon scanning became extremely difficult during the last years and my crystal ball is not better than yours. Certainly, we all were observing long-term trends during the last decades. We saw the Republic of Korea and the Peoples Republic of China moving forward rapidly. In the 21st century both are now playing lead roles in many fields of science and technology. While South Korea ←12 | 13→developed an amazing set of soft power tools, China became the strongest country on the Eurasian-African landmass.

But even long-term trends can be disrupted. When the pandemic broke out in Wuhan at the end of 2019, many China watchers asked: What will happen to the Chinese economy, the country’s political system and the surrounding region (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2020)? Today we know the answer: More than one year after the outbreak of Covid-19, we recognize that East Asia, at least for the time being, remains the dynamic and driving hub of the world’s economy.

3. China’s grand strategy

Against this transformational background your conference will address specific questions: How can middle powers and export driven economies like the Republic of Korea and Germany further benefit from ever closer ties across Eurasia? Can they participate in mega-sized infrastructure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative or the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline without becoming entangled into conflicting strategies? How can they avoid becoming totally dependent from the interests and the designs of competing great powers?

I keep these and similar questions in mind since a three months tour through China in spring 2016, when as Inspector General of the German Foreign Office I had to inspect our embassy in Beijing and our consulates general throughout China. During my tour I visited Chengdu in landlocked Sechuan province, where a Chinese official proudly informed me about the regular train service between his province and the city of Duisburg in Germany. He was surprised by my question “Why Duisburg?” and immediately gave the answer: “Of course Duisburg! It is the inland port of Rotterdam!” During the following conversation I realized that my Chinese interlocutor fully understood the details of the geo-economic landscape and the infrastructure of Western Europe.

Visiting two weeks later China’s top institution of higher education, Beijing University, I asked the head of the German department: “Which text are you reading with your graduate students?” Her answer was: “The ‘Political Dialogue’ by Leopold von Ranke”. Although this text is one of the most important documents of German political thought in the 19th century it is little known in Germany itself. And when shortly afterwards a deputy minister in Beijing told me that he and his wife, a successful entrepreneur, had carefully studied Karl Marx, he confessed that “Das Kapital” had been the inspiration for his wife’s successful business career.

Now I began to understand how carefully classical German texts like Ferdinand von Richthofen’s “The Silk Roads” and Carl von Clausewitz’ “On War” ←13 | 14→(Yu Tiejun 2011) were read in China. Their political and economic teachings were not only studied. They were analyzed, reviewed, skillfully combined and finally integrated into a larger strategy. In this comprehensive context and in a new, contemporary environment they became instruments of operational planning and practice.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 236 pp., 9 fig. b/w, 12 tables.

Biographical notes

Ralph M. Wrobel (Volume editor) Bernhard Seliger (Volume editor)

Bernhard Seliger is representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Seoul, South Korea. Ralph M. Wrobel is a professor of economics, especially economic policy, and a coordinating member of the East Asia Centre at the University of Applied Sciences Zwickau, Germany.


Title: Korea, the Iron Silk Road and the Belt and Road Initiative
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238 pages