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Inadvertent Reproduction of Western-centrism in South Korean IR Theorization: Epistemological, Teleological, and Complicit Western-centrism
The Korean Journal of International Studies 21-1 (April 2023), 1-25
Published online April 30, 2023
© 2023 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Young Chul Cho [Bio-Data]
Received January 31, 2023; Revised February 14, 2023; Accepted March 30, 2023.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
In South Korean International Relations (IR) studies as well as social sciences, Western-centrism – to put it differently, Western-dependency – has much been problematized in their knowledge production and consumption. With this critical awareness, the South Korean IR community has recently sought to craft a more independent, more global, and less Western-centric scholarship in the 21st century, by doing different IR theorization on their own rather than just importing and consuming mainstream IR theories from the West. Against this backdrop, this article critically examines how the South Korean IR community has talked about the creation of indigenous or non/less-Western-centric IR theorizations. Specifically, three domestic sites of IR theorization are examined in detail, the first involving the construction of a universalist Korean school of IR, the second focused on South Korean middle power diplomacy narratives, and the third concentrating on the appropriation of the Global IR turn by South Korean IR. Although these three theoretical enterprises desire the transcendence of local IR knowledge production over Western-centrism/Western-dependency, meta-theoretically their work remains firmly grounded in Western-centrism. Ultimately, there is a very high probability that each effort will, in fact, not overcome, but rather reproduce mainstream positivist IR theory’s Western-centrism.
Keywords : South Korean International Relations (IR) studies, IR theorization, Western-centrism, Meta-theory, Critique

In Western-centrism and Contemporary Korean Political Thought (2015), Jung In Kang defined Western-centrism as “the attitude that views the perspectives, values, institutions, and practices of Western civilization as universal and supreme” (Kang 2015, 23). Indeed, this somewhat subservient attitude was once not simply inevitable but desirable in early postcolonial South Korea, which had to secure and develop its nation-state as a new member of a pre-existing Westphalian international system. In other words, early postcolonial South Korean leaders and intellectuals, who obsessed over the questions of ‘why is our country so weak?’ and ‘how can our country be autonomous and prosperous?’, blindly embraced the West/America as an ideal and universally applicable model for their future, rejecting the knowledge system of Korea’s premodern and colonial periods in the process. Ideologically, Western-centrism as a form of Western coloniality took root in (South) Korea immediately after Western-masked Japanese colonialism ended. This can be referred to as a “twisted postcoloniality” that permeated the social science knowledge system in post-war South Korea, and its embrace distinguishes the intellectual experiences of South Korea from other former colonies of the West (Seo and Cho 2021, 621).

Despite the necessity of the decision to embrace Western-centrism in South Korea, since its birth as a nation-state in the mid-20th century critical voices in South Korea have protested the unconditional acceptance of a Western-centric outlook and associated desire to become Western in society, life-style, and mind. For example, in his famous novel published in 1963, A Grey Man, In-hoon Choi portraited South Korean society and academia as follows:

On the hull of that vessel is written ‘USA.’ Those [Koreans] before the television superimpose ‘R.O.K.’ over those letters and enjoy the illusion that we are aboard that ship […] For what our whole race is doing these days is no different from studying abroad. What we see, what we hear, how we eat, it’s all American culture, isn’t it? Why spend money to go there [America/the West] when you experience it sitting here? […] our condition is hopeless. For instance, take Modernism in Korean literary circles. Irresponsible epigones. Without even being aware of culture currents, they are slavish mimics. Nonsense they didn’t understand themselves. They call it ‘avant-garde’. Vanguard for what? Resistance against whom? Antitheses without theses. That is the climate of our art. It’s the worst of all exotic tastes (Choi 1988, 76, 186-7).

These excerpts reveal that, although Western-centrism was often blindly welcomed with the intention of making subaltern South Korea a better and fully developed self with its distinctive subjectivity in the world, equivalent to that of Western countries, the real problem of Western-centrism for South Korea(ns) was not simply that South Korean relied on Western material goods but rather that the West colonized their minds, with South Koreans becoming “irresponsible epigones” and “slavish mimics” who are colonial subjects without sensing it. As irresponsible epigones and slavish mimics, they tended to relegate themselves to being perpetual and unthinking consumers of the knowledge, institutions, and practices of Western centrism and dominance (Chakrabarty 1992; Chatterjee 1993, 5). In addition, these irresponsible epigones and slavish mimics, possessing privileges in South Korean society, considerably benefitted from Western-centrism, in contrast to the ordinary people, as their vested interests are based on their intimate knowledge of Western goods, skill, and people (Kang 2015, Kim 2015b). In this sense, irresponsible epigones and slavish mimics wanted to remain colonialized by the West, yet exercise hegemonic power over their less fortunate peers in the local context.

In political studies in South Korea, Jung In Kang has taken serious issue with Western-centrism (Kang 2014; Kang 2015). According to him (Kang 2015, 229-247), Western-centrism has four negative impacts on South Korean academia. First, South Korean academia’s problematization was too Western with scant bearing on their own society. Second, academia tended to distort the realities of their own society if those realities were not fully explained by Western theories. Third, non-Western experiences were mainly used as raw materials to prove Western universality. Fourth, South Korean academic disciplines became more dependent on the West in not just intellectual but institutional senses, too. Since the 1990s Western-centrism (i.e. Western-dependency) in the social sciences in South Korea has much been problematized in their knowledge production and consumption. IR studies in South Korea is not an exception to this trend. With this critical awareness, the South Korean IR community has strived to be a knowledge producer – an IR theory maker – on a par with its counterparts in the West, rather than a mere consumer of Western theory and knowledge. Therefore, it has recently sought to craft a more independent, more global, and less/non-Western-centric scholarship in the 21st century, by doing different IR theorizations on their own.

