Diplomatic winds of change

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Diplomatic winds of change

Diplomacy is like a fata morgana. It’s there, but the next moment it’s gone. Much of that has to do with the fact that the results are often either intangible or remain unclear until after the issue has passed. That’s why it’s never easy to chart the course for a nation. Politicians who have a short fuse but no vision will often criticize a government’s decision to try scoring brownie points with ignorant voters over unpopular decisions. When that happens, the government will either cave in or hold its course, depending on which way the winds of public support are blowing.

In South Korea’s case, the change of administration in the Blue House resulted in a general shift in policy from liberal to conservative. Talking to diplomats and experts here, the change seems to have translated into progress for the country on the diplomatic front. In particular, the administration’s diplomatic policies are more consistent than they have been in the past, and the administration has been able to implement a new school of thought.

North Korea

When President Lee Myung-bak punched his presidential ticket with a hefty dose of hard-line policies toward the North, it was clear that the free flow of rice and fertilizer aid that had helped sustain the regime in the North for the past decade would come to a halt. But nobody knew how consistent that approach would be. Well, here we are two years later and the policy still stands. Many North Korean observers say that in the spring the North may be facing a food crisis similar to the one they had in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid from the United States and the international community has also dried up. Coupled with the bad weather conditions this winter, the coming year will be critical.

The only X factor is China. But with Beijing refusing to reveal how much trade it does with the North, there is a high possibility that North Korea will survive - again. Still, Seoul’s policy of not providing aid to Pyongyang without improvement on the nuclear front has put the onus squarely on Beijing. If China ever decides to close the main roads at Dandong, which have served as a lifeline to Pyongyang, it will be interesting to see how North Korea reacts. If China doesn’t close the roads, it will hardly escape the criticism from the states in the six-party talks, and that would put a huge question mark on its role in the region.

Overseas deployments

This government has tried to strike a different tone when it comes to overseas deployments. The Lee administration has done a better job than its predecessors of pitching overseas troop deployment as a duty for a nation that is seeking a bigger role on the international stage. That’s how it should be played in the future as well. Trying to fit everything under the Washington alliance umbrella may have worked in the past, but those days are gone now. A younger generation far removed from the Korean War is certainly more interested in asserting its own voice in the diplomatic arena than blindly following old principles established by a bunch of fossilized officials. Yet, trying to cherry-pick assignments is still not a very good idea. That there were no casualties in the Iraq deployment - the country’s first large-scale deployment after the Vietnam War - is a stroke of luck that is bound to expire very soon. Also, sending troops only to safe regions is going to earn you a smirk at best from other nations that are shedding actual blood for somebody else. Meanwhile, it is encouraging to hear that a bill aimed at deploying South Korean troops for UN PKO missions has been passed by the National Assembly. It shows the country is realizing, albeit very slowly, that economic clout will only take it so far when it comes to gaining true international recognition.


How to get beyond the shared history between the two sides is the million dollar question that has plagued the bilateral relationship between Korea and Japan since the country gained independence from Japan in 1945. The two have a good trade relationship and a vibrant cultural exchange, but the wounds of the past have never really healed. On the domestic front, after the normalization of ties between the two countries in 1965, South Korea failed to clean up its own past by not punishing those Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese. A half century on, the issue lingers in Korean society, providing a constant reminder of past injustices. Add to that Japan’s failure to realize it can’t move the hearts of its neighbors as long as it refuses to acknowledge its wrongdoings, and it’s safe to say that the two will never have a relationship like that enjoyed between Germany and France after World War II. That will also make it difficult for countries to accept Japan taking any kind of leadership role in the region. The Lee administration has to tread carefully, but this year is the 100th anniversary of Korea being forcefully annexed to Japan as a colony, which presents a golden opportunity to lay the kind of groundwork that could give the next administration a chance at a more constructive future.


Being a minister in Korea is a blessing and a curse, and the biggest drawback is the unofficial rule that rarely grants more than a year in the position. The case of Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, then, is unprecedented. President Lee gave him a vote of confidence that may result in Yu holding on to his position for another year, giving him a full three years in the job, which is unheard of. The last time that happened was during former Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon’s tenure, when President Roh Moo-hyun made the strategic decision to let Ban hold onto his job to increase his chances of getting the UN secretary general position. Plotting foreign policy requires strategic planning, and having the same person in the driver’s seat is probably a good idea for consistency.

On a different note, Korea joined the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which will help it to shed its image as a less-than-generous nation. One would hope this will pressure Seoul to open its coffers and help others. Although this may be an effective tool that allows the country to expand its interests abroad, its success depends on how well the government can educate the public about why giving to others is a good idea.

Meanwhile, President Lee has gotten it into his head that getting as many FTA deals done as possible is a good idea. Good. As an export-driven economy, exploring new markets is helpful. If he could close the Korea-U.S. FTA deal he would have a diplomatic home run and the legacy he’s been looking for.

By the way, I don’t put much stock into Korea’s hosting the G-20 summit. I think the country has collected enough international event trophies. I think it’s time to man up and do more for others rather than constantly seeking approval from the world. The key idea here: proactive diplomacy.

By Brian Lee [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
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