The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] New direction of Korean diplomacy after election

By Korea Herald

Published : April 19, 2024 - 05:30

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The general election in South Korea on April 10 ended with the landslide victory of the opposition Democratic Party and the disastrous defeat of the ruling People Power Party.

The Democratic Party won 175 out of 300 seats in parliament. It is one of the most significant victories by an opposition party in the history of Korean politics. The party won 180 seats four years ago, but the meaning is different because it was the ruling party in 2020. Besides, just a couple of months after the formidable outbreak of COVID-19, there was a strong stream of opinion about helping the government overcome the global disaster.

The People Power Party gained five more seats than 103 four years ago. However, it is undoubtedly a catastrophic loss as it has become a ruling party from an opposition party.

In this election, the opposition parties emphasized a stern judgment on the government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol and the ruling party. They lashed out against the president as ignorant and incompetent, bringing up economic difficulties with high prices.

They also criticized him as ruthless and irresponsible, recalling the tragic incident in Itaewon in October 2022 and the death of a Marine last year.

The obvious backsliding of democracy in Korea was also a big issue with the government. The criticism also includes problems in foreign affairs and security. They have argued that the administration has aggravated the security situation because of the flawed national strategies, and Yoon incurred too many diplomatic humiliations.

The ruling party's crushing defeat in the election made it inevitable for President Yoon Suk Yeol to make significant policy changes. Foreign and security policies should also be included in the policy changes. There are three major points Mr. Yoon should take to improve diplomatic performance: bipartisanship, an integrated approach and prudence.

Throughout his two-year governing since his inauguration in 2022, Yoon has kept denouncing the foreign policies of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, as "fake peace" that relies only on the goodwill of the other party and has pushed for policies in the reverse direction.

Foreign policies can only be successful by using both "carrot and stick" in a well-tuned management. However, he declared that he would rely only on hard-line policies. Since Korea was divided into two nations, military tensions have constantly been a cause of instability. Therefore, it is an inevitable mission for South Korea to lower military tensions through dialogue with North Korea and to establish a reliable defense system. Nevertheless, defining dialogue and negotiations as fake peace, he ignores the basics of foreign and security policies, and the degree of security anxiety on the Korean peninsula has unnecessarily increased.

Second, we need an integrated approach. Reinforcing the Korea-US alliance and cooperation among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo is OK. However, that does not necessarily mean South Korea should declare the North, China, and Russia enemies. The Republic of Korea's greatest geopolitical feature is a superposition of nations belonging to continental and maritime forces, so Korea must work with both forces. Still, it seems that there are too many people inside the presidential office who believe that Korea should show some aggressive attitudes against China and Russia to achieve closer ties with the US and Japan. This is a shocking mistake. Relations with China and Russia can be positively managed.

Third, we need to find a sense of prudence again. President Yoon has made a lot of slip-ups, causing unnecessary diplomatic disasters and ripples. To maintain a prudent attitude in diplomacy, one should consider the sentiments of the other country's government and its people. Also, it is forbidden to unnecessarily mention another country in recognition that a third party, whether friendly or competitive, is watching the diplomatic moves.

The most symbolic example of this is his calling Iran an enemy in the UAE. His statement of solidarity with Ukraine with the courage not to fear death was also a severe slip of the tongue as it could sound like defining Russia as an enemy of Korea, given that Ukraine is at war with Russia. Korea is almost the only country in the world that has to suffer unnecessary losses if it formalizes its hostile relations with Russia due to its confrontation with North Korea. The other countries can denounce Russia as much as they want. However, the geopolitical situation in Korea requires us to use different language when we express support for Ukraine.

To achieve positive results in diplomacy, we must earn the people's support. Government leaders must actively communicate with the public, explain the goals and strategies of diplomacy, and ask for support. Naturally, cooperation with the media is crucial. Surprisingly, Yoon is notorious for not interviewing with Korean media and that is one of the big reasons that a lot of people have a negative appraisal of his diplomacy.

A prudent attitude also includes changing the obsession with state visits with a colorful protocol. State visits are expensive, but they are not very cost-effective. Anyway, protocol and guard procedures become complicated, which increases the possibility of miscommunications and mistakes. In modern liberal democracies that hate authoritarianism, state visits are an exceptional phenomenon. Yet, Yoon seems to favor state visits unduly. That is one of the critical causes of absurd diplomatic disasters. From now on, the foreign visits should be changed to focus on working-level visits.

President Yoon has three more years to go. If he changes his diplomatic strategy and tactics reflecting the demands from the general election, he might be applauded when he leaves office and can return to normal life. However, if he sticks to the current attitude, we cannot rule out the possibility of issuing a report card that says he ruined the foreign policy and security of the Republic of Korea.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.