Practical diplomacy is Lee’s watchword
Avowedly more pro-U.S. than his predecessor, Lee is certain to want warmer relations and better communication between Washington and Seoul than seemed to be the case under Roh Moo-hyun, when relations sometimes grew testy with George W. Bush’s White House despite solid diplomatic achievements between the two long-standing allies.
In addition, the closer ties with North Korea forged by the liberal administration of Kim Dae-jung and Roh have transformed cross-border relations, and the policies of Lee’s right-wing Grand National Party are a far cry from the fiery anti-communism of the Cold War years in South Korea,
Lee will continue on a cooperative track with the North, even as he has pledged to pay more attention to human rights across the border and closely link aid to progress on several issues.
South Korea has permanent interests with both North Korea and the United States. Roh never broke ties with Washington ― his government sent troops to Iraq, negotiated a free trade agreement, cooperated on the six-party talks and carried out wide- ranging talks on the structure of U.S. forces in Korea.
Look for adjustments in these issues, not a revolution from the right.
Meanwhile, a new prime minister in Japan is giving the two old enemies an opportunity to heal strained relations over a painful shared history.
The chance for a better relationship with Tokyo is high enough that talks to resume the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, a strategic partnership between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to develop a common policy toward North Korea, have surfaced according to South Korean and U.S officials. Look for Lee to put less emphasis on the past in dealing with Tokyo.
With China having become Korea’s largest trading partner, members of Lee’s transition team have also insisted that bilateral relations with Beijing will only get better.
Lee’s drive to secure the country’s energy future has pushed the issue of strengthening ties with Africa and the Middle East to the forefront, while efforts to get closer to Moscow are also expected. Russia, long the least visible here of the four powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula, is potentially of vast importance should communication and transportation links be reestablished through North Korea and into Russia.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Lee’s policy approach is the desire to put the Foreign Ministry at the center of foreign affairs. Officials at the ministry are bracing for an enhanced role, especially if Lee’s desire to abolish the Unification Ministry eventually goes through while downgrading the power of the National Security Council.
Lee’s moves are expected to ease the bureaucratic struggle in Seoul over engagement with North Korea, an issue that has been dominated by the NSC and the Unification Ministry ― although still to be resolved is the question of whether negotiating with North Korea is a foreign affairs task, as the conservatives seem to suggest, or a domestic matter, as the constitution insists, since the separation of the peninsula is deemed to be a temporary matter.
Lee has stressed that he will link aid to the North not just to denuclearization but also to humanitarian and abductee issues. This shift has led many to hope that abandoning the “softly-softly” approach of not irritating Pyongyang, could allow greater harmony on nuclear issues between Seoul and Washington.
“The six-party talks process will be used as before but not confronting North Korea is a thing of the past,” said Grand National Lawmaker Park Jin, who served on Lee’s transition team.
“The most important thing is to remove the mistrust between Seoul and Washington that has built up over the last years and change that to mutual trust,” said Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University.
Foreign Ministry officials are happy with the changes. “I think there will be fewer surprises when devising strategies because we know that whatever guidelines we work out, there won’t be too much interference from the Blue House,” said Kim Hyeong-gil, an official at the ministry’s policy planning division.
“I think the extent to which the Roh administration wanted to distance itself from Washington put a strain on all things, even the good ones,” said an official who asked not to be named. “There are rules that everybody knows. At times [under Roh], we looked like amateurs.”
In the recent past, domestic politics certainly played a role whenever resolutions on North Korean human rights came up at the UN. In the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, Seoul voted in favor of a tough UN resolution, but last year chose to abstain, as it had done on votes prior to the nuclear test.
Also, after the nuclear test, Washington demanded that Seoul halt the Mount Kumgang tours and join a U.S.-led proliferation initiative. Seoul refused, its main argument being that it did not want to jeopardize inter-Korean relations. The Lee team will likely take a tougher line on such matters should the need arise.
When inter-Korean relations didn’t complicate relations with the U.S., the professional diplomats in the Foreign Ministry say that lack of communication and coordination by the Blue House also led to diplomatic gaffes.
Diplomats have long memories, and many officials still remember the regional “balancer role” advocated at the beginning of the Roh administration. Under that notion, Seoul was to use a combination of national power and soft power to act as a facilitator between Beijing and Tokyo as they vie for regional hegemony. Nowhere was the idea spelled out and it left many scratching their heads.
