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[Jeffrey Robertson] Time to retake the foreign policy narrative

On April 15, global attention turned to Korea. Television, internet and social media feeds prioritized Korea over other breaking stories. Korea was at the center of the world’s attention. But it wasn’t South Korea. Global attention focused on Pyongyang and the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.

North Korea controls the foreign policy narrative – “stories” that shape the relationship between the state and its partners. It’s demonstrated incredible continuity in portraying itself as an irrational, threatening, and dangerous state that needs to be pacified, bribed, and appeased. Controlling the narrative comes easy to North Korea.

North Korea is media-savvy. It’s discovered a magical formula, which encourages the parade observation, guesswork and speculation of Kremlinology, with the degenerate gossip and commentary of K-pop tabloids. Turn on any news network, and “experts” discuss Kim Jong-un’s strategic aims, missile size, fashion, or boyhood basketball dreams. This is North Korea’s image -- weird, distant, and startling. Inaccessibility means what passes as research and analysis would in any other case be considered speculative sensationalism.

Add to this an incoherent, sensation-loving, truth-challenged, Twitter-obsessed foreign policy partner, and the media soil is fertile for North Korea’s domination. For no other reason than US policy, North Korea captured a global audience for the mundane opening of a startlingly ugly street in Pyongyang.

South Korea has always faced an uphill battle to impact the foreign policy narrative. Books on “Korean foreign policy” on Google or Amazon show one or two lonely texts on South Korea and an abundance on North Korea. More recently, the impeachment process left South Korea’s foreign policy rudderless. During two periods South Korea wrested control from North Korea -- the Sunshine Policy, and the green growth initiative of the Lee administration -- and the former only occurred with the acquiescence of North Korea.

The green growth initiative deserves greater attention. How was South Korea able to control the foreign policy narrative during this period?

First, the green growth initiative was sound, well-designed and above-all, innovative policy. It addressed the twin challenges of global economic growth and environmental sustainability -- the biggest challenges humanity faces. The Lee administration addressed this challenge with a well-coordinated campaign that included establishment and hosting of the Global Green Growth Institute, the Climate Technology Center & Network, and the Green Climate Fund. South Korea was a global leader.

Second, the green growth initiative coincided with an expansion in public diplomacy. Global attention turned to South Korea as it hosted the G20 Leaders’ Summit, the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, and the Nuclear Security Summit. At the same time, the Korea Foundation’s programs and Psy’s serendipitous Gangnam Style, promoted Korea internationally.

However, South Korea’s control of the foreign policy narrative didn’t last. Before the Lee administration’s end, cracks appeared. On coming to power, the Park Geun-hye administration, all but discarded green growth. Despite subsequent efforts to position it in the new government’s agenda, momentum was lost. Green growth and control of the foreign policy narrative was forfeited to a lack of policy continuity.

South Korea faces structural challenges in the maintenance of foreign policy continuity. Single five-year presidential terms; an imbalance in executive/legislative influence; a weak party system with a preference for differentiation among leaders; and the absence of bipartisanship on core issues impedes foreign policy continuity. But continuity is important. State representatives judge future behavior on previous behavior. By demonstrating continuity, a state shows consistency and credibility, and can better justify policy action. Most importantly, continuity increases a state’s control over the foreign policy narrative.

In forthcoming research with the Korea Economic Institute of America, I explore options to address the challenge of policy continuity in South Korea. While constitutional revision would be the ultimate solution, there are other options – policies that would act as a supplement and ultimately complement to constitutional revision, if it were to occur. Policies to strengthen bureaucratic and legislative capacity, and increase public engagement in foreign policy processes could make a difference.

Addressing the problem of foreign policy continuity should be a priority for the next South Korean administration. It would serve as a means to strengthen South Korea’s capacity to address better known foreign policy challenges, such as THAAD, Chinese economic pressure, or the U.S. alliance. Perhaps most importantly, addressing the challenge of continuity would allow South Korea to regain control over the foreign policy narrative.

By Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is 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 the author of “Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea” (Palgrave 2016). This piece is adapted from a longer essay published in the South Korea Economic Institute of America’s Academic Paper Series.