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[Jeffrey Robertson] South Korea’s diplomatic style on the world stage

At the end of this year, Ban Ki-moon will leave the office of United Nations secretary-general.

Since January 2007, he has crossed the globe building support to address the challenges of development, climate change, conflict, and humanitarian crises. Despite early criticisms, he has dutifully fulfilled a role that the Second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld labeled “the most impossible job on earth”. As a career diplomat and former foreign minister, he has also broadcast to the world South Korea’s diplomatic style.

Diplomatic style consists of the unique behavioral characteristics which distinguish the diplomats of one state from those of another state. It’s both an explicit and tacit means to categorize and communicate the behavioral characteristics of a state’s diplomacy. For a long time, South Korea’s diplomatic style remained hidden -- recognized only by those who regularly interact with South Korean diplomats on a day to day basis. Ban Ki-Moon changed this. He brought the South Korean diplomatic style to the world stage.

Early assessments of his performance were not positive. They saw a soft-spoken, ‘nowhere man’, with halting English and faltering French, unable to muster global leadership at a time when it was sorely needed. One commentator went so far as to accuse Ban of “trotting the globe, collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command”. The publication of a critical memo by a senior Norwegian diplomat further eroded Ban’s early reputation.

Yet other commentators noted Ban’s quiet determination. A tireless, hardworking bureaucrat, with a preference for forceful, direct, quiet diplomacy over public confrontation. A leader with a preference for internally shaping, strengthening and positioning the United Nations to address core global challenges rather than public grandstanding. They saw negative assessments as a reflection of diverse political agendas rather than genuine criticism. Regardless of which assessment you accept, nearly every commentator views Ban as a representative South Korean diplomat. Ban reflects South Korea’s diplomatic style.

From a broader point of view, Ban follows in the footsteps of a long tradition of Korean and South Korean diplomacy. He inherits characteristics from early diplomats, such as Min Yong-hwan, who led Joseon Korea’s first diplomatic mission to Europe. He inherits stylistic characteristics from early modern diplomats, such as Ben C. Limb who in a 1957 speech labeled diplomats as “instruments of humanity”. He also inherits stylistic characteristics from later modern diplomats, such as Park Keun, whose memoirs “Hibiscus: The Journey of a Man Through the Rise of his Country,” serve as an autobiographical narrative of South Korea’s development and the South Korean diplomatic style. Yet none of these diplomats were able to take South Korea’s diplomatic style to the world stage.

My recently published monograph, “Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea” is the first English language text to focus on diplomatic style. Published by Routledge, in the New Studies in Diplomacy series, the text explores the genesis of diplomatic style, presenting a means to understand and analyze the concept from a comparative perspective. While the monograph is positioned within the field of diplomatic studies -- the main case study is South Korea’s diplomatic style.

I chose South Korea as a case study because of its growing relevance in global affairs. The text looks at emotionalism, hierarchical status, generational change, cosmopolitanism, and the enduring sense of estrangement from international society, which characterize the South Korean diplomatic style. Based on interviews with serving and retired South Korean diplomats, as well as interviews with serving and retired members of the Seoul diplomatic corps, the text argues that an understanding of the South Korean diplomatic style can secure greater analytical insight into South Korea’s foreign policy decision-making.

There’s never been a better time to study South Korea’s foreign policy and diplomatic practice. The South Korean government currently promotes the Korean economic development model with such innovative and proven policy initiatives such as the Saemaul ‘new village’ movement. It will not be long until this development model extends to South Korea’s foreign policy and diplomatic practice.

The establishment of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, programs to strengthen South Korea’s multilateral participation, and efforts to establish and grow South Korea’s public diplomacy, are already attracting global interest. It will not be long until more attention turns to the diplomats themselves. As Ban steps down, the most lasting impression he may have made is to bring South Korea’s diplomatic style to the world stage.

By Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is an assistant professor at Yonsei University and visiting fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. The text Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea is available online and in print. –Ed.
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