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Despite being urged and called upon by the United States to develop an Indo-Pacific strategy since 2017, South Korea showed signs of reluctance until the end of 2020, only officially announcing its strategy in 2022. This article aimed to clarify the reasons for South Korea’s ambiguity from 2017 to 2020 and the factors behind its transformation in the subsequent period. Utilizing the comparative analysis method and autonomous strategic theory, the article argued that South Korea shifted from a “strategic ambiguity” to a “strategic autonomy” to reduce dependence on China and the United States, asserting its position as a middle power. The results showed that before 2020, challenges from North Korea and economic relations with China made South Korea cautious about participating in the Indo-Pacific strategy. However, staying on the sidelines risked isolating it within the US alliance network. Meanwhile, concessions created opportunities for China to extend its influence over South Korea, even in cultural and social domains. Based on this, the article concluded that South Korea’s shift in approach to the Indo-Pacific region was necessary to affirm its middle power status.
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