Diplomacy is more than words
How many notable diplomats can we name out of Korea’s 5,000-year history?
Seo Hui could be one, who cut a deal with Khitan troops to withdraw from Goryeo without bloodshed. There was also Yi Ye from the Joseon Dynasty court who crossed the East Sea more than 40 times to safely bring home 667 Korean captives taken by Japanese invaders.
In the modern day, Ban Ki-moon has made his home country proud by skillfully managing the role of secretary-general of the United Nations since 2007.
It’s quite embarrassing that there are only a handful of names we can come up with among the list of diplomats in a country that has had to maneuver to survive among foreign powers for thousands of years. It is a wonder that a monarchy survived the longest period in Asia despite its unimpressive diplomatic record.
But, in fact, it should be no surprise. Diplomacy can be seen differently from inside and out. Diplomatic prowess comes from national power. A small and weak country like ours must inevitably be practical, at times even opportunistic, in order to subsist. There have been few opportunities to groom and exercise impressive diplomatic mastery and masters. We can hardly crown Joseon Dynasty statesman Choi Myung-gil the title as a great diplomat for pursuing practical diplomacy and kowtowing to the Qing Dynasty before he willingly offered to be a captive to the new Chinese power.
But the outside view of the Korean diplomatic track record can be different. In fact, Korea has mastered the art of practical diplomacy. James Palais, a former professor at the University of Washington and an expert on Korean studies, wrote that Korea’s dynasties lasted despite the presence of mighty Chinese empires, and continued foreign threats were not coincidental or fortuitous. Korea’s disadvantageous and sometimes dangerous geographic and geopolitical location actually served as its strength all thanks to practical statecraft.
The reasoning sounds persuasive when put forward by a renowned foreign scholar, but it doesn’t come across the same when stated by a Korean foreign minister.
Foreign Affairs Minister Yun Byung-se found himself in a hot water after he said Korea being sandwiched between two superpowers - China and the United States - should not be considered a dilemma but instead a “blessing.” He was advocating for Seoul’s fence-sitting diplomacy upon being courted by both Washington and Beijing. If you ask me, Seoul has not done well nor poorly.
Some argue Korea could have had better negotiating power and a better stake if it had not delayed joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) until the last minute. But it is naive to think Beijing would have increased our share beyond our entitlement if we had rushed. Some argue South Korea could have pushed for infrastructure investment by the bank in North Korea if it had joined earlier. But North Korea cannot be on the priority list when China has more urgent plans to modernize its southern region. South Korea will likely receive an expected stake in the bank regardless of the timing of its joining and may be able to gradually persuade Beijing to pay attention to North Korea. Britain’s surprise joining could have been the big push, but by and large the timing could not have been better as it served the nation and at the same time saved face for Washington.
The controversy over Washington’s plan to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system on Korean soil was misleading from the beginning. It is a matter of deploying an U.S. anti-missile system, not purchasing it. The United States is bringing it at its cost to protect its own soldiers. We are just getting extra protection.
Since China is strongly opposed, we just have to look the other way. It can be “strategically ambiguous.” But the defense minister ruined the ambiguity by talking about it. The ruling party went overboard by discussing the matter as a policy in the assembly. What country puts a strategic arms deployment plan to a vote?
It is a pity that the incumbent diplomatic team has not improved Korea and Japan’s relationship for fear of upsetting the president. But it is understandable considering reckless behavior by Tokyo’s administration. Still Yun should have been discreet. He may have wanted to raise the morale of fellow diplomats, but diplomacy is different from politics. It must be expressed via work and results, not words.
U.S. historian Will Durant famously said, “To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.”
JoongAng Ilbo, April 4, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom