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[Jeffrey Robertson] Continuity in South Korean foreign policy

South Korea is now in a caretaker period – an extended caretaker period during which foreign policy will enter a period stasis and uncertainty.

Analysts of South Korean foreign policy are awaiting the Constitutional Court’s decision and a subsequent election. Even after the installation of a new administration, it will take weeks before knowledge emerges regarding which existing programs will be shelved and which new initiatives will be launched. Now more than ever, it is time think about the lack of continuity in South Korean foreign policy.

There are inherent structural weaknesses in the formulation and execution of South Korea’s foreign policy that affect continuity – the single five-year presidential terms; an imbalance in executive/legislative influence; a weak party system and strong preferences for differentiation amongst political leaders; as well as the absence of bipartisanship on core issues. These structural weaknesses mean foreign policy becomes overly politicized with short-term advantage superseding long-term planning. Continuity inevitably suffers. The Global Green Growth Institute serves as an example.

In 2010, the Lee Myung-Bak administration launched the GGGI as one element in a broader policy initiative to make South Korea the global hub of green growth and sustainable development. It commenced as a domestic nonprofit institution and through skillful diplomacy and strong political engagement was transformed into an international organization – the first official international organization initiated by and headquartered in South Korea.

The GGGI was an innovative, timely and forward-thinking initiative. In its creativity it reflected the middle power diplomacy of Canada and Australia from the late 1980s to late 1990s – a period when initiatives such as APEC, the Cairns Group, Canberra Group and Ottawa Treaty made their way onto the international stage.

Despite this fact, it has suffered neglect under the Park administration. Each administration has its favorites – Kim Dae-jung promoted information and communications technology; Roh Moo-hyun promoted biotech; Lee Myung-bak promoted green growth and sustainable development – the Park administration trumpeted the creative economy. This meant the GGGI no longer attracted the same level of political support.

The problem is that foreign policy initiatives often require more than a single five-year term. They need ongoing active support or at least a willingness to sustain them. Westminster parliamentary systems with a degree of relative political party stability allows countries, such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, to maintain a greater degree of continuity. Presidential systems with a degree of relative political party stability and more than a single term allow countries, such as the United States, a greater amount of time to consolidate initiatives before changeover. South Korea’s single five-year presidential term hinders any hope of continuity. Reflecting this, short of constitutional change, what are the options for South Korea?

First, empowering the foreign policy bureaucracy would strengthen continuity by moderating political excesses of presidential administrations. Foreign policy is always decided by the executive, but is also interpreted and shaped by the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies by their nature are rational, efficient and objective-oriented institutions. Their specialist nature means that they are inherently predisposed to continuity as a means to increase predictability.

The value of an empowered bureaucracy goes beyond policy implementation to policy creation and development. An empowered bureaucracy can advise and most importantly, advise against, policy decisions of the executive, thus tempering and moderating more rampant political excesses.

Second, establishing a recognized council of experts would strengthen continuity by reducing the impact of policy politicization. There is no better example than the Council on Foreign Relations.

After an inadequate performance in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference negotiations, in 1921 a group of diplomats, financiers, scholars and lawyers formed the CFR to ensure the United States was better prepared for decision-making in world affairs. Much like think tanks, it informs public debate, directly engages decision-makers and serves as a ready source of specialist insight. Distinct from think tanks, it derives no commercial, government or political patronage.

Creating such an independent, nongovernmental, nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank, above the political fray, would ensure long-term national interests are put above political interests in what would be the nation’s premier source of foreign policy research and analysis.

Third, strengthening the foreign policy advisory capacity of the National Assembly Research Service would encourage greater continuity by the provision of consistent and reliable advice to policymakers.

The Parliamentary Library of the Australian Parliament is a good example.

It provides confidential, authoritative, objective and nonpartisan advice to Members of the parliament, senators and parliamentary committees. The Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security section has highly skilled foreign policy researchers who, through their constant interaction with decision-makers – sometimes over decades – hold a degree of institutional knowledge unmatched outside of parliament.

The Parliamentary Library thus balances the commercial, government or political prerogatives of external providers of policy advice. Most importantly, it provides a degree of continuity in members’ capacity to investigate, assess, and evaluate foreign policy.

The three options above are a first step. Ultimately, nothing less than a constitutional amendment to allow a two-term presidency will secure continuity in South Korean foreign policy. But while South Korea sits through an extended caretaker period, awaiting the Constitutional Court’s decision and a subsequent election, there is plenty of time to think about the lack of continuity in foreign policy.

By Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is a visiting fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University and an assistant professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. He is author of “Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea.” –Ed.