Going beyond the diplomacy for values
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Since he took office in May last year, President Yoon Suk Yeol has made many bold diplomatic and national security decisions. Some of his decisions were exhilarating, but others sparked controversy. There may be disputes, but it seemed inevitable that he had made some controversial decisions in times of a seismic shift in international politics to reflect such changes and protect national security and public safety.
The dynamic structure of international politics has evolved from the 40-year-long Cold War after World War II to the post-Cold War after the 1980s and to a new Cold war. The United States and China are having a life-or-death standoff. The Ukraine war has developed into a sharp confrontation between the free world, including the United States and the European Union, and the authoritarian dictatorship camp, including Russia and China. The North Korean regime is taking advantage of the blind spot of division among the permanent members of the UN Security Council to advance its nuclear and missile systems. It does not hesitate to threaten South Korea, Japan, and the U.S.
In this desperate security crisis, it constitutes a dereliction of duty if the head of state remains helpless or if he repeats empty promises of peace based on blind trust of the North’s good intentions. There is no need to even talk about the experiences from the Moon Jae-in administration, which had faced criticisms for its submissive and low-profile stance toward North Korea and China. In the field of foreign affairs and national security, President Yoon showed a bit of a rough and coarse approach over the past year, but when you look at the essence, many choices were unavoidable and necessary.
In North Korean policy, Yoon presented an “audacious initiative” and made it clear that he will never tolerate any armed provocations from the North. Instead of being servile and dragged by the North and waiting for the Kim Jong-un regime’s decisions, Yoon declared peace through power. Some criticized his decision for fueling a possibility of war, but such claims only benefit the North by turning a blind eye to the immediate nuclear threats.
With the Korea-U.S. summit in May last year, President Yoon managed to mend the rupture left by the Moon administration. With his state visit in April to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korea-U.S. alliance, the president strengthened trust and solidarity. Although he stopped short of Korea’s own nuclear development, the Washington Declaration helped ease public insecurity through the launch of the Nuclear Consultative Group. Like the warning from U.S. President Joe Biden, North Korea will have to confront the end of the regime if it stages provocations recklessly.
Yoon’s preemptive solution to the Japanese forced labor compensation issue was well-received abroad, but it faced cynical reactions in Korea. Yoon didn’t come up with the solution just because he fell in love with the Japanese omurice dish or because he favors Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Considering rapid changes in the international order, Korea cannot afford to fight with Japan, as the Moon administration did. Korea-Japan conflicts should be addressed and the Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation on security must be strengthened. The Kishida Cabinet should not waste time enjoying the political momentum that Yoon has revived, but should respond in a forward-looking manner.
For Putin’s Russia, which has become a “public enemy” in the international community, it would be possible to respond flexibly while observing changes in the situation and cooperating with the free world. But the real tricky question is China. It is true that Korea’s antipathy toward China has become aggressive amid a hegemony contest with America. But considering the economy, it is not easy to sever ties with China unconditionally. Rather than antagonizing China as a whole, it would better for South Korea to take a different approach on each issue to serve the national interest. We should be wary of the apparent boomerang of excessive hatred toward China.
The past year was the first year for Yoon to redefine the disrupted principles of foreign affairs and national security. What should he do for the next four years? First, he must keep principles while improving flexibility. He must go beyond the diplomacy of values and focus on the diplomacy for national interest. The people will love the feel-good diplomacy like they love refreshing drinks, but a leader must engage in pragmatic diplomacy beneficial to the country even if it may feel lukewarm.
Second, Yoon needs refined language and behavior. His messages must be carefully crafted and managed. It was enough for him to say, “I support peace and stability on both sides of the strait,” when he addressed the China-Taiwan issues. There was no need to say, “I absolutely oppose attempts to change the status quo by force.”
It was enough to say, “Korea and Japan must overcome the past and head to the future.” There was no need to say, “There is no need for Japan to kneel.”
Third, he must hire talented people. Yoon must overhaul the mood in officialdom with sharp evaluations. He must punish those who are not doing their job properly and reward those who deserve recognition. It was refreshing that Yoon has recently recruited former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin — the true soldier whom the North fear the most — to a key post in his administration. The success or failure of the president’s remaining term ultimately depends on his appointments.