Too much is as bad as too little

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Too much is as bad as too little

Wi Sung-lac
The author is the former Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs and former Ambassador to Russia.

After South Korea’s summit with the United States and NATO, the diplomacy of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has surfaced. It is primarily based on a hard-line stance toward North Korea, reinforcement of the alliance with the U.S., participation in the U.S-led curbs on China and Russia, and the improvement of Korea-Japan relations. That’s a sharp departure from the Moon Jae-in administration.

The Yoon administration also prioritizes diplomacy based on key values, such as freedom and human rights, as the president himself detailed it in his inauguration speech in May. For instance, he underscored the importance of international solidarity to uphold such values. His summit in Seoul with U.S. President Joe Biden and meetings with other heads of state during the NATO Summit in Madrid in June were no exception.

As the Yoon administration heartily complied with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, America seems to be elated. South Korea is reinforcing not only security cooperation with the U.S. but also a tripartite cooperation with America and Japan.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. government has been strengthening international solidarity against Russia while checking China more aggressively than before. South Korea and Japan — two core allies of the U.S. in East Asia — were invited to the NATO Summit, which defined China as a “new strategic challenge.” South Korea took part in the U.S-led effort.

윤석열 대통령이 30일(현지시간) 스페인 마드리드 이페마 국제회의장에서 옌스 스톨텐베르그 북대서양조약기구(NATO?나토) 사무총장을 면담하며 기념촬영을 하고 있다. 2022.7.1 대통령실사진기자단

윤석열 대통령이 30일(현지시간) 스페인 마드리드 이페마 국제회의장에서 옌스 스톨텐베르그 북대서양조약기구(NATO?나토) 사무총장을 면담하며 기념촬영을 하고 있다. 2022.7.1 대통령실사진기자단

President Yoon Suk-yeol meets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Madrid, Spain, June 30. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Major countries have reached a point where they cannot avoid the power contest between the United States and China. As South Korea is a U.S. ally that shares key values, the country is closely linked to the technology and markets of the West. For Seoul’s part, cooperation with Washington is an unavoidable choice.

But that choice naturally provokes a strong backlash from Russia, China and North Korea. Pyongyang continues to accelerate provocations, and South Korea-Russia relations have hit rock bottom. The problem is what reactions China will show. As Beijing would believe it succeeded in bringing Seoul to its side over the past three decades after the normalization of relations in 1992, South Korea’s explicit siding with America will trigger serious ramifications.

If so, South Korea must determine the extent of its cooperation with Uncle Sam and find effective ways to deal with backlashes from China, Russia and North Korea. A solution can be South Korea managing relations with them after choosing its policies on an agenda basis. The other solution can be fixing the positioning of South Korea first after taking into account the U.S-China, U.S.-Russia and South-North-U.S. relations and responding to specific cases.

As the Moon administration took the first approach, it gave the impression that South Korea can be swayed by those stakeholders. They thought Seoul would accept their demands if pressured. But the Yoon administration takes the strongest pro-U.S. stance when the U.S-Russia relations are the worst and North Korean nuclear threats have reached uncontrollable levels. Therefore, if the Yoon administration takes an approach similar to the first approach, the repercussions will be serious.

Therefore, the government should consider the second approach based on consolidating the alliance while determining the direction of relations with China and Russia and taking consistent steps from then on. In that case, America, China and Russia will start readjusting their respective expectations from South Korea. For example, the three countries would tell the limits of what South Korea can do. That will, in turn, help enhance the consistency, predictability and sustainability of South Korean diplomacy and stabilize its relations with them.

The government also needs to rethink its aggressive value-oriented rhetoric. Given South Korea’s political and economic clout, it must engage in such diplomacy more actively than before. But at the same time, the country should carefully review its diplomacy.

First, the government must take into account domestic reality. Koreans are not value-oriented enough. It is uncertain if they will continue to support such diplomacy at the cost of practical benefits. If a country like South Korea excessively champions value-based diplomacy, it could lose the practicality of policy.

And if South Korea cannot back it up with action, it can lose trust from the rest of the world. In that case, America will harbor suspicion over the value-diplomacy proclaimed by one of its core allies. Western countries also may wonder why South Korea takes a prudent approach to offering military supplies to Ukraine despite its strong focus on value-based diplomacy.

That underscores the need for the government to narrow a gap between rhetoric and action. It seems that the government needs to lower the level of the rhetoric or raise the level of action.

It is desirable for South Korea to coordinate with the U.S. on the front of shared values. But too much is as bad as too little. 
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.  
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