Upgrading our diplomacy
The author is the former Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs and former Ambassador to Russia.
South Korea’s invitation to the Group of Seven Summit in Britain last month did not draw much attention. The government grumbled about wan media coverage. The invitation of President Moon Jae-in to the event was a recognition of South Korea’s international reputation and acceptance as a partner in their discussions of global issues. The United States wants to expand the G7 with Korea as a permanent member. The government has reason to be disgruntled about the lack of enthusiasm, given the significant ascension of the country’s international standing.
It is understandable that the government regrets a less than robust appreciation for Korea’s participation as a guest to the G7 summit. But increased responsibility and burdens would inevitably follow if it was to become a member. We must ask ourselves if South Korea is really ready to take on the extra burden.
Since the G7 is an exclusive club, entrants would be judged by their qualification and usefulness. New members would have to share the perspective and principles of the traditional club. In this aspect, Korea is not ready.
To join the G7, Korea must first have similar international views to the existing members. But we tend to address external affairs with a self-centered mindset and views influenced by domestic politics. They are often far from the international perspective. It is an innate reality of the Korean ecosystem on diplomatic affairs.
Second, there must be a responsibility towards universal global issues such as poverty, disease, the environment, climate change, disaster relief, terrorism and cybercrimes. But we are more absorbed with our national interests.
Fourth, the G7 is mostly comprised of western democracies and Japan, who are united against authoritarian states like China and Russia. Seoul has been ambiguous towards China and Russia. Relations with Japan are almost hostile.
Fifth, there must not be any discrepancy with G7 members on the issue of North Korea. Seoul is lenient with Pyongyang compared with the general international view. It wishes to settle nuclear issue in a bilateral context rather than a multinational framework.
South Korea may belong to the G7 league in economics, but it needs to build up its diplomatic capabilities.
Moon has attended a G7 summit with such intrinsic problems. They didn’t matter so much since his role had been restricted to a guest. But Korea joined the Open Societies Statement that included declarations on open markets, democracy and human rights issues aimed at China and Russia. The mention of the North Korean nuclear threat did not comply with South Korean views. If Seoul continues activities within the G7 without minding those gaps, it may not be able to last in the framework.
There must be efforts to advance diplomatic capabilities. Korean diplomacy focused on domestic views, politics and the Korean Peninsula should be broadened to the international context. The conservatives and liberals must agree on policies on North Korea and China. A national consensus must be built on a future-oriented relationship with Japan.
Such a policy shift would be tantamount to a comprehensive reform of Korean diplomacy. Diplomatic reform has been long overdue. Now that Korea has ascended to the ranks of the G7, discussions on diplomatic reform must start. Although the work should start immediately, it cannot be expected by an administration with one year left. The work will have to be taken up by the next administration. Presidential aspirants must pay attention to the need for reform in diplomacy.
Korean diplomacy cannot truly represent Korea’s stature today. It must be radically upgraded to stand on par with other G7 members. A social consensus also must be built for diplomatic reform through the momentum of G7 participation.