President Moon Jae-in has kick-started summit diplomacy with the dispatch of special envoys.
Special envoys to the US and Japan are already on visits to the countries, and an envoy to China departed for Beijing on Thursday. A special envoy to Russia will leave for Moscow next week.
During a luncheon with special envoys Tuesday, Moon said, “filling the void of summit diplomacy is the most urgent task.” Top-level diplomacy was on hold due to Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment. US President Donald Trump discussed Korean Peninsula issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in their respective talks, but has not held a summit with South Korea yet.
The new government faces grave diplomatic and security circumstances. North Korea launched a new ballistic missile four days after its inauguration. The Trump administration, which puts America first, has signaled the possibility of adjusting its alliance with South Korea in light of its interests. China has conflicts with the South over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system. Japan urges the new South Korean government to observe a deal on wartime sexual slavery made under the Park administration.
Though diplomacy priorities may differ depending on the country, North Korean threats should be dealt with as the prime issue, as it directly relates to the survival of the nation.
Summit diplomacy with the US, the key ally of South Korea, is crucial in view of the mounting tension over the North provocations. In a meeting with visiting White House officials Tuesday, Cheong Wa Dae agreed to have a summit with the US in Washington late next month.
South Korea and the US share the view they should employ all possible means, including sanctions and dialogue, for the ultimate goal of scrapping North Korean nuclear weapons. Differences on denuclearization approaches need to be narrowed.
Special envoy to the US Hong Seok-hyun, former chairman of JoongAng Media, met with Trump on Wednesday. Trump reportedly told Hong he looks forward to working closely with Moon to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and is willing to make peace through engagement with Pyongyang if conditions are right.
Hong also met with US national security adviser H.R. McMaster and mentioned there is controversy in Korea over the procedural legitimacy of the THAAD deployment. The missile shield installation has emerged as a pending issue, with China retaliating against South Korea economically.
Hong has a lot on his shoulders. The nation expects him to prime the pump in expanding common ground and mutual understanding ahead of the summit talk.
The missions of envoys to China and Japan are as significant.
Fortunately, China seems to be sending positive signs since Moon took office. Chinese State Councilor for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi said during a meeting with a South Korean delegation on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on Monday, “China will always closely discuss Korean Peninsula issues with South Korea without exceptions.”
Beijing appears to expect the Moon administration to work for the withdrawal of THAAD, but it is no easy task, given the alliance with the US. Envoy to China Rep. Lee Hae-chan of the Democratic Party of Korea needs to let Chinese leaders know the Korean public sentiment and the will of the new government to resolve the THAAD issue and improve bilateral ties further.
Special envoy to Japan Rep. Moon Hee-sang met with Abe on Thursday. Abe told Moon that South Korea is the “most important” country that shares its strategic interests, adding he would move toward building future-oriented ties between the two countries.
Moon met with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday and said that most Koreans do not accept the deal on wartime sexual slavery.
Persuasion to roll back the pact will not be easy, but leaders of both countries should try their best to narrow differences.
Shuttle diplomacy, as Moon suggested, is needed more than anything else to find the right balance between the two countries. South Korea and Japan have many other joint issues to deal with as well.
The dispatch of special envoys is just the beginning of diplomacy with the four major countries. The Moon administration should solve problems step by step and in a long perspective through summit diplomacy.