[Outlook]A diplomatic way into the top 10

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[Outlook]A diplomatic way into the top 10

Attention has been focused on domestic politics since the beginning of this year due to the early kickoff of the 2007 presidential race as well as the president’s proposal for a constitutional amendment. Yet it is international rather than domestic factors that determine our national destiny. Although the burdens of economic hardship loom large in people’s minds, the significance of the geopolitical balance of power should not be neglected. History shows that has often been the most important factor.
Today’s world is at a historical turning point. As the role of the world’s sole superpower gradually developed after the end of the Cold War, many countries pursued a new international order and strived to maximize their national interests. The new diplomatic goal involves being the first to seize a strategic advantage. Pursuing practical goals differentiate the new era from the ideological shackles of the old days. The sudden cordial relationship between China and Japan reflects this trend: These countries are trying to promote their friendship, leaving behind their past relationship that focused on which one would seize hegemony over East Asia. This year, which is also the 35th anniversary of the amity between China and Japan, 20,000 Japanese are expected to visit China. Japan’s efforts under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to enhance its relationship with China are also expected to intensify this year. Meanwhile, Chinese State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan said, “the Sino-Japanese relations has entered a warm spring after the cold winter.” We welcome the rapprochement between our powerful neighbors, but we must also consider the orientation of Korean diplomacy.
The diplomatic staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a critical mission to maintain the security and honor of our country in the face of rapidly changing international politics. But that ministry is crucially short of human resources and financial support. Korea has 1,945 people employed in its foreign affairs department, whereas China has 7,100 and Japan 5,450. Among developed countries, The Netherlands, a middle-sized power, has 3,061 employees and Canada has 4,702. Many might assume that the number of people employed does not necessarily determine the quality of diplomatic service. Yet it does make a difference in the depth of expertise. In monetary terms, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Korea has annual expenditures that are equal to only 0.42 percent of the total government budget, whereas Belgium spends 1.9 percent, Australia 1.5, Canada 0.9 and Japan 0.86. The Swiss spend 3.7. These disparities are not caused by special circumstances in Korea. Rather, they reflect the insufficient understanding that our leaders and citizens possess with regard to the importance of diplomatic service.
Some people, often those who had to go through the aftermath of war and economic struggles since the establishment of Korea, have considered diplomats to occupy a special occupation that received excessive privileges as they worked in overseas countries. But now that the former minister of foreign affairs, Ban Ki-Moon, has become the secretary general of the United Nations, they have reevaluated the accomplishments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its staff and have become proud of them. Nevertheless, the ministry and its diplomats are criticized, as their service to our nationals is still incomplete and they do not satisfy the demands of tourists who now number 10 million per year and the more than 6.5 million Koreans who live overseas. People also seem obsessed with the score in the diplomatic war, always asking if we are winning or losing.
However, at this historical turning point, diplomats, politicians and all our citizens should understand the critical importance of diplomacy and its role in advancing Korea’s interests. All of us are required to give extensive support to our diplomatic service so that its performance can be improved.
The resolute endeavors of the ministry itself are primarily required in order to improve our diplomatic efforts. However, cooperation from those in different walks of life is also an imperative for this development. Particularly necessary is a substantial increase in the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Promises to boost the economy are everywhere in the presidential race. But I hope a president is elected who promises to develop the diplomatic resources of Korea as well its economy, so as to make Korea the 11th diplomatic powerhouse in the world, just as it is now the 11th largest economy. Then we can make the most of the international balance of power for practical purposes and then, maybe, we can ascend into the top 10 of economic superpowers.

*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hong-koo
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