Against this backdrop, this article attempts to critically examine how South Korean IR community talks about ways of doing indigenous or non/less Western-centric IR theorizations. Toward this end, the article looks at three sites of IR theorization in South Korean scholarship: 1) the construction of a universalist Korean school of IR; 2) South Korean middle power diplomacy narratives; 3) South Korean IR studies’ appropriation of the Global IR turn. Although there are plural types of IR theory undertakings in South Korea, those three sites as loci of theory enunciation appear to be distinctive, as each does IR theorization with the problematique of Western-centrism to varying degrees. As those participating in those sites are, to some extent, aware that “[t]heory is always for someone and for some purpose” (Cox 1986, 27), and that Western-centric IR theory is basically for the West and for Western interests, their goal is to go beyond simply consuming imported Western-centric IR theories and perform distinct IR theorezations. Methodologically, this article performs a discourse analysis (Cho and Hwang 2020) to critically observe the language regarding who, how, and where to theorize in the above-mentioned three sites.

It is argued that, although the three theoretical enterprises intend to overcome Western-centrism/Western-dependency in IR knowledge production of the local scholarship, meta-theoretically their theorizations still operate within the Western-centrism which are epistemological, teleological, and complicit. Thus, there seems to be a danger of that these sites not only fail to overcome, but actually reproduce mainstream positivist IR theory’s Western-centrism. In what follows, we will critically examine each of the three sites, paying attention to the operation of Western-centrism in IR knowledge production as it operates in South Korea.


In proportion to South Korea’s growing international standing – such as, successful democratization, rapid economic development, and growing cultural power – in the world after the end the Cold War, there has recently been growing calls for building a Korean school of IR. In their article, ‘International relations studies in Korea: retrospects and prospects’, Hyung Kook Kim and Yun Young Cho pronounced that “Currently, the Korean IR scholarships no longer rely on just importing foreign thoughts and ideas. Now is the time to facilitate the process of appropriating the study of IR to the standards of Koreanization” (Kim and Cho 2009, 402). A similar call for a Korean school of IR was raised in the 2007 special edition of Hangukgukjejeongchinonchong (The Korean Journal of International Relations) under the theme of ‘five decades of the Korean Association of International Studies (KAIS): introspection and prospect’ and the 2011 inauguration speech of the KAIS President.

These calls are based on the premise that South Korean IR studies has been “an intellectual colony in relation to the US dominance of academic areas” (Kim and Cho 2009, 416). To overcome this intellectual colonialism, therefore, the making of Korean school of IR becomes a must. Moreover, as argued by Chaesung Chun, the “[u]ntheorized territory of the non-Western world [such as South Korea] would not be grasped by policy makers, either. What is theorized has an opportunity to be problematized in academic and practical worlds” (Chun 2010, 87). The possible Korean IR School may serve to improve the country’s national interests and international prestige in international relations, while ensuring the South Korean IR community’s scholarly independence and raising the dignity of South Korean IR scholars in the global field of IR.

In building a Korean IR school, one critical condition is acknowledged; future distinctively Korean-style IR theories must be universal in their scope and application, just as the mainstream positivist IR theories in the West, particularly in America, are. Related to this, Jong Kun Choi raised one key question which resonated with many in the South Korean IR community: “How can we [South Korean IR scholars] make a distinctively Korean IR theory while trying to be as generalizable as possible?” (Choi 2008, 209). Chul-Koo Woo also claimed that “to seek a Korean identity of IR studies, the Korean IR community needs to construct an objective, universal theoretical framework which can explain Korea’s various historical events” (Woo 2004, 15). Universality has been an essential core of theorizing South Korean IR. This renders the Korean IR School marketable globally, like their Western counterparts, and prevents it from becoming unduly jingoistic, nativist, and parochial. It is widely believed that South Korean IR studies remains intellectually colonialized until it eventually produces a universal Korean-style IR theory.

Note that “scholarship is based in a set of social forces toward which it is supportive (either explicitly or implicitly) or opposed. In essence, then, scholarship cannot be neutral; it is unavoidably partial, is unavoidably political, and unavoidably has ethical consequences” (Smith 2004, 504). In this sense, globally, IR studies is a “structured field permeated by relations of power” (Waever 2010, 298). Given this power/knowledge nexus, who is the institutional or even hegemonic gatekeeper of deciding what knowledge counts as ‘legitimate’ and ‘general’ in the exiting global field of IR? It seems clear that the answer is mainstream positivist IR in America. Indeed, most South Korean IR scholars see American IR as the global, perhaps only reference point against which their scholarly products are evaluated, even as they compete with it. The point here is that future Korean-style IR theory cannot be universal without receiving general recognition from positivist American IR. In fact, to build a Korean school of IR with universality, many in South Korean IR scholars – presumably can be called IR universalists – attempt to adopt a strategy of acquiring recognition as an equal IR endeavor from the American IR scholarship.

