Haste makes wasteDuring the presidential debate on Sunday, the candidates wasted their time on trivial matters rather than addressing foreign policy concerns and other important issues that will decide the future of our nation. No one knows what the outcome will be of the election to be held in two weeks, but one thing is certain: the next president will take on the Gordian knot of foreign policy challenges soon after taking office.
South Korea is entangled in serious issues with three out of four neighboring powers, Russia being the exception. With the United States, Seoul needs to discuss its expense contribution to regional security and its free trade agreement while working together to overcome the North Korean nuclear crisis. With China, the country is experiencing discord over deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system, and with Japan, the so-called comfort women statues remain an issue. It is unprecedented that an incoming president will face such a multitude of challenges at one time.
A greater burden is that the president will have to attend the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7 and 8, less than two months after inauguration. It is international custom for the new president to have the first bilateral meetings with the leaders of the United States, China and Japan. It sounds like a great opportunity, but the G-20 summit could be poisonous. The new president is hard-pressed for time. The meetings could look like congenial talks over dinner, but it takes thorough working-level preparations for two state leaders to have an amicable meeting. A former official in South Korea’s Foreign Ministry says it takes at least two months and sometimes as long as six months to prepare.
We don’t have that much time. Park Geun-hye appointed Yun Byung-se as foreign affairs minister 14 days after her inauguration. But as the next president doesn’t have a transition time to vet candidates, it could take longer to finalize the appointment. In that case, the ministry needs to prepare for three summit meetings with the United States, China and Japan in a month. In Donald Trump’s administration, the post in charge of Korean affairs is still vacant, and Seoul does not know who to talk to.
Nevertheless, the new president will be eager to fly to Washington as soon as possible to meet with Trump. The summit will show the solid alliance between the two countries and be a chance to discuss various pending matters. One candidate said during the debate that he would meet with the U.S. president when elected.
But haste spoils the work. The meeting between Korean President Kim Dae-jung and U.S. President George W. Bush in March 2001 shows how disastrous a makeshift summit could be. Kim was so eager to inform Bush about his so-called Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea that the Foreign Ministry arranged the meeting in Washington less than two months after Bush’s inauguration.
Naturally, problems arose due to lack of preparation. Kim met with Bush without knowing how much he hated North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. So his rhetoric of helping North Korea was not convincing. In the end, the meeting turned out to be the worst South Korea-U.S. summit in history. The American media reported Bush gave inhospitable treatment to Kim Dae-jung. Then-Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn and Vice Minister Ban Ki-moon had to resign in the aftermath. At a seminar in Washington five days after the summit, Korean affairs experts in the United States concluded that the South Korean government brought failure to itself by rushing the meeting.
The new president should learn from this mistake. If a progressive candidate is elected, there will be more pressure to go to Washington. The president might want to rush in order to avoid opponents labeling the administration as “anti-American.” But if the president falls into the trap and goes to Washington unprepared, there will be greater disaster. Since the next president will take office soon after election, the candidates must start preparing for summit diplomacy. Only then will they be prepared and informed when meeting with foreign leaders.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 25, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.