The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Beyond the security dilemma and Pyrrhic victory

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 28, 2023 - 05:13

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Year 2023 has been another eventful year, as we have experienced in the past, and foreign and security policies are not exceptions. There were some successes in diplomacy with the Republic of Korea, but there were also many disappointing and embarrassing scenes. There has been some progress in the Korea-US alliance, Korea-Japan relations and Korea-US-Japan cooperation. However, as a reaction xto the three nations' solidarity, North Korea has shown more provocative actions, and China, Russia and the North have increased collaboration as well. It is disappointing that the security dilemma has increased military tension and anxiety on the Korean Peninsula. Inter-Korean relations have been cut off, and both Koreas have exchanged military threats. The deterioration of inter-Korean relations has led to the weakening of Korea-China relations and confrontation of Korea-Russia relations, sounding the alarm over the return of the "Korea Discount."

Errors in diplomacy and security are more evident when analyzing diplomatic strategy, tactics and operational capabilities in more detail. The Indo-Pacific strategy as a national strategy of the Republic of Korea is a problem. A country's diplomatic strategy should aim to maximize its own national interest. However, the Indo-Pacific strategy is a big plan that helps maritime nations like the United States and Japan keep China in check. There are actually more side effects for countries like Korea, where maritime and continental forces overlap.

Regarding tactics, the problem is the one-sided policy of hard-line diplomacy. Following the strategy of keeping China in check, the hard-line stance against China, North Korea and Russia is being unnecessarily emphasized. On the contrary, excessive concessions are being made to the United States or Japan.

The lack of operational competence is also critical. The failure to win the bid to host World Expo 2030 in Busan was the most serious example. The government had suggested a scenario in which it narrowly lost to Saudi Arabia in the first round but could win a come-from-behind victory in the second round. However, Korea got only 29 votes while Saudi Arabia received a landslide 119 votes and there was no such thing as a second round. It was either a severe intelligence failure -- which occurs when the national intelligence agency is incompetent -- or the result of information spinning in which aides around the president distort stories to make reports simply to please him.

The failure to organize the Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit has also been painful. The side effects of Korea-US-Japan cooperation aiming at "China containment" could have been alleviated if the trilateral summit had been successful. However, it did not happen. Above all, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with US President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida at the Asia-Pacific Summit held in San Francisco in November, his refusal to hold talks with President Yoon Suk Yeol demonstrated the unattractive status of Korean diplomacy.

Even in Korea-Japan relations, they said that if South Korea makes concessions first, the other party will follow suit, but that did not happen. Japan is not taking corresponding measures and is instead demanding more gifts, even though South Korea has made radical concessions on third-party compensation for forced mobilization and the issue of the contaminated water discharge from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Managing North Korea-Russia relations has also been a failure. It is essential to understand that President Yoon's visit to Ukraine and excessive remarks against Moscow were also behind the rapid rapprochement between North Korea and Russia.

Why did such failures occur? They result from partisan diplomacy at the national level, kowtow diplomacy at the international level, and bluff and one-sided diplomacy at the personal level. The Yoon government's foreign and security policy can be defined as criticizing the former Moon Jae-in government's policies and moving in the opposite direction. Since those in the current government have labeled the former government as "pro-North Korea," "pro-China," "anti-American" and "anti-Japanese," it has become logically natural to charge ahead being anti-North Korea, anti-China, pro-US and pro-Japanese.

Kowtow diplomacy means that dependence on the US and Japan is excessive. Solidifying the Korea-US alliance is the basis of diplomacy and security in the Republic of Korea, and it is a principle that all past presidents have observed. However, excessive dependence can harm the management of the alliance. Although it is necessary to improve Korea-Japan relations, there are limitations and conditions. If Japan does not take sincere measures, especially on historical issues, there should be a period for readjustment. However, Yoon government skipped any readjustment and went ahead with concessions.

Bluff diplomacy means excessive adherence to diplomatic protocol. Yoon has made 13 overseas visits this year, of which seven were state visits. A state visit is a method characterized by reluctance in modern diplomacy due to its extravagant cost burden. Attracting invitations to state visits from other countries results in significant concessions in bilateral relations. The people can quickly condemn them as efforts to satisfy personal vanity rather than contributing to the national mission.

One-sided diplomacy is the attitude by which one unilaterally conducts diplomacy without seeking public consensus. Public support is an essential element of diplomacy because diplomacy is an effort to maximize national interests, and the national interests are defined by the people. Communicating with the people to receive public support is a fundamental element in diplomacy. However, Yoon has rarely explained the results of diplomacy to the opposition party or the media after returning from an overseas visit. It is essential to recognize that such diplomacy is being criticized for being diplomacy that is self-righteous, based on one person's judgment and run by one person.

The solution to the problem is simple and clear: The government should undertake bipartisan diplomacy centered on national interests. Instead of kowtow diplomacy, we need independent policies based on a worldview of national self-determination. Rather than unilateral policies, the government should try to win the sympathy of the people. Then, a new style of diplomacy in 2024 will contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula, the prosperity of the Republic of Korea and a sense of pride for the people of Korea.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.