What is the minimum essential standard for receiving favorable recognition from the mainstream IR in America as a legitimate and equal producer of IR theory and knowledge? Clearly, the standard is positivist epistemology allied with empiricist scientific methods (Cho 2015). For instance, Min-hyung Kim, who is opposed to the development of an indigenous theory of East Asia, “a key element of a ‘good theory’ is generalizability (i.e. scientific universalism). In other words, IRT should be as generalizable as possible across time and across space” (Kim 2018, 1208). Moreover, “we strive to refine the existing [mainstream American] IRT and make it more suitable for East Asia IR” by “problematising its major assumptions and central claims on the basis of East Asian experiences” (Kim 2018, 1202). This in turn solves the ongoing problem of a poor fit between the existing IR theories and East Asian IR realities. Byoung Won Min argued that, by revising existing Western theories to explain Korean realities well, IR studies in South Korea should craft Korean IR theories that are ‘communicable’ and ‘compatible’ with the positivist global (specifically, American) IR scholarship (Min 2007, 43, 50; Min 2016). Woosang Kim maintained that the South Korean IR community should construct a new type of ‘positivistic, universal’ IR theories and try to revise and enhance the existing positivist IR theories with their peers in the West (Kim 2007, 285). In his article, ‘Theorizing East Asian international relations in Korea’, Jong Kun Choi claimed that “Any theorizing based on Korea’s unique historical experiences must be tested under the principle of generality . . . Although Korean IR should strive to explain the country’s unique historical experience, it will be judged by strict measurements of scientific universalism, which will contribute to globalization of Korean IR in return” (Choi 2008, 215).

This strategy of adopting a positivist epistemology for universality appears reasonable and may lead to get what South Korean IR universalists want, that is, American IR’s recognition as an IR knowledge producer. However, this strategy is paradoxical in its nature. First, the success of overcoming the ongoing situation of “an intellectual colony in relation to the US dominance of academic areas” is made to hinge not on South Korean IR on its own but on American IR’s benign endorsement (Kim and Cho 2009, 416). The colonized’s scholarly independence can only be made by the colonizer. The more South Korean universalists fixate on the so-called universality of positivist IR, the greater their dependency on American IR scholarship. Viewed as such, to be recognized means that “you accept your inferiority and resign yourself to play the game that is not yours but that has been imposed upon you” (Mignolo 2011, 275). This is merely a different type of colonialism plus Western-centrism, which is still shaped by the colonized to a great extent.

Second, the South Korean IR community will, in practice, bolster the hegemonic status of American IR’s positivist epistemology in South Korea and reproduce an image of a universal American IR studies, even in the process of building a universalist Korean school of IR. “This may also relegate Korean IR to being little more than a provider of ‘unique regional independent variables’ to the mainstream positivist IR theories” (Seo and Cho 2021, 634). This tendency can be found in Yong-Soo Eun’s and Kamila Pieczara’s argument in their article of ‘getting Asia right and advancing the field of IR’ that “interweaving existing IR theories with Asia’s empirical material and remoulding the theories through gathering empirical evidence on the regional reality and converting it into theoretical variables, comparable in the field of IR, should be our goal” (Eun and Pieczara 2013, 369). Western/American IR does theory, whereas non-Western/South Korean IR will merely provide data for the theory. In other words, non-Western/South Korean IR becomes a mere test bed for positivist IR approaches in the West/America (Cho 2015, 681). “Rather than pursuing equality, South Korean IR is unwittingly working within a hierarchical system. Perhaps South Korean IR universalists will end up similar, but unequal to American IR” (Seo and Cho 2021, 634).

In South Korean IR studies, alternative strategy of obtaining universality in its indigenous IR theorization is to export future distinctively Korean-style IR theory to the world, particularly to the Global South (Hahm 2008; Hong 2008; Kang 2010; Kim and Cho 2009; Park 2005). Yet, due to South Korean IR’s strong essentialist tendency in theorization, a high degree of Korean-centrism will be implicated in the future distinctively Korean-style IR theory. Here, one ethical issue may occur if South Korea IR tries to export its theoretical product to the Global South in unreflexive and uncritical ways. In exporting a Korean-centric theoretical paradigm disguised with universalism, South Korean IR “may run the risk of projecting an ethnocentric, imperialistic undertone onto non-Western [the Global South] IR communities in practice” (Cho 2015, 681). Although South Korean IR is critical of Western-centrism in mainstream IR theories from the West, it may repeat the same mistake in its attitude toward the Global South which appears weaker than South Korea, in terms of relations of power in knowledge production and circulation. This would be controversial and self-serving, as South Korean IR seemingly seeks to be not post-hegemonic but would-be hegemonic vis-à-vis its weaker others. It is Orientalism by a non-West subject toward different non-West subjects. Furthermore, any future Korean-style theory’s universality is very likely to subscribe to positivist epistemology meta-theoretically, as discussed earlier, and therefore South Korean IR’s drive to export its theoretical product expands and consolidates the academic hegemony of positivist American IR in the global field of IR. If this were to occur, the South Korean exportation could be seen as “a proxy-hegemony on behalf of mainstream American rationalism [positivism]” (Cho 2015, 693).

In short, South Korean IR’s drive to build a Korean IR School with universality produce, reproduce, and reinforce Western-centrism it is eager to overcome. As such, it would be culpable of serving Western IR’s interests and (un)consciously treating Western IR knowledge as superior and universal. It is time to rethink South Korean IR’s not-so-visible epistemological Western-centrism served as the ‘legitimate’ knowledge gatekeeper in knowledge production.


