Diplomacy in disarray
It’s been three months since Park Geun-hye was impeached and suspended from office, but our daily lives have gone on regardless, people remark sarcastically.
In 1997, financial policy makers assured that Korea’s economic fundamentals were solid, but then the country was hit by a foreign currency crisis. The incompetent public servants were helpless, and state affairs were put at risk.
It is not just the economy. Foreign policy and security are very sensitive realms. Once they collapse, the damage is irreversible.
Right now, Korea is helpless. The prime minister is acting as president, but if he gets involved in a full-fledged way, he would be acting beyond his authority. Since the president has been suspended from her job, other countries are delaying negotiations on sensitive issues until the administration changes.
The circumstances are quite overwhelming. Pyongyang says it has virtually completed nuclear weapons development, which is irreversible. Missiles can target not only the Korean Peninsula but also Japan and the U.S. mainland. Korea is yet to set a basic direction. As a new administration has begun in the United States and sets the frame of foreign policy, we lack an entity to reflect our position.
The government simply decided on deployment of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system without persuading local residents or reaching a consensus among politicians. The defense ministers of Korea and the United States confirmed that Thaad will be deployed as planned. But the opposition’s presidential contender, Moon Jae-in, demands that the decision be given to the next administration. China is issuing threats and pressure, putting Korea-China relations on shaky ground.
Korea-Japan relations are also in jeopardy. Washington has urged Seoul and Tokyo to conclude the thorny “comfort women” issue, but a deeper quagmire followed. The Japanese government gave 1 billion yen ($8.79 million) to Seoul, but both parties did not clarify what the money was for or whether they promised to relocate the statues representing victims of sexual slavery. Meanwhile, Japan’s ambassador to Korea was temporarily called back, creating a diplomatic vacuum.
The threats from China and Japan are out of line. The statue issue should be addressed over time, taking Korean people’s sentiment into account. Japan knows that its pressure will only instigate anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans and make matters worse. But many suspect Japan enjoys the uncomfortable relationship for domestic political reasons as it pushes more aggressively while the Korean president is off-duty.
China’s restrictions on Korean culture are violent. They demand submission by controlling tourism and encouraging boycotts. Our diplomatic accomplishment of friendlier ties with Beijing amid challenges of division seem to have been thrown into the trash can. Arrogant Qing-era Sinocentrism seems to have returned. One retired Chinese officer talked of a “precision strike” on the Thaad site.
But emotions have no place in diplomacy. We can only get the desired outcome when we are in control and endure hardships. It is hard for Korea to enjoy prosperity when tension with our neighbors is elevated. Nevertheless, our politicians are taking advantage of the people’s anger for domestic politics. They commit dangerous acts and speak incendiary words while the president is absent and as an early presidential election is likely.
Last month, the White House national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after his contact with Russia was revealed. Before Donald Trump was inaugurated, Flynn discussed lifting sanctions on Russia with its ambassador to the United States without Washington’s approval when he was still a civilian. He also lied about it.
The Logan Act states that only citizens authorized by the president of the United States can represent the nation and negotiate with other countries. Negotiating without prior permission of the government is subject to treason. While no one has been indicted for violation of the law, it has been a principle of U.S. diplomacy. At least when it comes to conflict among nations, Americans believe it is the best way to protect national interests.
A similar controversy occurred when some Korean opposition lawmakers visited China earlier this year. There has to be ample domestic discussion on diplomatic issues. There are times when lawmakers need to engage in diplomacy. But it would be much better for them to have sufficient consultation with the government when national interests are at stake.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 6, Page 31
*The author is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.