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[Hwang’s China and the World] Korea’s future diplomacy -- ‘pragmatic’ or ‘strenuous’?

Discourse with international politics scholars

Professor Hwang Jae-ho (from left) speaks with professors Sohn Yul, Chun Chae-sung and Seo Jung-kun in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald).
Professor Hwang Jae-ho (from left) speaks with professors Sohn Yul, Chun Chae-sung and Seo Jung-kun in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald).
The tension of the upcoming presidential election is not as heated as usual, as COVID-19 keeps people from gathering. Although the surface seems relatively calm, the candidates are somehow preparing their own policies.

The diplomatic security policy might attract less attention than the domestic circumstance, however, it might be more urgent, requiring prompt action. While domestic politics is about dividing and distributing the interest pie among the inside powers, international politics is under the law of the jungle. It is the world where states are distinguished according to their power, the weak fall prey to stronger predators in a blink, and all these processes go on in different languages. Therefore, beyond words, the new leader’s diplomatic philosophy, strategy and policy matter.

There are two candidates from the ruling and opposition party running in the presidential election next March. Lee Jae-myung from the ruling party put pragmatic diplomacy at the very front while candidate Yoon Seok-youl from the opposition is imploring strenuous effort diplomacy.

Observing the situation in an ideological lens, both sides of the progressives and conservatives are insisting on different external approaches. However, they in fact share a common core, which is pragmatism. Both candidates are ultimately chasing after the national interest as the top priority, but from different directions. This interview has invited three prominent scholars from international politics to theoretically look into how the progressives and conservatives have performed pragmatic diplomacy since the founding of South Korea, and to seek out what foreign policies the new government would present after the presidential election next year.

The below interview introduces professor Sohn Yul from the Graduate School of International Studies in Yonsei University, who also serves as the president of East Asia Institute, professor Chun Chae-sung from the department of international relations in Seoul National University, who is now the president of the Korean Association of International Studies, and professor Seo Jung-kun from the department of political science at Kyung Hee University.


Professor Hwang Jae-ho: The trend of pragmatism is known to root in the US. I would like to ask your thoughts and views on pragmatic diplomacy.

Professor Chun Chae-sung: When we discuss the term “pragmatism,” what must come first is clearly classifying pragmatism and pragmatic diplomacy. Pragmatism basically comes from philosophy. William James, John Dewy and other distinguished philosophers founded pragmatism after the US Civil War (1861-65) and it is usually said to be the only philosophy that developed in the US. However, when we move on to pragmatic diplomacy, it rarely has the pragmatism that I just introduced as its philosophical frame. Pragmatic diplomacy, which Korea has sustainably asserted and practiced, also can be said that it is more likely to come from a pragmatic background, not a diplomatic pragmatism. Additionally, pragmatic diplomacy has its significance in the actual practice and implementation rather than the theoretical or speculative approach. Therefore, building consensus in society is the critical matter.

Professor Sohn Yul: Observing from the view of diplomatic policy, pragmatic diplomacy can be understood with the practical outcome from diplomatic policy, rather than its purpose, principle or the legitimacy of process. Based on this condition, pragmatic diplomacy can be defined as diplomacy that selects issues among massively various international problems and particularly focuses on the ones that are directly related and influence our daily life. In the same context, pragmatic diplomacy has some aspects that can be compared from diplomacies that are based on ideology, norms, ideals or values.

Professor Seo Jung-kun: First of all, if we broadly define this pragmatic diplomacy, most of the diplomatic measures which are not biased in ideological perspective can fall into this category. On the other hand, in the active definition, pragmatic diplomacy can be called competence diplomacy or performance diplomacy, which pins down the problem and ambitiously makes outputs by solving that problem.



Hwang: Do you have any country in mind that performs or has performed successful pragmatic diplomacy around the world?

Sohn: I guess Deng Xiaoping‘s concentration on China’s economic policy in the late 1970s can be an example, since it put great weight on solving the problem. In a more comprehensive perspective in pragmatic diplomacy, pragmatic diplomacy itself must be one pillar of the weak state’s diplomacy. The primary goal of a weak state in international politics is survival. Under this condition, it is quite difficult for weak states to go after any form of ideology or value. In other words, the weak must seek ways to survive today and continue tomorrow, therefore, the moves made must be pragmatic diplomacy. On the other hand, strong states present and suggest the international order they have established. As they are the ones who have suggested the large outline, their national interest and universal ideology must be pursued within the frame that they have made. Because of how this framework works, strong states usually tend to combine their national interest and value, rather than emphasizing unconditional pragmatic actions.

