Multipartite diplomacy holds the key
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Moon Jae-in administration has been under attack for a myriad of misguided policies, including one to phase out nuclear reactors, over the last five years. Its diehard engagement with North Korea also hampered the government from maintaining good relations with the United States, China and Japan. The decades-old alliance with the United States was shaken over the North Korean human rights situation and the Ukraine crisis. The ramifications of Beijing’s economic retaliation for Seoul’s deployment in 2017 of the Thaad missile defense system continues. Following discord with Tokyo after Seoul’s revocation of an agreement on former sex slaves, friction with Japan over the Supreme Court’s ruling on compensation for the wartime force labor and Tokyo’s move to designate the Sado Mine as a Unesco World Heritage site does not show any sign of improvement.
What should we do then? Many experts suggest the need for a new government to solve problems through multilateral diplomatic frameworks to achieve its goal without raising risks from direct clashes with the United States, China and Japan. With the election of a new president for the next five years, let’s check his government’s diplomatic strategy toward each of them in a multilateral context.
Asked about Washington’s reaction to Seoul’s repeated abstention from UN resolutions on North Korean human rights last March, the State Department underscored the importance of human rights in diplomacy. U.S. President Joe Biden’s diplomacy has a clear and consistent principle dramatically different from Donald Trump’s who prioritized economic interest.
The Biden administration maintains a firm principle in dealing with Pyongyang: Washington will not ignore human rights violations in North Korea even while seeking dialogue with it. In the same context, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said on March 1, “The crisis in Ukraine was far from the only part of the world where the Council’s attention was needed, as the situation in Belarus, China, Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, the DPRK, Iran, Nicaragua, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen — among others — also demanded this Council’s ongoing attention. Members of this Council had a special responsibility to strengthen — not weaken — those rights.”
However, the Moon administration has nearly turned a blind eye to the human rights situation in the North, as clearly seen in its decision to not join a UN resolution to denounce its human rights violations as that could damage inter-Korean exchanges.
“The new government needs to aggressively support the value diplomacy of the United States on multilateral diplomatic stages,” said Yoon Yeo-cheol, ambassador for international relations at the Gwangju Metropolitan City government. In other words, if the new government turns away from that core principle of the Biden administration, the alliance cannot but be shaken. The new government should improve relations with North Korea, but at the same time it must not brush off the need for policies based on democracy and human rights.
For South Korea, priority should be placed on ending China’s multi-faceted retaliation for the Thaad deployment in 2016. As Beijing’s economic revenge continues to inflict damage on Korean exports — manufactured products, services and cultural contents, for instance — some experts cite the need for Seoul to lodge complaints with the WTO to correct Beijing’s unfair practice until its complete removal of sanctions against South Korea. Given Beijing’s fear of Korean culture’s enormous power in China, however, it will not open its market easily.
As the Sino-U.S. conflict deepens, the Biden administration will put more pressure for Seoul to join its move to contain China. If Seoul joins a multilateral body like the Quad for security cooperation, it can accommodate the U.S. government’s demands while avoiding China’s wrath at the same time.
The discord between Seoul and Tokyo over the past issues does not show any signs of improvement — particularly after Japan refused a negotiation on settling the wartime forced labor compensation issue. But we can find a clue from the past. In 2015, the Park Geun-hye administration and the Shinzo Abe government were not budging an inch on compensating for wartime sexual slavery. But Biden, then vice president in Barack Obama’s administration, helped cut the Gordian knot. “I could be an interlocutor, that was more like a divorce counselor, putting a marriage back together,” said Biden in an interview with The Atlantic in 2016. As he knows the intricacy of Seoul-Tokyo relations and the significance of the Seoul-Washington-Tokyo relations better than anyone else, the Seoul-Tokyo relations will surely improve if Biden steps forward.
Over a disputed bid by Japan to list the Sado Mine as a Unesco World Heritage site, it will be more effective for Seoul to demonstrate its diplomatic capability at the UN body than blindly pressuring Tokyo to withdraw it.
To support U.S. value diplomacy and keep China and Japan in check, South Korea needs experts in multilateral affairs. Korean diplomacy has neglected multipartite diplomacy for long after sticking to bilateral diplomacy. As the focus gradually shifts to climate change, environment and health issues, Seoul should have a multilateral approach on many issues, including the listing of the Sado Mine as a Unesco World Heritage site.
A country’s diplomatic capability partly relies on how to raise top-caliber diplomats to tackle challenges on the international stage. The new government must help as many people as possible to move to international organizations like the UN and build expertise in multilateral diplomacy.
When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led the body, not a few Koreans worked at several top posts there, including Ambassador Kim Won-soo, special advisor to the UN chief, and Kang Kyung-wha, assistant secretary-general of the office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) who later served as foreign minister. But not many with experience at the UN work in the foreign ministry now.
Global challenges such as climate change, refugees and environmental pollution increasingly demand multilateral solutions. It is urgent for the new government to nurture people with expertise in the UN and other international organizations to promote our national interest on such fields as the denuclearization of North Korea, Seoul-Tokyo ties, and ending China’s economic retaliation. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration must recognize the importance of multilateral diplomacy and augment it over the next five years.