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[In-depth interview]Korea has to build up its diplomacy: Park

Jan 31,2007
Park Kun-woo
South Korea’s diplomacy is at a crossroads. This is because it has been influenced and constrained by growing inter-Korean ties in recent years while it has failed in pursuing advantages that would be in the national interest. It faces many tasks, such as the reform of the diplomatic corps, which this administration has started but which is still in progress.
The JoongAng Ilbo has proposed the establishment of a professional academy that will exclusively select and train future diplomats.
Park Kun-woo, the chancellor of Kyung Hee University’s cyber-campus, is a former diplomat who served as vice foreign minister and also as ambassador to the United States under the Kim Young-sam administration. He talked with the JoongAng Ilbo on Jan. 21 about ways to improve diplomacy and problems that the Korean diplomatic corps is facing.

Q. There is a prevailing view that South Korea’s diplomacy is at a crossroads. What would be the best way to nurture the country’s relations with neighboring countries?
A. In diplomacy there is no absolute value and there is no absolute winner. If something is judged to be wrong, it needs to be fixed quickly so that it reflects reality. Those who pursue a diplomacy that is aimed at achieving real tangible goals are the winners. But if you don’t realize this, then a crisis comes. Above all, it’s important not to go back on your word; that can undermine trust between nations. For countries that have an alliance, this is important.
In the future, diplomacy needs to be geared toward unification. A prerequisite for that is the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Let’s take a look at Germany. Could West Germany have succeeded in unifying with East Germany without talking to the United States? Doing so didn’t mean that West Germany was subservient. Needless to say, in order to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula, we need to strengthen relations with neighboring countries. Above all, the most important thing in doing that is trust.

For the past decade, the number of diplomats has not increased. In light of the importance of the work and the workload, many say this issue needs to be addressed.
If the number of diplomats is not flexibly adjusted, you can’t call it diplomacy. We need to have the flexibility of reducing and increasing the numbers based on our need. That is the basis for realistic diplomacy.

What do you think would be an appropriate size for the diplomatic corps?
There are currently 1,900 [Korean] diplomats. From 1,600, it took 20 years to get there. Considering our national income and the demand, I would like to see 3,500 diplomats, or at least 3,000. This number is not off the top of my head but based on reason. Out of the 150 diplomatic missions abroad, the main 30 missions should have a similar number of diplomats compared to personnel placed at the missions in the United States, Russia, Japan and China.
We need to have the numbers as this is a prerequisite for pursuing diplomacy properly.
Coupled with this, the number of personnel at the headquarters also needs to be increased. The Ministry of Government Administration and Affairs and the Ministry of Planning and Budget will oppose the idea, but we need to have a grand turnaround in thinking.
We need the support of the president and the people on this.

Some critics say that in order to increase our diplomatic power, we need to increase our Official Development Aid.
To increase international competitiveness, ODA is the underlying basis. One should not think that this [aid] is given out for free. By increasing ODA our economy moves up as well.
There are arguments that if we combine our ODA and the funds going into inter-Korean economic cooperation, our ODA equals that of developed nations; but we need to separate ODA from inter-Korean economic cooperation.
Apart from real advantages, this is a duty. South Korea itself is a country that received ODA and was reborn.

After the killing of Kim Sun-il by a terror group in Iraq in 2004, the government has tried to improve the consular work of Korean diplomatic missions. However, as recent cases involving North Korean defectors have shown, there are still problems.
I have to acknowledge that education of the local staff and the diplomats has been on the short side. This cannot be rationalized by a shortage of manpower.
But one should not interpret this as an issue of diplomats’ qualifications. There needs to be education and training.

More than ever, there is an emphasis on public diplomacy.
One area that our government is not doing well in is public diplomacy. One could make use of retired senior diplomats as they have more freedom and since they are less constrained by security. Regarding relations with the press, if a diplomat does not say what he has to say because he is afraid of the press, then he does not not qualify to be a diplomat. If there is an issue that is in the national interest, the press will play by the rules set by government officials. What is really necessary is to get cooperation from the press in vital areas.

Any advice to junior diplomats?
Diplomats [can] fight over a single preposition at the negotiation table. Real ability is the basis but what is equally important is human nature.
For instance, if a diplomat is smug, does not listen to others and fails to give trust, even if that particular country’s foreign policy is good, he won’t be successful. What is important is to have an attitude and personal skills that can make others say, “Without him there won’t be a party.” If it’s music, then let it be music a person makes use of. If it is art, then let it be art. People will look at you differently.
The Japanese diplomats are very good at this.

How should an academy for diplomats be operated?
Besides theory, practical affairs need to be taught as well. Just having passed the exam does not mean one can become a good diplomat. For instance, how one behaves at the table is important. If possible, the wives of diplomats also need to be educated.

By Oh Young-hwan JoongAng Ilbo [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
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