[Column] Repercussions of a diplomatic slip of the tongue

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[Column] Repercussions of a diplomatic slip of the tongue

Jeong Jae-hong
The author is an international, diplomatic and security news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“The UAE’s enemy and biggest threat is Iran whereas our enemy is North Korea,” said President Yoon Suk Yeol to the Korean military’s Akh’s unit in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last week. The comment immediately provoked controversy. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani criticized President Yoon for making remarks “totally ignorant of improved relations among countries in the Persian Gulf.”

The spokesman said that the Iranian foreign ministry was seriously watching — and assessing — the recent stance of the Korean government and Yoon’s inappropriate diplomatic remarks about relations between Iran and the UAE. Korea’s foreign ministry had to reassure Iran of “our government’s strong will to improve relations with Iran in a sustainable way.”

First of all, President Yoon’s definition of Iran as “the enemy of the UAE” itself is not correct. Iran certainly seeks regional hegemony in the Middle East and has territorial disputes with the UAE over three islands in the Gulf. But Iran’s exchanges with the UAE are quite brisk, as seen in the estimated 600,000 Iranians staying in Dubai. According to our foreign ministry, the elective monarchy in the Middle East “keeps managing its bilateral relations with Iran by building beneficial economic ties even while recognizing Teheran as its biggest potential threat.” The two countries maintain close economic relationship: Iran under international sanctions relies on the UAE for 68 percent of its imports while the UAE’s export to Iran last year are forecast at above $12 billion.

Yoon’s controversial rhetoric helped diminish the achievements he made in the UAE. The country in the Persian Gulf announced a $30-billion investment plan for Korea in areas such as nuclear reactors, energy and defense. The UAE’s massive investment will surely help boost the Korean economy hit hard by the global recession. But Yoon’s remarkable feat in the UAE was suddenly eclipsed by the slip of the tongue.

After Yoon’s disputable remarks, Seoul-Teheran relations turned icy further. Since Korea joined international sanctions on Iran for its nuclear ambition, Korea’s direct trade with Iran has been minimal. As Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz — the only passage from the oil-rich gulf to the Indian Ocean — Korea’s worsened ties with Iran could cause a problem in oil transport. Korea also needs to resume economic exchanges with Iran once the international sanctions are lifted. But if negative sentiment towards Korea deepens in Iran, it can affect Korea adversely.

President Yoon’s diplomatic slip of the tongue overseas is not the first time. He provoked controversy by using vulgar words after a brief conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York in September last year.
President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks before the soldiers of the Akh unit, Korean military’s special forces dispatched to the UAE, Jan. 15, during his state visit to the Middle East country. [YONHAP]

In a joint briefing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense two weeks ago, President Yoon rattled the rest of the world by mentioning the possibility of “redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea if the North Korean nuclear issue becomes more serious” and by raising the likelihood of “developing nukes on our own.” The president attached the “condition” — “if the nuclear threats from North Korea get more serious” — but his remarks created a stir.

Redeployment of tactical nukes or our own nuclear armaments can hardly be realized as they go against the two fundamental principles of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and nonproliferation. Seoul and Washington take the official position that the North Korean nuclear and missile threats should be addressed by reinforcing the extended deterrence from the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Yoon’s comments — even if they were made in principle — can prompt an international misunderstanding that South Korea can start to develop nuclear weapons on its own. That can do more harm than good. The commander in chief needs to demonstrate prudence when he speaks.

The Yoon administration’s toughened quarantine requirements for entrants from China also seems to be an excessive step. On Dec. 30, the public health authorities demanded all travelers from China take a PCR test before and after their arrival, not to mention restricting short-term visa issuance for entrants from China. In reaction, China abruptly suspended its short-term visa issuance for entrants from Korea and Japan. China’s retaliation is targeted at both Korea — the only country that toughened short-term visa issuance for travelers from China — and at Japan, which first announced toughened quarantine measures against the Chinese.

Korea and China attack one another for taking politically-motivated action. But the offensive and defensive over quarantine measures only helps damage Korean businessmen and residents in China. If Chinese tourists, notorious for their spending splurge in tours overseas, stop visiting Korea, it will deal a significant blow to our tourism industry. If Korea’s relations with its largest trade partner deteriorates, it will have negative impact on our economy.

Thanks to his career dedicated to the prosecution, President Yoon has little experience in diplomacy and security. He must listen to his aides’ advice and employ prudence when he speaks in foreign countries. In diplomacy and security, silence speaks louder than words.
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