As South Korea’s national capacity and international standing have grown, its elites, scholars, and practitioners have begun to redefine and better position the country – from a developing country to a responsible middle power – in world politics since the end of the Cold War. As discussed in the previous section, it is said in South Korean IR studies that Western mainstream IR theory tend to reflect the perspective of great powers in the way of serving Western interests at the expense of those of middle and minor powers. For this reason, it is not so suitable for a middle power like South Korea to understand its international environment and give advices on its foreign policy. A Korean-style IR theory should thus be developed by and for the local IR scholarship as well as the country. Middle power diplomacy (MPD) narratives in South Korean IR studies can be seen as response to this demand.

Indeed, the South Korean IR community has produced a great deal of knowledge/narrative regarding South Korean-style MPD, focusing on the country’s identity, position, roles, potential areas of contribution in a changing international politics of the 21st century (Kim 2014; Kim 2015c; Lee 2016; Mo 2015; Sohn 2020). South Korean MPD narratives are “mainly top-down, instrumental knowledge [for the state], as opposed to reflective knowledge”, and thus they are “a form of statecraft by academics” (Yoo and Cho 2022, 634).

Despite its diversity in scope, subject-matter, content, method, and application, most South Korean MPD narratives share one teleological premise in knowledge production: a taken-for-granted, robust commitment to the current liberal international order (LIO). For instance, Jongryn Mo claimed that “South Korea has emerged as a new middle power that … supports the liberal international order with its leadership diplomacy” (Mo 2016, 587). Sook Jong Lee and Hyee Jung Suh also maintained that, “middle powers need to reconfigure alliances with great powers to strengthen the liberal international order” (Lee and Suh 2016, 213). Shin Wha Lee argued that South Korea should “establish effective foreign policies that can resist illiberal autocracies while assimilating rising powers into the LIO” and “invest in education, as a catalyst for integration, to nurture liberal democratic identity and citizenship” (Lee 2019, 370). Woo Sang Kim insisted that “the pivotal middle powers [South Korea] in the international power hierarchy play an important role in maintaining the status quo [of the LIO]” (Kim 2015c, 258). At this juncture, it is necessary to look at what the LIO means in South Korean MPD narratives. In their book, The Rise of Korean Leadership: Emerging Powers and International Order, Ikenberry and Mo stated:

Over the last 60 years, large parts of the world have operated within an American-led and Western-centered system of liberal international governance. It is a distinctive type of order, organized around open markets, multilateral institutions, cooperative security, alliance partnership, democratic solidarity, and American hegemonic leadership. It was based on a vision of a “one world” system of rules and institutions. … It became the organizing logic of the wider global system. It was only in these last two decades that it has been possible to speak of a singular system of global governance (Ikenberry and Mo 2013, 168).

This is seen frequently as a shorthand for the US-led liberal hegemonic order (Ikenberry 2020, 316). In South Korea, the term LIO implicates the US liberal hegemony, which is often treated as inherently good and essential for South Korea’s national security and development. In fact, it is firmly believed in South Korea that LIO has contributed to South Korea’s substantial progress, domestically as well as internationally. Accordingly, there has been little incentive to take issue with the LIO. Rather, as the LIO is deemed good and universal, South Korean MPD narratives aim to secure and reproduce it.

It should be noted here that we need to differentiate between liberal values – such as, democracy, human rights, rule of law, or a market economy – and the existing LIO which is “a “particular” liberal international order implicated in certain power structures (the U.S. as the liberal hegemon) at a specific moment in history” (Yoo and Cho 2022, 639). This LIO is, what G. John Ikenberry calls, ‘Liberal Internationalism 2.0’ (Ikenberry 2009). According to him., the existing LIO is a “Western-oriented security and economy system” which is a “hierarchical order, with American hegemonic provisioning of public goods, rule-based and patron-client relations” (Ikenberry 2009, 74). In 2021, a well-known mainstream journal, International Organization, published a special edition with the title of ‘Challenges to the Liberal International Order: International Organization at 75’. The edition’s preface keenly pointed out that:

The order [LIO] was selectively liberal and applied liberal values inconsistently, whether the question was who was democracy for, whose rights mattered, or which tariffs were liberalized. This selectivity was central to how the order worked. Ignoring liberal values was often essential to achieving the cooperation needed for the wealth and security the system [the US liberal hegemony] sought to deliver (Finnemore, et al. 2021, 3).

In a similar vein, another major IR journal, International Affairs, in 2023 organized a special section under the title of ‘Injustice and the Crisis of International Order’. One of the articles insightfully observed that:

Unlike international orders that are organized through explicit social hierarchies, the LIO claims to foster egalitarian, meritocratic justice based around universal, ‘rational’ standards. Yet it is clear to many actors around the world that the LIO has historically been, and remains today, premised on ‘irrational’, unjust forms of hierarchical recognition, often organized around group identity. This opens up the LIO to charges of hypocrisy. (Lawson and Zarakol 2023, abstract).

