What’s our diplomatic goal?

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What’s our diplomatic goal?


Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Austrian composer Johann Strauss II left many great pieces of music, including “The Blue Danube,” which expressed the beauty of the Danube River. Yet for Koreans, the river will forever strike a sorrowful chord in our hearts after a group of Korean tourists died last week in Budapest during a sightseeing boat ride.

A surprising lack of progress in search and rescue operations has been made since the tragedy on May 29. Korean officials dispatched to the scene cited the fast currents and near-zero visibility underwater as key reasons they and Hungarian rescuers could not dive into the river easily. But more importantly, Hungary and Korea have very different basic mind-sets when it comes to underwater rescues.

Hungarian divers don’t dive unless their safety is fully guaranteed. Korean divers, on the other hand, are willing to risk their lives, particularly when faced with tragedies like this one or the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy. ATV, a Hungarian television network, summed it up well when it recently pointed out that Koreans live at a fast tempo, so when they experience a major disaster like the Hableany’s sinking, they do their best to get to the bottom of the case. We tend to think that speedy responses are our competitive edge. But such an attitude doesn’t always play well in diplomacy. In reality, it often makes things worse.

The Korean government has a reputation for not moving an inch on anything before the Blue House gives the green light. That almost guarantees a long period of inertia. Take relations between Korea and Japan in the last few months as an example. Since Korea’s Supreme Court ruled late last year that two Japanese companies must compensate Korean laborers who were forced to toil in their factories during World War II, Seoul has refused to talk about the issue with Tokyo. That freeze lasted eight months. And now, succumbing to pressure from the U.S. government to work it out, Seoul is suddenly rushing to convince Tokyo to hold a bilateral leaders summit on the sidelines of a Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, later this month.

If President Moon Jae-in does manage to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G-20 summit, will they be able to speak in an amicable environment? Timing is important for everything. When it comes to summit meetings, a country’s bargaining power relies heavily on timing.

Even with China, Beijing’s retaliations against Seoul for its decision to deploy the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system have been felt for over two years largely because of Seoul’s ambiguous stance on the issue. With the conflict over fine dust pollution from China, too, the Korean government has never filed a serious complaint with Beijing to this date. That’s because the government lacks a sense of ownership over its own issues. It keeps passing the buck to the next administration.

The Moon Blue House also lacks clever presidential aides. Its latest idea for breaking the stalemate in denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea was to offer food aid to North Korea — a tactic already used 11 years ago.

Ariel Sharon, the former major-general in the Israeli Army who served as prime minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006, once said of Moshe Dayan, the late Israeli military leader and politician: “He would wake up with 100 ideas. Of them, 95 were dangerous; three more had to be rejected; the remaining two, however, were brilliant.”

Those brilliant ideas were perhaps what inspired Dayan to lead the Israeli military through its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, during which Dayan served as defense minister. The important question here is, does Moon have an aide like Dayan in his government? Not really.

South Korea lacks a diplomatic philosophy, which is a critical failing for a country that’s surrounded by superpowers and North Korea. Former President Kim Dae-jung set his diplomatic priority on stabilizing the Korean Peninsula and handled South-Japan, South-China and South-North relations as a means to reach that end. That fundamental stance is what induced the South Korean government into playing out a diplomacy centered on gaining practical interests and trying to improve ties with neighboring countries if they ever got bad.

The Moon administration’s top diplomatic priority now is North Korea, and its relations with neighboring countries are regarded more as a goal than a means. That helps fuel their distrust in South Korea and further entangle its relations with them. In the meantime, our national interests are ignored.

Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state and national security adviser under President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford, famously said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” That applies to South Korea as well.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 5, Page 30
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