Chun: In my view, I would like to point to France under President Charles de Gaulle and the current Taiwan government as the most successful cases. First of all, President Charles de Gaulle successfully avoided ideological diplomacy and could claim national interest, even amid the Cold War. It was the time after the Second World War ended and the US and Soviet Union were making acute ideological confrontations. President Charles de Gaulle demonstrated considerable influence over international society by asserting autonomous diplomacy from the US through implementing distancing tactics, promoting relations with the Soviet Union and East Germany, proceeding in nuclear developments, withdrawing from NATO and so on. Moving on to the current Taiwan government, it has clearly set a national goal, beyond ideological aspects. It is flexibly operating the semiconductor industry, prevention of the pandemic, military areas and its relations with China for its own sake. As a result, it is obtaining the largest reflective interest even in the middle of US-China competition.

Seo: Thinking about your question, I was wondering why we could not find such a successful story of pragmatic diplomacy from the US in the other way around. After the Cold War, the ideological war ended and the US definitely must have had space to settle its pragmatic diplomacy. However, unlike how we generally expect, there were no specific discussions on the US’ pragmatic diplomacy. The first and the largest reason that pragmatic diplomacy could not be institutionalized in the US is in its domestic political system, where the diplomacy of checks and balances goes back and forth. The US is a country that basically has elections every two years, which means the president’s policies are evaluated through elections every other year. Under such a domestic political system, the success or failure of foreign policies are regularly and publicly judged and the direction of diplomacy can be revised. Based on the conditions explained above, the election naturally forms checks and balances regarding foreign policies. Therefore, there is no extra space for the US to make pragmatic diplomacy from the national level, and in fact there was less necessity of it. 



Hwang: What can be the main characteristics of Korea’s diplomacy since the establishment of this country?

Seo: Basically, when we combine Korea’s diplomacy or the history of Korea’s diplomacy with the term pragmatism, we must deeply think about how far we can understand and set the boundary of Korea’s diplomacy under the concept of pragmatism. In Korea’s case, it could achieve a democratic society, industrialism and economic development through the US-Republic of Korea alliance, which is the military one. On the other hand, it has also limited and decreased the stretch of Korea’s pragmatic diplomacy. In a realistic perspective, the pragmatic diplomacy that Korea has implemented is dispatching troops to Iraq and signing the US-ROK free trade agreement under President Roh Moo-hyun’s government and President Park Geun-hye’s “Unification Bonanza” slogan. However, on top of that, what must be considered first is whether this pragmatic diplomacy has made actual and practical outcomes.

Sohn: Nevertheless, if we define pragmatic diplomacy in the empirical traditional sense, which is comparable with ideology and value, President Park Chung-hee’s ROK-Japan normalization of diplomatic relations and South-North Korea Dialogue can be the representative examples. Although the era had severe conflicts from history, Korea’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan and taking advantage of the financial system in economic cooperation was a very pragmatic approach, because it eventually led us to industrialization. Additionally, the effort to accomplish the South-North Dialogue and improvement of the two Koreas’ relations back in 1972 can be evaluated as active and pragmatic moves Korea made amid the big changes in international society, known as the Nixon Doctrine.
Chun: Korea’s status and influence in international society is growing, and under the circumstances, one of the toughest challenges that Korea’s diplomacy is facing remains seeking the space where Korea can practice pragmatic diplomacy, with the US-ROK alliance at the center. The next significant figure of Korea’s diplomacy is the problem in defining the relationship with North Korea. Lastly, the essential characteristic of pragmatic diplomacy depends on how perceptively we are analyzing and predicting the trends of international politics. Once we are not able to read the flow accurately and make the right decision, the possibility of implementing pragmatic diplomacy drops in the end.



Hwang: Then what can be the differences between the pragmatism of progressives and conservatives? Also, can pragmatic diplomacy be both sides’ common diplomacy?

Sohn: I see domestic politics as the most critical obstacle in performing pragmatic diplomacy. The logic of the bloc is based on Korea’s diplomacy and the confrontation is applied to most of the diplomatic issues. This is the variable that limits Korea from stepping forward to a pragmatic approach. How the progressives and conservatives look at North Korea, the US, Japan and China are totally different depending on which bloc they belong to, and the gap can hardly be overcome. After all, it will be the great challenge for the Korean government, including the upcoming one, to overcome the domestic political conditions, which are bisected when it comes to the diplomatic area, to pursue the national interest and to convince the people in order to establish and implement pragmatic diplomacy.

Chun: Pragmatic diplomacy can be the common tenet and principle for both progressives and conservatives. However, Korea’s diplomacy from both sides is hard to be said as pursuing pragmatic diplomacy, since it still has space to develop in responsibility. The current progressives and conservatives are carrying pragmatic diplomacy to raise the national interest as their banners. However, as mentioned above, these approaches must also consider the potential possibility that pragmatic diplomacy can fall off the rails.

