Bolstering public diplomacy

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Bolstering public diplomacy

I recently paid a visit to the so-called “enemy cemetery,” where unidentified bodies and remains of North Koreans and Chinese have been since the armistice in 1953. During her state visit to Beijing last month, President Park Geun-hye offered to return the remains of 367 Chinese soldiers buried in the graves along the hillside in Paju, south of the heavily-guarded demilitarized zone. The government has uncovered scattered remains of North Koreans and Chinese killed during the war and buried them in the plot of land called “Cemetery for North Korean and Chinese soldiers.”

The cemetery is not that far from the capital. The two sections of the graveyard are divided by a vegetable field with the ambience of a typical countryside.

The sound of a cannon firing from a nearby training camp interrupted the otherwise peaceful scenery, a rude reminder where the location was - not far from the border line, the world’s last cold war frontier. I discovered some white flowers on a tomb in the Chinese section. They were laid in front of a tomb identified simply with No. 294.

They were probably a gift from the three Chinese elderly visitors who had taken part in the 1950-53 Korean War and have been invited to Seoul by a Korea-China cultural society earlier this month. They lit the incense and lay down the flowers, murmuring that the Korean War had been a war which should not have taken place. They obviously did not agree with the Chinese propaganda calling the Korean War as a war of justice. One Chinese person wrote “Thank you” under an online article reporting on their visit.

Last week, the Korea Foundation and the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs jointly hosted the 18th Korea-China Future Forum in Seoul. The 10-member Chinese delegation spent a day after the seminar visiting Beomeosa Temple in Busan. When asked why Beomeosa, out of all the temples in Korea, the delegation simply said it’s for cultural exchange purposes. The Chinese can build an understanding of Korean Buddhism while the temple likewise can learn about China from the visitors, one member said.

I, however, thought of the Dalai Lama, the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism who poses a major headache for China because of his role in the Tibetan independence movement.

Three years ago, the Busan-based ancient temple played a part in arranging a meeting between Korean Buddhists and the Dalai Lama in Tokyo. The Chinese visitors may have thought that they should make some connection with the temple leaders for a better future.

The Korea-China Cultural Association’s invitation of Chinese veterans who fought against South Korea on the side of the North and the Chinese delegation to the Korea-China Future Forum to Beomeosa have one thing in common: public diplomacy. Public diplomacy includes a wide array of government-sponsored cultural, educational, informational programs, civilian exchanges and private activities and uses of soft power to communicate better and win the hearts of other nationals, eventually impacting foreign policy and national interests. It should not be mistaken with propaganda as public diplomacy is based on facts and truth.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited 10 Chinese citizens who were popular Internet bloggers. Their blogs and tweets are followed by as many as 90 million Chinese, underscoring their strong influence on the public opinion in China. Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and daughter of former President Li Xiannian, had been in Seoul this week and lectured on the theme of the Chinese dream to students at a university in Seoul.

President Park Geun-hye reignited rivalry in public diplomacy in the two countries during her visit to China. She set a model case in public diplomacy ­- which is practiced usually through publicity by the state summit, public relations through media and diplomacy through the humanities sector. In her state visit to China, she demonstrated diverse and refined skills in public diplomacy by using adequate Chinese quotes and comments.

Park was warmly welcomed by waving Xian residents when she made her first visit to the Qin Terracotta Warrior museum as South Korea’s president. She enjoyed near-celebrity popularity during her stay in China. It is her biggest feat to draw so much interest from the Chinese, who are traditionally more close to the communist North Koreans. Park and her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, said in a joint statement that the two countries will create a public diplomacy forum, sparking a two-way competition to win the hearts of the people in both countries.

We are, however, behind the Chinese in the public diplomacy front. The Chinese learned the importance of public diplomacy when they faced an international boycott movement during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In the following year, the country’s most prestigious universities - Beijing University and Tsinghua University - created public diplomacy and management departments in their campuses. South Korea named its first envoy on public diplomacy in 2011 and created an academic course on public diplomacy and policy only last year.

Diplomacy should no longer be restricted to the public domain of career diplomats. We must all be ready to play the role as diplomats in our social positions. We all represent the country and should watch our words and behavior as they all can amount to our national identity.

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul
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