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Videoconferencing emerges as key diplomatic tool amid coronavirus outbreaks

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha

With coronavirus outbreaks restricting in-person meetings and overseas travel, diplomats are turning increasingly to a safer, more convenient mode of engagement with their foreign counterparts: videoconferencing.

In recent months, the typical scene of officials huddling together to build rapport and engage in negotiations of some sorts has been replaced by the spectacle of them sitting in front of projection screens or digital displays to keep their diplomacy running.

Officials have been coming to grips with the convenience of videoconferencing, which requires less preparation, saves time and travel costs, and, not least, poses no risks of COVID-19 infection, though it has such pitfalls as vulnerabilities to cyber incursions or eavesdropping.

"Videoconferencing is not new, but it is the first time that such an online method has been employed as an indispensable, pivotal tool for diplomacy among nations or at various international meetings," Kim Heung-kyu, professor of diplomacy at Ajou University, said.

"Such meetings can be more promptly and instantly assembled on short notice with less financial burden. Given the possible recrudescence of contagious diseases in the future, videoconferencing could likely take hold as a crucial diplomatic platform," he added.

Harnessing South Korea's advanced communications infrastructure, the foreign ministry has been an active user of videoconferencing, particularly amid mounting international calls for cooperation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

From Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to rank-and-file diplomats, officials have been holding regular or one-off videoconferences with their foreign interlocutors, leading in some cases to tangible outcomes related to stemming the spread of the virus.

On Monday, Kang held a videoconference with her counterparts from six countries, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to beef up international cooperation in tackling the coronavirus and ease the economic blow of the pandemic.

Kang, in particular, sought to drum up international support for Seoul's drive to ensure that pandemic-driven travel restrictions and curbs on movement should not impede economic and people-to-people exchanges.

At the height of the pandemic in March, Kang also held a crucial online conference with her Chinese and Japanese counterparts, Wang Yi and Toshimitsu Motegi, to discuss trilateral anti-virus cooperation, a subject that might have otherwise been hashed out in face-to-face talks given their countries' geographical proximity.

These videoconferences illustrated the growing potential for video-linked sessions as a catalyst for international cooperation.

"Videoconferencing seems to be emerging as a new mechanism as it requires you to just switch on your computer. Simple as that and this could also make it easier for smaller countries to pitch in with international cooperation projects," Nam Chang-hee, professor of international politics at Inha University, said.

"The growing use of videoconferencing signals our modes of diplomacy are diversifying, and it is supplementing -- if not supplanting -- the conventional way of diplomacy," he added.

In response to the rising demand for videoconferencing, the ministry has installed an additional facility for online meetings in addition to the existing two, an official said, an indication that the pandemic is affecting the way diplomats conduct diplomacy.

"In the midst of the virus outbreak, the ministry has had much more online meetings -- a reason why we have installed another videoconferencing facility," the official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity. "It has emerged as an alternative as we can't travel abroad."

Besides managing external affairs, the ministry has also been increasingly using videoconferencing to have internal consultations with chiefs of its overseas missions that are now heavily consumed with protecting their citizens in virus-battered countries.

From January through April, the ministry held eight major videoconferences with the chiefs of the missions to discuss an array of issues, including the safety of its citizens and logistical support for their return home.

Before the coronavirus spread across the globe, diplomats preferred face-to-face talks in which they exchanged banter with their counterparts in the flesh, built trust and discussed sensitive matters while carefully examining each other's facial expressions and changes in tone.

Their preference for a conventional form of diplomacy stemmed from the skepticism over online conferences, which they thought would not be able to delve deeper into an issue and lead to any substantive outcome.

But such skepticism has been waning amid the growing sense that diplomats have no other option but to engage in videoconferencing due to social distancing restrictions and other logistical hurdles.

Now, erstwhile globe-trotting diplomats are adapting to contactless diplomacy due to the virus-driven logistical challenges, but they foresee constraints in touching on extremely sensitive and private matters during videoconferences, particularly when using commercial communication platforms accessible by general citizens.

"Due to the security concerns, diplomats have been selective about online meetings and utilizing secure communication lines for important dialogue with foreign interlocutors," the foreign ministry official said.

"So the issue of how to ensure the security of the videoconference remains a challenge," the official added.

But observers said that amid concerns about a second wave of infections and talk of the possibility that a mutated strain of the novel virus could hit the world even harder, a contactless form of diplomacy could take on greater importance down the road.

"We cannot rule out the possibility that the next pandemic could be even worse with a greater mortality rate," Kim Tae-hyung, professor of political science at Soongsil University, said. "Our diplomacy should be primed for such future eventualities." (Yonhap)
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