Former Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, had to fly to Washington himself to explain the concept to a perplexed Washington.
One Foreign Ministry official reflected: “I think the basic concept made sense for a country that has always been squeezed between the big players in the region, but how the idea was presented led to misunderstandings that killed the whole thing.”
Elected on the heels of anti-American protests in 2002, Roh clearly wanted Seoul to be less reliant on Washington, a stance that was popular with a sizable chunk of the electorate five years ago.
Thus, conservatives criticized Roh’s Blue House for damaging the alliance with the United States, although little substantive harm was done. In Washington, some of those at the center of dealing with Seoul have a less gloomy assessment of current relations, saying that despite the background noise of the last five years, relations are on a firm footing.
In an article in the December issue of Foreign Affairs, Victor Cha, who was a close advisor to President Bush on Korea until he left the White House’s National Security Council last year, said, “These gloomy predictions [of strained relations] have not come true. Washington and Seoul have made significant strides in improving relations.”
Cha cites the successful negotiations on moving U.S. bases, the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul and the free trade agreement to back his argument.
He pointed out Seoul’s dispatch of forces to Iraq as another achievement that enhanced the alliance. The deployment of the South Korean troops to Iraq in 2004 and the subsequent extensions in the National Assembly have been met with considerable opposition from Roh’s own party, but the troops remained in place anyway.
During Roh’s tenure, Washington also obtained an agreement from Seoul in January 2006 on the “strategic flexibility” of U.S. forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula, making it possible for Washington to use its troops here in other areas around the globe.
Taking a look at his Blue House chief secretaries, senior aides and potential cabinet members, it seems clear that Lee wants to conduct policy in way that minimizes misunderstandings with the U.S.
Almost half of Lee’s inner circle has studied in the United States including Kim Byung-kook, the chief secretary for foreign affairs and security. Foreign Minister-designate Yu Myung-hwan is considered an expert on bilateral relations with Washington, having once been director general of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau. His recent posting as ambassador to Tokyo is also said to have helped him get the job. “It is the president-elect’s desire to restore the relationship between the United States and Japan that we believe was damaged during the previous administration,” said an official with Lee’s Blue House, declining to be named, adding that Yu’s experience fit the bill.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has expressed the hope that both sides could mend ties, while Lee has said he does not oppose a visit to Korea by the Japanese emperor. “That does not mean that China will get less attention,” the official cautioned of a warmer attitude toward Tokyo. “We will continue what has worked before.”
Filling the ranks of his immediate policy advisors with U.S.-educated personnel would not have happened under Roh. Referring to government officials who were not in sync with him on policy towards the United States, Roh said in April 2005, “When you listen to them they appear to be even more pro-U.S. than Americans and that is tough for me. Since they lack the vision to see the big picture, they regard changes as inconvenient. Then they complain and misunderstand, talking nonsense.”
Those remarks, like many others made by the outspoken Roh during his term, sparked fears that he was taking aim at the Foreign Ministry.
At the time, then-Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon himself publicly attested to the ministry’s loyalty. “Inside the Foreign Ministry we do not have pro-U.S. factions,” Ban said at the time. “Regarding the South Korea-U.S., alliance some people might have a different feeling compared to the past. The alliance is right now in a transition period.”
Cho Ki-suk, who served as the ministry’s spokesman at the time, explained who the president was targeting. “They are the ones who speak English fluently, scholars and the media that do not represent what the average citizen thinks but only care about their own thoughts,” Cho said.
Practical diplomacy that emphasizes energy resources has been Lee’s mantra since his election, and it is one of the reasons veterans inside the diplomatic bureaucracy are pleased and anticipate an enhanced role.
The Foreign Ministry is preparing to increase the number of diplomatic missions and personnel abroad to strengthen the country’s efforts to develop energy sources, a government official said. Countries such as Congo and Cameroon have been eyed for new missions or an expansion of existing ones, Ma Young-sam, the director general of the ministry’s Africa and Middle East Affairs Bureau said. “It’s not only Africa but we are looking into expanding and differentiating our energy sources in other regions,” he said.
Han Seung-soo, the prime minister-designate, underlined the approach last week. “There needs to be a new school of thought on energy diplomacy,” said Han. “Instead of just importing energy we should use our development skills and human resources to establish a long-standing relationship with energy countries.”
By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [firstname.lastname@example.org]