To put it bluntly, although the Westphalian state system – a system of equal sovereign states – is a foundational arena in which any international order is at play, it is not exaggeration to say that the LIO has been hierarchical and benefiting the West far more than the non-West under the liberal banner such as equality, freedom, and openness. Arguably, Western superiority and hypocrisy have been central to the functioning of the existing LIO. It is against this theoretical and practical backdrop that South Korean MPD narratives argue that the country aims to be “a good citizen” in the world and be “a responsible follower of global governance rules [under US liberal hegemony]” (Lee and Suh 2016, 163). Plus, South Korea “never attempt[s] to share or encroach upon the dominant U.S. structural power” (Kim 2015a, 3). Most of all, in the coming age of Sino-U.S. competition for world supremacy, pivotal middle powers such as South Korea are indispensable for the hegemonic America to perpetuate the existing LIO (Kim 2015c; Lee and Park 2021). South Korean MPD narratives appear to voluntarily subscribe to the existing LIO and incorporate this order as their own. What explains this self-evident teleology to secure and reproduce the US liberal hegemony? An unexamined desire to become Western. By securing the US liberal hegemony, perhaps South Korean IR finds itself in the position of the West in world politics and history, and it could see the non-Western ‘others’ from the US liberal hegemony’s perspective. It is teleological Western-centrism in MPD knowledge production in South Korean IR/policy circles. In this sense, South Korean MPD narratives have “an intimate but largely unacknowledged connection to the (re)making of the Western/American hegemony in world politics” (Yoo and Cho 2022, 638). They can even be called “a Korean derivative of US hegemonic stability theory” (Yoo and Cho 2022, 635). A thought experiment to reorient South Korean MPD’s unquestioned teleology has been proposed:

When the West arrived in the Korean peninsula in the 19th century, premodern Korea was so addicted to the Sino-centric tributary system that it was blind to the demise of the Chinese empire and the rise of the West. This political and psychological addiction prevented the country from noticing or envisioning a different international order. This also highlights a lack of agency on the part of premodern Korea which may have contributed to the country becoming a colony under Japanese imperialism as it faced the West. What if premodern Korea had problematized the Sino-centric tributary system as a particular order while keeping and appropriating Confucian ethics? (Cho and Callahan 2022, 20).

In short, due to its unconditional and uncritical acceptance of the existing LIO as the best and only, if not final, form and standard of world politics and IR studies, South Korean MPD knowledge appears teleologically Western-centric. South Korea’s middle power identity falls within the hierarchy of the US liberal hegemony.


In the global field of IR, there have been growing critical strands of seeing Western knowledge, practices, and institutions as not universal but parochial in terms of world theory and history (Acharya and Buzan 2019; Hobson 2012). Particularly, since Amitav Acharya’s and Barry Buzan’s 2007 special forum with the theme of ‘Why is there no non-Western IR theory?’ in International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Japan-based journal, much research has been done regarding IR’s Western parochialism (Acharya and Buzan 2007; Acharya and Buzan 2017; Jones 2006; Shilliam 2011). Even former American Political Science Association President David Lake recently acknowledged this parochialism (Lake 2016). Within this line of critique, a call for pluralism and diversity in/of IR has gained more currency in the scholarship (Dunne, et al. 2013; Eun 2016). In addition, there have been attempts to move beyond the critical appraisal of IR’s Western-centrism and actually redirect IR studies using insights gleaned from the non-West for a greater diversity (Kavalski 2018; Ling 2014; Qin 2020; Shih 2013; Shimizu 2019; Tickner and Smith 2020).

Of these critical voices, the most well-known one is Amitav Acharya’s ‘Global IR’ initiative, synonymous with the Global IR turn in the scholarship. According to him, in problematizing Eurocentrism, false universalism, racism, and disjuncture between Western theory and non-Western experience, and in the ignoring of non-Western actors in the current Western-centric IR studies worldwide (Acharya and Buzan 2019 286), Global IR should urge IR scholars, be it mainstream/Western or not, “to look past the American and Western dominance of the field and embrace greater diversity, especially by recognizing the places, roles, and contributions of “non-Western” peoples and societies” previously sidelined in IR studies (Acharya 2016, 4). It is a framework of enquiry of making sense of and reshaping IR as a discipline, which is not a coherent theory (Acharya 2014, 649). It does not aim to reject or displace the mainstream IR theories (such as, realism, liberalism, and conventional constructivism), but “challenges their parochialism and urges them to accept the ideas, experiences and insights from the non-Western world” (Acharya and Buzan 2017, 355). In this sense, this push for pluralism in Global IR desires the mainstream “to give due recognition to” the places, roles, and contributions of the non-West, without accepting and preserving “existing [mainstream] theories as is ” (Acharya and Buzan 2017, 355). By doing so, mainstream theories can also be enriched with bringing ideas and practices from the non-West (Acharya and Buzan 2017, 359). Thus, “Global IR is really more about pluralisation within theories, rather than just between them” (Acharya and Buzan 2019 301), which distinguisges it from other approaches – such as, relativism, theoretical synthesis or co-existence, or analytic eclecticism – of pluralism in IR (Dunne, et al. 2013; Eun 2016; Sil and Katzenstein 2010). The meta-theoretical ethos of Global IR is founded upon a “pluralistic universalism” which views “IR as a global discipline with multiple foundations” (Acharya and Buzan 2019, 301).

