Moon needs help!
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The Moon government is showing unprecedented political strength going into a fourth year, thanks in large part to the government’s overall impressive response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But Korea’s foreign policy is struggling in many areas. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is at the greatest risk in decades — largely because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s petty and transactional approach but also because of the Blue House’s inability to define a common agenda that aligns well with Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Relations with Japan are mired in the worst impasse in a generation with no breakthrough in sight or underway. Beijing has not really moved away from the kind of coercive bullying that it tried with the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system. Russia continues to try to weaken Korean ties with the United States and has little positive to offer in the bilateral agenda with Seoul. Relations with Southeast Asia and Europe are improving — but the most important part of foreign policy is always the near abroad, especially in a contested environment like Northeast Asia.
To be sure, these developments are not all Seoul’s fault. President Moon would probably be having a much easier time if his counterparts were Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, Medvedev, or Obuchi Keizo. But it is the Blue House responsibility to overcome these problems. And President Moon could do worse for guidance than considering how some of his predecessors managed relations.
Kim Dae-jung was the only president with good relations for 360 degrees around Korea. This was not just good luck — it was based on strategic foresight and stubborn determination. When the 1998 breakthrough with Japan was threatened by a drunken Japanese Agricultural Minister’s statement to the press that Korea should thank Japan for the occupation from 1910 to 1945, Kim chose to ignore the insult and proceed with his trip to Tokyo. He offered a vision for the future with Japan and welcomed a larger Japanese role in the world, which gave space for Prime Minister Obuchi to offer an apology and express remorse for Japan’s occupation of Korea.
In contrast, President Moon’s Aug. 15 statement this year promised cooperation with Japan, but only if Tokyo did exactly what he was demanding, which Japan has already rejected. That is not diplomacy. The lesson from Kim Dae-jung is that statesmen must find a way to make peace and progress work with all Korea’s neighbors, not just North Korea. If the Blue House gave Japan the same benefit-of-the-doubt it gives Pyongyang, Northeast Asian diplomacy would be transformed. In fact, the Blue House should consider that strong diplomatic relations with the powers around North Korea is the key to successful engagement with Pyongyang.
Roh Moo-hyun has foreign policy lessons as well. Though President Roh often frustrated President George W. Bush with his criticism of the United States (something Bush never did vis-à-vis Korea), the U.S. side was nevertheless deeply impressed with President Roh’s willingness to use his political capital to get real things done in the alliance. Against opposition even in his own ruling party, President Roh pushed through the Korus Free Trade Agreement, realignment of U.S. bases and the dispatch of the largest contingent of troops to Iraq after the United States and Britain.
Leaders respect that kind of political courage, even if they disagree on ideological grounds. The lesson is that using political capital on foreign policy — even on unpopular issues — shows the kind of strength and resolve that enhance Korea’s influence and the Blue House’s credibility at home and abroad. Though the current Blue House is unlikely to look to former President Lee Myung-bak for foreign policy inspiration, they should. President Lee did two things that were particularly important for Korea’s foreign policy influence.
First, he locked in the newly elected President Barack Obama as a major advocate of U.S.-Korea relations. The Obama administration came into office thinking about the larger geopolitics in Asia as a game between Japan and China and sought to reassure Japan while engaging China. Korea was considered only in terms of diplomacy towards the North.
But when President Obama had his first meeting with President Lee in 2009, the Korean leader made an impassioned and carefully considered appeal for American leadership in Asia as a whole, including on trade. Obama’s staff were so impressed that they began referring to Korea as the “lynchpin” of U.S. relations in Asia — a term previously only used to describe Japan.
Political analysts in the United States now give Joe Biden the best chance of winning the election. He has said he would rebuild alliances — but how? President Moon could take a page out of Lee Myung-bak’s approach to Obama and help the new administration (if there is one) define that answer.
The second thing President Lee did was build the Global Korea brand through deliberate commissions and research and skillful if not transformational management of major summits such as the G-20, the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, and the Nuclear Summit. Obama trusted Lee to manage these high-pressure summits because of the personal connection he made with the Korean President. But the Lee government also championed this global image with the Korean public and the world. By establishing itself as a leader in the emerging global architecture, Lee’s Blue House indirectly but significantly increased its credibility and influence with Japan, China, Russia and North Korea.
The global architecture started a decade ago is now in ruins because of Donald Trump’s disdain for international institutions and China’s aggressive and destructive Wolf Warrior diplomacy. But Covid-19 gives Korea a chance to play a central role in the new global architecture that many around the world say in polls they want to see. This is not a matter of one-off speeches or declarations. The lesson from Lee Myung-bak is that global leadership requires deliberate study, commissions and public awareness campaigns in Korea.
One of the unfortunate features of politics in today’s age is that leaders often disdain, demean, or ignore their predecessors. Populist politics leads presidents and prime ministers to act as if they are the new messiah, unencumbered by the failings of the past. No President in American history has been more insulting to his predecessors than Trump, and Xi treats Hu in similar, if more subtle, ways in Chinese politics.
Korea has never had a strong tradition of presidents learning from or calling out their predecessors’ successes. Indeed, it is a fortunate thing if their predecessors are not jailed. But the challenges in the world and especially in Northeast Asia suggest it is time to try something new — by looking again at something old that worked.