May has been the cruelest month for Korean foreign policy, especially from the standpoint of domestic politics. Both the ruling and opposition parties are calling the Park Guen-hye administration’s foreign policy a fiasco and are recommending foreign minister Yoon Byung-se to step down. The Park Administration has been criticized for lacking a foreign policy strategy, being too rigid, incompetent and lacking any understanding of regional situations. It is also accused of being self-centered and self-praising. According to a JoongAng Ilbo survey on May 6, 67.7 percent of specialists and 47 percent of the public consider Korea’s diplomacy to be in a crisis. That is a harsh assessment of the foreign policy of the Park administration.
Although there are various reasons, there are two fundamental problems. The first is a failure to recognize that Northeast Asia is in turmoil. The second is the failure in foreign policy with Japan. The politicians’ criticisms focuses on the latter. They ask what the government is doing when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington, whitewashes Japan’s wartime misdeeds, including the comfort women issue, and embarks on a new honeymoon relationship with the United States. While pursuing aggressive diplomacy and having a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to mark the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, President Park took a leisurely tour of South America, so far from home and the diplomatic dilemmas of our region.
This criticism is rather unfair. Korea’s foreign ministry had no way of preventing a Japanese prime minister’s visit to the U.S. or of keeping Washington and Tokyo apart. This is not simply the success of Japan’s lobbying efforts or the pro-Japan Chrysanthemum Club in Washington. As University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings pointed out recently, the United States has traditionally put more emphasis on Japan than Korea. Meddling in relations between two countries is a serious diplomatic discourtesy. The same goes for China. If Xi Jinping wants to prioritize current interests over historic issues and meet Abe, what can Korea do?
Minister Yoon was not wrong to say the Korea-U.S. alliance and U.S.-Japan alliance are not a zero-sum game. Basically, the purpose of the Korea-US alliance is deterrence against North Korea, and the US-Japan alliance is to check China. The meeting between Chinese and Japanese leaders is not so bad since Korea wants to initiate a three-way summit meeting with both Japan and China. We should not interpret the actions as an attempt to isolate Korea diplomatically.
Here, what should Korea choose to do? Should we beg the United States and China to check Japan? As domestic pressure escalates, Korean diplomatic footing gets even narrower. Checking Japan cannot, and should not, be a diplomatic goal. It is a foolish mistake that hurts Korea more than anyone else.
This is not to say that the Park Geun-hye administration’s foreign policy is not faulty. The biggest crisis Korea is faced with is an aggravated inter-Korean relationship and North Korea’s nuclear threat. Having no breakthrough in this matter of life and death is the essence of our crisis, but the government has no plan or policy. If politicians want to criticize our foreign affairs and security policies, they need to address the essence of the crisis.
May was supposed to bring an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations. The Ministry of Unification is working hard for a breakthrough. On the 15th anniversary of the June 15 joint declaration, at least civilian exchanges should be resumed, and the ministry hopes to hold bigger joint events in August to mark the 70th anniversary of the division of Korea. In terms of the nuclear issue, the core of the “Korean formula” is to persuade North Korea to return to six-party talks by consultation among the five other members.
While the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Foreign Policy work hard on the North Korean issue, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) disclosed that North Korea’s Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol was executed. This was an off-beat move. When they succeed in demonizing the North Korean leader, it can only negatively affect inter-Korean relations. For the greater national interest, the accuracy of information and the appropriate timing for disclosures should be meticulously reviewed, but the chairman of the National Assembly intelligence committee and ruling and opposition party executives were busy broadcasting the news as if they were spokesmen for the NIS.
Things are not going the way they should. What can we expect from politicians who avoid the essence of our situation and resort to easy threats? If politicians are truly concerned, they need to straighten out their priorities and give constructive criticism to the government.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 18, Page 35
*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in