As for international order, the existing LIO (more precisely, the US-led liberal hegemonic order) is “a limited international order, rather than an inclusive global order” (Acharya 2017, 271). The US and its Western allies are no longer in a position to define how global governance should be organized in the same extent in which they did for much of the mid- and late 20th century. The coming world order will evolve into not a multipolar world but “a multiplex world”. This multiplex world embraces multiple modernities, and Western liberal modernity (and its ideas concerning how to develop politics, economy, and society) which appears to sweep through the world is only one of the menus we have. “A multiplex world is like a multiplex cinema—one that gives its audience a choice of various movies, actors, directors, and plots all under the same roof. … At the same time, a multiplex world is a world of interconnectedness and interdependence. It is not a singular global order, liberal or otherwise, but a complex of crosscutting, if not competing, international orders and globalisms” (Acharya 2017, 277). Multiplicity and fluidity are the distinctive features of the emerging multiplex world (Eun et al. 2021, 234-6).

At first glance, it appears likely that this Global IR turn, which aims to pluralize IR, would be welcomed and appropriated by South Korean IR scholars who are critical of Western-centrism in the local IR scholarship. Surprisingly, to date there has been not much debate concerning the Global IR turn in South Korea. Recently, a ‘2021 Global IR in Multiplex World Seminar’ was held by KAIS and the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University on November 12, 2021. Inho Choi (2023) has recently discussed his international theory of Sadae (Serving the Great) in relation to pluralizing IR. The leading figure of Global IR turn in the South Korean IR community is Yong-Soo Eun (Eun 2016; Eun 2020b). Like Acharya, Eun argued that IR should go beyond Western parochialism (Western-centrism) toward a more pluralistic intellectual field. In arguing for this, he raised a due concern; that is, there is a possible danger of IR’s becoming fragmentated, which could be a potential offshoot of the pluralist drive (Eun 2020c). Different perspectives may pursue their own paths only, without communicating with and learning from one another, under the banner of pluralizing IR. In this case, a fragmentated IR is difficult to accumulate knowledge and achieve progress, not to mention, no mutual learning between different entities. Thus, dialogue matters in seeking a Global IR project. For Eun, dialogue is “a reciprocal exchange of perspectives for mutual learning. By definition, this understanding of dialogue does not prioritise one side or the other”, and thus “it sets out to safeguard against a tug of war between perspectives and a subsumption of one of them in favour of the other” (Eun 2020a 101). Eun’s understanding of dialogue appears clear to seek an ‘ontological parity’ between different knowledge producers and perspectives, particularly between the Global South and the West. In this context, quoting Kimberly Hutchings (2011), Eun argued that dialogue should not be “a mere exchange or encounter that is already ‘staged and scripted’ by the mainstream (namely the West and positivists in the case of IR); as such, it could turn out to be ‘a piece of rhetorical bullying’” (Eun 2020d, 19).

As argued by Navnita Chadha Behera, “Global IR underlines the need to recognize the diversity of our world, seek common ground and resolve conflicts, but sidesteps the fundamental question of the terms of such interactions [between the Western and the non-Western worlds]” (Behera 2021, 1589). Regarding this rule-of-engagement of critique levelled against Global IR, Eun suggested an ‘instrumentalist’ approach to mainstream IR theories, which is worth elaborating at length:

Even if the ‘losers’ [the non-Western marginalized] show great interest in dialogue, it is ‘not reciprocated by the [Western] mainstream’. Given this reality, non-Western IR scholars need to initiate dialogue, and, as a first step, we should attempt to find and expand points of contact with our Western counterparts. One way to do so is to take existing Western IR theories as a starting point for contact. This is an ‘instrumentalist’ approach to having dialogue in the present Western-centric state of IR. … our theoretical inputs or historical stories are likely to remain disparate or neglected if we do not succeed in sparking considerable interest and attention among ‘Western’ IR scholars. Given their social and geopolitical incentives and motivations, the major concerns of Western IR scholars, particularly those sceptical of the broadening IR project, are primarily with existing Western IR theories and histories. As such, in order to initiate dialogue, our efforts to advance non-Western perspectives on international relations should be interlocked with existing IR knowledge claims, no matter how Western-centric their underlying epistemic or normative foundations are. This ‘instrumentalist’ approach to existing IR theories, in which these theories are used critically or complimentarily from non-Western perspectives, can motivate Western IR scholars to listen more carefully to non-Western voices, which can in turn open up possibilities for dialogue between Western and non-Western IR scholars. (Italics: my emphasis) (Eun 2020a, 102).

Eun provided an illustrative case which Western-centric constructivist IR theory interweaved with ideas and experiences derived from East Asian history, in line of knowledge accumulation in the positivist sense of causality (Eun 2020a, 103-108). This instrumental approach at first blush looks a very effective tool for preventing fragmentation while pluralizing IR or doing Global IR. Nonetheless, Eun’s instrumental approach seems in conflict with the notion of dialogue. Since the instrumental approach is premised on maintaining existing Western-centric IR theories as a default starting point (or rule) for engagement between the West and the Rest, it is very likely to produce the ‘staged and scripted’ dialogue that is sought to be avoided. Who decides on what counts as legitimate, valuable, and good ideas/experiences derived from the non-Western world? Can this staged and scripted dialogue by Western-centric positivist IR theories assure an ontological parity between the West and the Rest in IR knowledge production and travel? Eun’s instrumental approach may result in a kind of ‘division of labor’ in the global field of IR. The West acts as ‘the’ IR theory producer, whereas the Rest serves as useful data providers for Western IR theories. In other words, the Rest risk being “little more than a provider of ‘unique regional independent variables’ to the mainstream positivist IR theories” (Seo and Cho 2021, 634). Indeed, Eun once mentioned that “historicised research and local knowledge can add depth and sophistication to existing (Western-centric) IR theory by specifying its boundary and scope conditions. Taken as a whole, both sides learn, and our knowledge thus improves” (Eun 2020a, 105). While the Rest’s gaining some knowledge, it will be difficult for them to diversify away from Western-centric IR scholarship and unlearn Western-centrism in a meta-theoretical sense. Rather, the Western-centrism is deepened and expanded. Doing Global IR by using the instrumental approach may end up with the project only occupying a small, allotted space within the Western-centric IR mainstream. In this sense, the Global IR project can only be globalized up to the boundaries set up by the West. There is thus a danger of producing a more hegemonic IR studies, rather than becoming post-hegemonic in IR knowledge production. Contrary to his intention, Eun’s instrumental approach is inadvertently complicit in reproducing and fortifying Western-centrism.

