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A capable foreign minister, please

Why doesn’t South Korea have a Kissinger?
Apr 06,2017
About the only noteworthy thing that Park Geun-hye did was keep the same foreign minister throughout her administration. The president’s partnership with the foreign minister, a post expected to display long-term vision and strategic patience, was desirable.

But her choice turned out to be limited, as she picked a career diplomat serving her like an attendant from her camp. The minister made a hopeful comment that “courtship from the United States and China is a blessing.” But he left everyone perplexed by saying, “Korea is in the middle of expanding its diplomatic horizon.”

There have been 37 foreign ministers since Chang Taek-sang became the first in 1948, each serving an average of one year and 10 months. The ministry’s power has been limited as it has been swayed by each president’s ideology or factional interests. Kim Dae-jung had five foreign ministers and Roh Moo-hyun three. A foreign minister under Kim was replaced for not granting a request from the president’s loyalists, and one in the Roh administration was dismissed for “riding with pro-American sentiment.”

From 1902 to 1904, shortly before the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 in the late Joseon period, there were 21 foreign ministers in two years. Scholars say King Gojong did not trust the officials and oversaw foreign policy personally, and foreign advisers close to the king exercised real power. The collapse of the ministry and diplomacy was a sign of trouble and decline.

Now that our diplomacy is once again in crisis, it is not easy to find hope among the presidential candidates. A former human rights lawyer, a doctor-turned-businessman and a former prosecutor are repeating the same answers to controversy over the U.S. military’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield. From these candidates, it might be too much to expect strategies for relations with Washington and Beijing and solutions for the North Korean nuclear threat.

South Korea needs a reliable foreign minister. In modern history, Austria’s Klemens von Metternich, Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck and Henry Kissinger of the United States are considered the great diplomats. The international political circumstances that led to their prominence are similar to the current situation in Korea. The three were all knowledgeable in geopolitics and long-term strategy. They precisely understood the limitations of their geopolitics and created opportunities. They were the masters of power balance and realpolitik.

Austria is at the center of Europe, surrounded by France, Prussia and Russia. Metternich protected the country as head of its foreign ministry for 39 years from 1809. As the coordinator of a peaceful European order, he established the Vienna System that lasted for a century. He patiently made great accomplishments with delicate insensitivity, gracefully smiling at troubles and ignoring ambiguity. He created the concept of collaborating with enemies.

Metternich courted or threatened fickle monarchs of different countries as it was impossible for people used to giving orders to learn compromise. As a moderator between Napoleon and the opposing coalition forces, Austria highlighted its own historic identity and legitimacy, giving an imaginative clue to our diplomacy.

In difficult times, a foreign minister is asked to display boldness, courage and audacity. Bismarck was an architect of the German Empire. But while in university, he was sent to a student prison for engaging in prohibited duels 25 times. Yet it was his perseverance that made German unification possible. When he was sent to the Diet of the German Confederation as Prussia’s envoy, he was not happy with the Austrian representative’s privileges of smoking and began smoking cigars. When smoking became a matter of reputation and status, the Diet became full of smoke.

By the time Prussia’s military augmentation was slowed by the Progress Party and leftists, he gave a speech, in which he said, “The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood,” and successfully dominated the government and military.

Kissinger orchestrated historic ties between the United States and China in 1972. He followed Metternich’s power balance all his life. The establishment of diplomatic relations with China while China and the Soviet Union were involved in a territorial dispute gave the United States leverage to get over the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was expanding aggressively.

Instead of playing a game of chess, which only ends with a checkmate, Kissinger understood the principles of Go in Chinese diplomacy, making concessions and following greater causes. Kissinger jumped right to diplomatic ties without addressing the Cross-Strait issue or ideological clashes.

Kissinger was entrusted with full authority from President Richard Nixon. Mao Zedong once told him, “People like me sound a lot of big cannons. That is, things like, ‘The whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism and all reactionaries, and establish socialism.’ … But perhaps you as an individual may not be among those to be overthrown. … And if all of you are overthrown, we wouldn’t have any more friends left.” It was the pinnacle of successful diplomacy with China.

Why doesn’t South Korea have a Kissinger? Why isn’t there a strategist who can use our legitimacy of having never invaded another country and faithfully contributing to the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia? The next president must find a capable foreign minister and entrust him with full authority in foreign policy. We need someone who has vision and strategy, not someone who is more interested in electioneering.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 5, Page 31

*The author is a senior editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Choi Hoon