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Monday, May 27, 2024

Confidence in foreign policy starts at home

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President Yoon Suk-yeol has been in power for about 150 days at the time of this writing. Koreans had high hopes and expectations that he would resurrect the country’s foreign relations that had fallen into disarray under his predecessor, the Moon Jae-in administration. The Moon government went all in to improve ties with North Korea. To the former president, relations with countries other than North Korea were, to an extent, expendable. He couldn’t care less about other ties as long as his relationship with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, would flourish.

During his tenure, Moon employed all means including deceiving allies and friendly states to achieve this end. For instance, he deliberately conveyed to Washington a distorted message on the North’s denuclearization commitment in order to broker the latter’s long-sought summit with the former. On another occasion, he did what otherwise a straight-minded leader would never attempt ― intentionally inciting his own people with provocative words like “pick up your bamboo spears” and saying they “will not lose to Japan again” for domestic political gains.

He also thought time was on his side in the tug of war with China over the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). He simply deferred it to the next government by ignoring China’s demands for a resolution to the matter. What transpired from his irredentist approach to inter-Korean relations was Korea losing confidence in others including his fantasy lover in North Korea.

Under the circumstances, President Yoon’s diplomatic priority naturally focused on rebuilding Korea’s foreign relations. Less than two weeks into his presidency, he hosted a summit meeting with the United States in May. In June he attended a NATO Summit conference. In September he went to England for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and New York to deliver an address before the United Nations General Assembly. He then had a summit meeting with the Canadian prime minister in Ottawa before returning to Korea.

Also in New York, he had a one-on-one meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first time since the “bamboo spears” incident in 2019. During his diplomatic endeavors, he’s had plenty of opportunities to present his government’s foreign policy goals and visions as an attempt to amend the relationships. He made it clear where Korea stands with respect to global order and international challenges.

Now the Yoon administration will have to clearly deliver its foreign policy messages. The world wants it to follow them with some concrete actions. So do the Korean people. Allies and friendly nations also await. However, at this juncture, no action plan appears readily available. His messages unfortunately seldom allude to them. His diplomatic commitments are confined to preserving freedom and calling for solidarity, per his U.N. speech.

Rules-based order is hardly mentioned. Even the few follow-up measures as such financial contributions to support Ukraine against Russian aggression and world development were a disappointment. A larger amount would have substantiated his foreign policy commitments as a global pivotal state in large part due to the size of Korea’s economy.

President Yoon has been under severe attack from his own constituency for lack of production, contrary to his proclamations. Koreans started to question his diplomatic team’s capability. The presidential office including the National Security Council (NSC) is losing the people’s confidence. A reflection of public sentiment was clear on Sept. 29 when the opposition party had unprecedentedly passed a motion calling for the dismissal of the incumbent foreign minister, in addition to resignations of the NSC director and his first deputy.

Yoon, unfortunately, must renew the public’s confidence before that of the neighboring countries. He must prove the integrity of his foreign policy is legitimate. The prerequisite to the success of his foreign policy lies in his ability to convince and persuade his own people. He can garner public support when some of the following strategic requisites are fulfilled.

First and foremost, the Yoon government must understand the “needs” of its counterpart countries in order to effectively restore relations. Thus far, it has focused on delivering its own foreign policy messages. They are inherently unilateral by character, inconsiderate of the needs of others. Like the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” With an understanding of others’ needs, the government will be able to not only legitimatize the policy goals it pursues but also persuade its own people with a clear direction.

Secondly, the government must approach other countries with a “bend but don’t break” strategic attitude. One can bear all the other tangible or intangible collateral damage in due course as long as one can achieve the ultimate goal ― to win the diplomatic game. That is, to maximize the national interest while minimizing potential loss. Sometimes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Resiliency is therefore what it will take for Yoon’s government to succeed in restoring confidence in Korea’s foreign relations.

Last but not least, to become a global pivotal state, responsibility will grow and leadership will have to come with it. The Yoon government’s policy requires the execution of a strategic plan commensurate with Korea’s international profile and standing in the world. The Yoon government aims to expand the horizon of its diplomacy from the Korean Peninsula to the world, as intended in the global pivotal state policy statement.

Its diplomatic aspiration will entail greater responsibility. In return, a greater leadership will have to be presented on the Yoon government’s part. And such a leadership will have to start at home. When confronted with challenges from its own constituency, the government must meet them with integrity, honesty and candor.

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