Notably, Eun’s strategy for doing Global IR is plural; he does not confine himself to this instrumental approach. In unpacking the dynamics of a relatively weak Southeast Asian state actor’s agency in a multiplex world, Eun joined other regional scholars in calling for an “open-ended analytic eclecticism” as an alternative methodological scheme (Eun 2021, 37), which refines and further develops Sil’s and Katzenstein’s well-known analytic eclecticism (Sil and Katzenstein 2010). According to Eun, analytic eclecticism should be “a provisional and pluralistic analytical approach to the study of why and how weak actors behave as they do”, rather than simply mixing and matching existing IR theories to explain how actors – particularly weaker ones – behave in a world often dominated by great power politics (Eun 2021, 375). For instance, although it is believed by mainstream IR that hedging is a widely-used, rigorous concept, it does not explicate and capture “subtle but important differences between those [Southeast Asian] weak states’ agency or behaviour” in the region (Eun 2021, 378). It is necessary to resist ‘the ready application’ of conventional theories, concepts, factors, and logical schemes, while adopting a multicausal mode of inquiry that is open to multiple theoretical reasonings. This upgraded notion of analytic eclecticism has academic and policymaking merit, particularly relating to the sophistication of existing Western-centric theories and a weaker state’s behavior in the Westphalian world. Moreover, Eun’s open-ended analytic eclecticism seems to better empower weaker powers than his instrumental approach in real world politics. Unfortunately, open-ended analytic eclecticism faces an uphill battle in making IR studies truly plural and equitable; rather, it may end up creating only pluralization within the positivist mainstream IR. Like his instrumental approach, Eun’s open-ended analytic eclecticism may fall into the same trap of reproducing Western-centrism, because it only appears to attempt to operate within the parameters of conventional positivist IR theoretical perspectives, and does not provide for dialogue with meta-theoretically different alternatives such as post-positivist or post-Western IR. Eun is clearly aware of this point, and has explained that it is necessary not to be limited to positivist ontology and epistemology when making sense of the international (Eun 2021, 379).

Building on this work, Eun has recently made a qualitatively different move. First, he urged scholars to rethink the ways in which the issues of epistemology (i.e. the “science question”) are addressed in IR studies, for the sake of rectifying IR’s parochialism. From this perspective, doing Global IR is not simply a quest for geographical diversity but rather a realization of epistemological plurality (Eun 2022, 116). Global IR scholars should not box themselves into a particular positivist sense of ‘scientific’ knowledge. This requires nurturing of solidarity with other marginalized peers, including the post-positivists, “in order to build wide avenues in which not only positivist (i.e. causal-explanatory) inferences, but also critical and normative theorising and historicised, ethnographically attuned approaches are all accepted as different but equally “scientific” ways of knowing in IR” (Eun 2022, 117). This position differs from his previously articulated instrumental approach and open-ended analytic eclecticism, both of which accept mainstream positivist epistemology as the foundational grammar of doing Global IR.

Eun has also sought “critical self-reflection and collective collaboration among marginalised scholars”, which he calls a “reflexive solidarity” as a way of moving “a step closer toward achieving a “truly” pluralistic and global IR” (Eun 2022, 120). He has proposed ‘autoethnography’ as a method of forming this reflexive solidarity in the field of IR. By way of autoethnography, an IR scholar can reveal stories of “their everyday lived experiences, be they achievements or frustrations, to understand, critique, and change the current parochial state of IR” (Eun 2022, 119). The idea is to evoke empathy and solidarity among people as positional beings in the matrix of power – the world – in which we are living on a daily basis. This method has often been used in anthropology and sociology, and it has recently been adopted by some critical IR scholars (Kavalski 2022; Inayatullah 2011). Thinking of IR using an “I” that is already and always situated in certain temporal-spatial contexts requires different attitudes and on openness to the cultivation of effective habits, in terms of IR knowledge production and travel. It is more than what to theorize (contents); it is more about where – geographically, meta-theoretically, politically, socially, economically, and so on (positionality) – and who (mindsets and attitudes) to theorize. As a means of decolonizing Western-centric South Korean IR studies, Eun’s autoethnography seems to be far better and more ethical than his instrumental approach and open-ended analytic eclecticism, as it allows the colonized to experience “a painful process involving the practice of self-critique, self-negation, and self-rediscovery, but the desire to form a less coerced and more reflexive and dignified subjectivity necessitates it” (Chen 2010, 3).

