The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Diplomatic disaster and message management

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 8, 2024 - 05:40

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Relations between South Korea and Russia are facing a severe crisis.

The spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry belittled the South Korean president's remarks publicly. Under normal diplomatic relations, disparagement is an entirely unacceptable diplomatic provocation. In response, the spokesperson of the South Korean Foreign Ministry directly criticized the Russian president. It might be self-defensive as a draw because both nations exchanged accusations against each other. However, diplomacy is a game in which nations are judged to improve national interests. In that sense, South Korea and Russia cannot avoid being evaluated as losers in a diplomatic disaster.

The problem is that this is not the first time a diplomatic disaster has occurred. When President Yoon Suk Yeol commented on the Taiwan Strait on April 19, last year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry slandered him the next day as a minor player, saying they do not allow third-party intervention. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang threatened vulgarity, saying, "Anyone who plays with fire over the Taiwan issue will be burned to death." It was an insult that could come from warring countries.

On Jan. 16, last year, the Iranian government officially rebuked President Yoon after he said on the previous day, "Korea and the UAE are friends, and the UAE's enemy is Iran." The Iranian Foreign Ministry expressed its anger, saying Yoon is "totally unaware of" the relationship between Iran and the United Arab Emirates and that his remark was "unwarranted diplomatically."

It is a diplomatic disaster to hear foreign nations use words like "ignorant,'" "burned to death" or "blatantly biased" toward the leader of a country. That kind of catastrophe might occur once in a decade, but we have been watching at least three cases in a year or so. If such a thing happens, somebody would feel relieved to use abusive language that goes beyond the criticism of the other party immediately. However, this does not solve the problem. Russia, China and Iran, in particular, are all significant countries to us.

Some elements are at odds with Korea between the three nations. However, in practice, there are prominent parts of cooperation. The situation of cooperation is directly connected to us, and part of the conflict is indirectly formed through the United States. Therefore, diplomatic relations with these countries are dual and contradictory. In such a situation, a straightforward response cannot be effective. A strategic approach considering contradictions and cooperation is inevitable.

Is the Yoon Suk Yeol government responding strategically in diplomacy with these countries?

It is difficult to say yes. Instead, it is more of a straightforward approach. If a nation responds simply, even though the diplomatic task is complex, it should take on the burden of the side effects. What should we do for a strategic response? The specific response may vary depending on the individual given situation, but the basic principle for finding the optimal alternative is already well known. It is prudence.

In diplomacy, prudence is an absolute requirement. Being careful of the message is incredibly essential. More than half of diplomatic disasters are likely the result of a failure to manage messages. That is why message management is of the utmost importance in diplomacy.

It is analyzed that the issue of Russia's provocation also had loopholes in message management. The problem begins with Defense Minister Shin Won-sik saying in a media interview on Jan. 22, "I personally prefer active assistance on Ukraine." The tension between the two countries suddenly rose as Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova took issue with Shin's remarks at a briefing on Jan. 26, threatening to "warn the South Korean government for reckless behavior."

Against this backdrop, Yoon criticized North Korea on Jan. 31, using the term "irrational group," and Zakharova launched a second attack on the South Korean government, calling it "blatantly biased" in her comments on Feb. 1. The South Korean Foreign Ministry responded, labeling it "hateful sophistry."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry's rude remarks last year were not out of thin air, and Yoon's comments acted as a trigger. In an interview on April 19 last year, he said, "I oppose the change of the status quo by force" regarding the Taiwan Strait. China believes that the remark was aimed at China, and they disparaged him with unprecedented harsh words.

Effective message management goes beyond caring about other countries in a tense relationship. Diplomatic messages should be based on the government's position on a particular issue. Still, they should also consider the reaction of other countries, the support of domestic opinion, and the flow of public opinion in the international community.

South Korea is a member of the Western world led by the United States, so supporting Ukraine in the fight against Russia is natural. However, being cautious in openly expressing active support for Ukraine is essential. This is because we are in a geopolitical situation that requires Russian cooperation for the North Korean issue. Therefore, it is natural to set the message level regarding Ukraine aid somewhat more defensive than the standard message of the international community. The same goes for the case of China. It is wise to set the content and level by reflecting the conditions that we must cooperate with China on issues such as resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula and trade.

It is not humiliating for Korea, which is in the yoke of a divided country, to take diplomatic steps in a different way and level than other countries. It is instead the basis of diplomacy and the result of prudence that all countries in the world adopt their diplomatic message reflecting their geopolitical conditions. Managing the message wisely while carefully following the basics is a broad way to reduce diplomatic catastrophe significantly.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.