On diplomatic scale, Seoul comes out on bottom

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On diplomatic scale, Seoul comes out on bottom

In his book “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives” (2000), Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as the U.S. National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, formulated a Eurasian geographical strategy for the United States.

The roughly 230-page book, published 15 years ago, viewed China as having great ambitions for hegemony and Japan as striving to challenge that global position. The Korean Peninsula, on the other hand, was simply described as a strategic location, reflecting the passiveness of Korean diplomacy that continues to this day.

Choi Young-jin, a professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies who formerly served as Seoul’s ambassador to Washington, argued that Korea is currently in a diplomatic “stalemate.”

“Looking back on our history, 500 years of the Joseon period (1392-1910) went by paying tribute to [neighboring countries], and after that until 1945, when the country became liberated from Japanese colonial rule, we were typically stripped of any diplomatic rights,” Choi said.

Joseon refers to the predecessor of modern-day Korea.

Until as late as the 1990s, after Seoul established diplomatic relations with Washington in 1949, Korea “didn’t necessarily need” to get involved in signing deals with other countries, he added, because its strongest ally, the United States, was the “sole variable” in regard to those agreements.

But things have changed. The time has come for Seoul to finally step up its game, yet it seems to hesitate in doing so.

“[Seoul must take advantage] of the ever-changing international environment by practicing diplomacy on a variety of levels, but the status quo shows how it’s stopping short at indulging in unilateral relationships,” the professor said.

In a recent JoongAng Ilbo survey asking 31 national and international political pundits about pragmatic diplomacy, Korea received the least amount of endorsement.

When asked which leader, either from Korea, the United States, China, Japan or Russia, displayed the best diplomatic prowess, no one named Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Chinese President Xi Jinping topped the list with 17 votes, followed by U.S. President Barack Obama with six, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with six and Russian President Vladimir Putin with two.

“Considering our domestic power and size, Korea has to be nimble-footed and take swift action,” said one of the Seoul dignitaries surveyed, speaking under the condition of anonymity. “Seoul critically lacks that skill.”

Another government official, who also wished to go unnamed, added that the problem with diplomatic strategies here is that authorities pay too much attention to formality, rather than practical interests.

In another survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo, nearly half (47 percent) of the 1,000 adult respondents nationwide said they thought Korean diplomacy was in “jeopardy.” Only 29 percent answered to the contrary.

As to how they would grade the Park government’s performance when it comes to foreign affairs and national security on a scale of 1 to 100, respondents answered 59.2, lower than the 61.9 from February.

In analyzing how Xi ended up on top in the JoongAng Ilbo survey, Moon Chung-in, a political science and diplomacy professor at Yonsei University, said the Chinese president was “more than a match” for Obama.

“The man has introduced the One Belt, One Road initiative, was the first to dispatch a rescue team when the earthquake broke out in Nepal and has also demonstrated efforts to get involved in the world’s hegemonic race for inshore marine public safety,” Moon said.

The One Belt, One Road initiative is a key part of Xi’s domestic economic and foreign policy that involves constructing a network of road and rail routes, oil and natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure projects connecting central China and Central Asia to ultimately reach as far as Moscow and Europe.

Moon added that Xi was cleverly taking on “multi-faceted roles” in his leadership in the global arena, which had proved to boost national interest.

In addition, Abe’s recent state visit to Washington, where he became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, had pundits here declaring that his trip showcased a celebration of economic and defense partnerships.

Abe also recently reached out to Beijing, initiating a bilateral meeting with Xi last month on the sidelines of the Asian African Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. Despite thorny diplomatic relations centered on strong criticism from Beijing toward Tokyo over its handling of sensitive historical issues, the two discussed various regional and economic matters.

Park has refused to hold a summit with her Japanese counterpart, claiming that Tokyo must first change its stance on the “comfort women” issue for bilateral talks to take place.

Comfort women is the euphemistic term used to describe the hundreds of thousands of young women and girls, mostly Korean, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Abe has yet to deliver an apology for his country’s wartime transgressions.

Kim Tae-hyo, a political science and diplomacy professor at Sungkyunkwan University who formerly served as a presidential secretary for foreign political strategy, said Abe is an “adroit” negotiator in that sense.

“Abe initially approached Seoul, but as things went into gridlock, he switched priorities to Beijing,” Kim said. “The shift was a smart one.”

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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