In short, the Global IR turn is a welcome movement to pluralize current IR studies, which are largely still embedded in parochial Western-centrism. Although it is relatively easy to agree on why we should globalize IR, yet it is difficult to answer the question of how to globalize. Yong-Soo Eun, a leading figure of the Global IR turn in South Korea, has squarely tackled the issue of ‘how’, by suggesting three ways: an instrumental approach, open-ended analytic eclecticism, and autoethnography. Although the former two may be or become complicit in reproducing Western-centrism by virtue of their meta-theoretical premises (which are akin to positivism), the critical and reflexive ethos embedded in autoethnography may reveal novel ways of decolonizing the non-West’s ingrained and often not-so-visible Western-centrism.


The South Korean IR community is increasingly aware of the problems associated with West-centrism in their knowledge production. The community seeks to become a distinctive and independent knowledge producer, even an IR theory maker on par with their Western peers. This article has explored three sites in which the quests for a more independent, more global, and non/less Western-centric IR knowledge production currently playing out: 1) within the universalist Korean school of IR; 2) within South Korean middle power diplomacy narratives; 3) within the appropriation of Global IR turn by South Korean IR. Despite their intention, it is argued that there is a pitfall, for all three sites, of reproducing and furthering Western-centrism in South Korean IR studies.

Much like racism or sexism, Western-centrism is not outright explicit, though it nevertheless exists in subliminal and subtle ways. Western-centrism in IR knowledge production in particular often goes unnoticed even when explicit attempts are made to overcome it. It is thus inadvertently reproduced. This process takes on different forms; epistemological, teleological, and complicit forms, in case of South Korean IR’s quests for non/less-Western-centric IR knowledge production. It should be noted that Western-centrism is “an intellectual habit/practice” rather than academic truth or knowledge per se (Sabaratnam 2020, 168). This habit subconsciously leads us to take it for granted that the West/America is the only, perhaps best, universal reference point of our thought and deed in knowledge production as well as the everydayness. It also tends to get South Korean IR studies to unwittingly involve in the politics of recognition between the colonizer (the West/America) and the colonized (the Rest/South Korea), which is bound up with the colonized’s hidden desire to become the colonizer. This is an unquenchable desire of a subject transfixed with its self-relegated inferiority, which facilitates the West’s hierarchical and even violent governance. To a large extent, the continuation of Western-centrism – which is binary, hierarchical, unjust, and violent – is not simply a forced imposition on the non-West by the West, but is repeatedly co-produced by both entities. The time has come to disengage from the colonized-driven politics of recognition toward the colonizer, and re/engage with different IR registers in which we cultivate non/less-hegemonic and non/less-dominating knowledge.

What is essential here is to decolonize our Western-centric habits in the intellectual, personal, and institutional spheres. Intellectually, we may consider engaging two processes concurrently. We must decenter and unlearn the language of hegemonic IR, as we excavate marginalized voices and stories silenced by hegemonic IR’s historiography in a non-essentialist way. This will allow us to reinterpret, rearticulate, and re-celebrate ideas of the non-West and the West on an equal footing. These ideas are ontologically different but equal, and the condition for their dialogue should be based on ontological parity. The West is one of many valuable possibilities of our life-world, our critical appropriation of the West is necessary and desirable. We note, however, that Western-centrism should be rejected without simply discarding the West. At a personal level, we should perpetually reflect on how we speak and act (attitude) in our daily lives as well as in our professonal capacity, which is focused on theorization of IR (contents), since the personal is inevitably the political. Our daily and academic habits inform theorization and theory travel, and vice versa. Autoethnography may be a good tool for examining who/where we are, what we do, and how/when we do, as these ideas relate to the entire process of knowledge production. In addition, although it does not produce a theory per se, autoethnography may create a reflexive and caring mood that helps IR scholars adopt and embody an ethos that creates room for the solidarity of (particularly marginalized) scholars nearby and afar. Solidarity and support are inseparable from more dialogic and non/less-hegemonic knowledge production. Institutionally, IR scholars all are in the rat-race matrix of neoliberal systems that embodies job hiring/security, research evaluation, teaching performance, university administration and ranking, funding opportunities, state policy of education, etc. This matrix makes human conditions more inhumane and more oppressive. This will not change overnight and it will not change only thanks to the efforts of a few. Nonetheless, resistance is conceivable, doable, and desirable, since the seemingly formidable matrix is not completely totalizing. Resistance happens only within; we cannot do it from outside the matrix. To some extent of course, we are complicit in reproducing the very matrix we squarely problematize. Perhaps resistance must therefore be incremental and tedious rather than transformative to change the matrix for the better we imagine. Nonetheless, we continue to do trivial things, such as caring for junior and less fortunate peers and students, taking issue with unjust yet unnoticed practices inside and outside our work place, questioning ourselves about our complicity in the matrix, and cultivating new habits and attitudes that contribute to a more ethical society. Emancipation begins with the trivial.

In conclusion, decolonization – or decolonizing the discipline – is not a final destination to be soon arrived at, but a never-ending process of unlearning hegemonic languages and systems, of imaging and crafting different, more just, less violent life-worlds, and of critically questioning ourselves as we relate to others and surroundings. In this process, as argued by Krishna (2017, 109), we need to bear three things in mind: “the continued salience of Eurocentrism in our knowledge practices, the difficulties of writing and thinking outside Eurocentrism, and the political necessity of doing just that in order to better our real and scholarly worlds.”

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