Seo: Regardless of the blocs, they must define national interest and concentrate their full political efforts in actively persuading the opposing side. Paving the way to positively persuade those opposed is the essential part of pragmatic diplomacy in the future. Understanding pragmatic diplomacy as the process of persuasion and building domestic consensus can be the right direction for our diplomacy to develop further.



Hwang: What could be your suggestions on either the vision or the spirit of the era, and the directions for Korea’s pragmatic diplomacy?

Seo: I personally believe the first thing we have to do for Korea’s further pragmatic diplomacy in this era of US-China competition is shifting our discussion from which side we must choose to what we shall do for ourselves. The discourse of choice between the US and China must move on to what Korea’s diplomacy can proactively do within our capacity. Only then, Korea’s diplomacy can set its vision and meet the future. In these aspects, from now on, what matters most is clearly defining the national interest and working on the persuading process, and during the process the leader -- I mean the president -- should break from the obsession to cover all areas. Honest discussions will lead to honest policy.

Sohn: According to research from the East Asia Institute last October, there were several international issues that Koreans are perceiving as external threats. From the prior ones, it goes from the COVID-19 situation, climate change issues including fine dust, technology competition and conflicts, then the North Korea issue followed. This research shows that the North Korea issue is now quite far from what people are perceiving as the threat, however, the current government is still pouring its full diplomatic effort and capacity into pulling out the declaration of the end of the war. From now on, I would like to say Korea must focus on the international affairs that the people are actually feeling by their skin and rearrange the priority list accordingly for Korea’s diplomacy to develop in a pragmatic term.

Chun: I contemplate that the policy measures to practice as the most important component in Korea’s pragmatic diplomacy, rather than a vision or a goal. We must precisely narrow down what the policy measures we have in our hands are, what we can do, and what we cannot. Especially, fully understanding the neighbor countries’ relative national powers and recognizing the things that we cannot handle is critical. In addition, based on what I have mentioned before, we also need to analyze the losses and risks that can happen in case we perform a particular diplomatic policy, then prepare the preventive and responding capacity.



Hwang: Do you think we can put the value of diplomacy or norms beyond pragmatic diplomacy as the motto for foreign policy? If not, what if Korea puts the norms and values at the very front of foreign justification and melds the pragmatic approach in the context?

Chun: As Korea’s influence is growing larger, we need to enter into the procedure of defining new international problems and raising it into the discourse by ourselves. Furthermore, Korea’s value diplomacy has a great foundation to grow once Korea can integrate its domestic political capacity.

Seo: Entering the 20th century, Korea is the only country that has achieved democratic society and industrialization at the same time, therefore, a number of developing countries are trying to emulate Korea’s successful case and requesting cooperation. This can be Korea’s identity and value for the future pragmatic foreign policy that we can actively utilize and promote.

Sohn: In the case of the middle powers like Korea, putting too much emphasis on pragmatism itself will lead to the risk of the middle power’s trap of reading and checking the flows, particularly trying to read the strong powers’ thoughts. Therefore, to make a certain voice in international society as a middle power and to perform one’s own influence, we must parallel value diplomacy based on national identity and see beyond the national interest.



Hwang: Lastly, what should be the next government’s priority in management among diplomatic issues?

Sohn: It must be the follow-up actions of the 5.21 US-ROK summit. All the issues that were discussed in the US-ROK summit are comprehensively interrelated to the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and also to the stability and order of the Indo-Pacific region.

Chun: I also agree. There must be some specific actions that can contribute to the stability and peace of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, based on the discussed results in the US-ROK summit.

Seo: Only when we can solve North Korea’s nuclear issue, the Korean Peninsula’s peace and Northeast Asia’s regional order can be stably maintained.


All the experts in the conversation agreed on at least one point, which is the necessity of all-party supported pragmatic diplomacy.

Looking back at Korea’s history, there was ideological separation and confrontation between anti-communism and pro-unification during the Cold War, then that continued to the group supporting the US-ROK alliance against those supporting South Korea and North Korea’s reconciliation and cooperation after the Cold War. Today, both the progressives and conservatives attempt to formally use or utilize pragmatism in a policy context, as a breakthrough to overcome the ideological diplomatic approach, which are for instance the alliance first and unification first.

It stands out that both are considering pragmatic diplomacy as an important matter. Nevertheless, the thing is that both sides are thinking on the premise that the opposition would yield, therefore, realizing the diplomacy that pursues national interest and gets all parties’ support is never easy.

Adding more, if Korea fails in making successful and flexible but principles-based diplomatic moves toward neighboring strong states, pragmatic diplomacy must face the great challenge of abandonment and entrapment. Concluding today’s discourse, pragmatic diplomacy can only be achieved when we have the substance, competence and practice.


Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.


By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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