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Neophytes in the hot seat

South Korea’s fate has become too perilous to have rookies on the diplomatic front.
Sept 06,2017
The daring and destructive ways of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has even hardball-playing Donald Trump at his wits’ end. A nuclear-obsessed madman in Pyongyang is not only a tragedy for South Korea, but a threat to the entire global community.

Nuclear weapons are the biggest danger to human civilization. If Pyongyang is struck, there could be a third world war — and if not, we would be living with a ticking atomic bomb. The North claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb on Sunday with a purported destructive power three times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Kim remains unfazed by economic sanctions and diplomatic strategies. Beijing has so far done nothing beyond feigning gestures — and will likely go on without doing much more.

What would the legendary Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state, do to solve this conundrum? In the 1970s, he used rapprochement toward China to isolate the Soviet Union. President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 and the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1978 arranged by Kissinger, then national security adviser, ended up pushing the Soviets to the diplomatic periphery and accelerated their collapse. These days, Kissinger is suggesting courting Russia to contain China.

Kissinger, one of few Americans to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, is said to be behind Trump’s election scandal involving Russia. There is nothing the shrewd diplomatic veteran, who still wields enormous power on the international stage, can’t do to influence the global order. When it comes to diplomatic maneuvering, there is no moralism.

About a decade ago, Kissinger visited Seoul National University. Even in his 80s, he was sturdy, with a certain sharpness in his eyes. I asked him what the biggest virtue in diplomacy was. His answer was simple: the wisdom and capability to pursue national interests in the international order of power.

But that is easier said than done. His instinct to see through the balance of power and ability to persuade others has made him a legendary diplomat. But can his tactics work on the unruly young leader who plays fire with nuclear warheads? President Moon Jae-in’s noble rapprochement policy on North Korea has been debunked by Kim’s missile and nuclear tests. Just as moral pleas are useless against Islamic militants, Moon’s two-track policy of pursuing pressure and diplomacy has fallen helplessly flat against Pyongyang’s provocations.

So what now? Should realism take the place of moralism, or should there be some kind of compromise? Moon has valiantly attempted to take the driver’s seat in inter-Korean affairs, but the destination and path have disappeared. The president has filled key ambassador posts with confidants from his election campaign, and like his choice for foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, none of the envoys are career diplomats. They are all novices lacking field experience, knowledge in diplomatic language and intelligence in defense affairs. None of them are considering options beyond sanctions and dialogue with North Korea. It would be better to gather veteran diplomats and borrow their wisdom for new ideas on a breakthrough. South Korea’s fate has become too perilous to have rookies on the diplomatic front.

Moon’s administration is entirely filled with contributors to his election triumph. But rewarding campaign aides is too much of a luxury in such challenging times. It does not mean career diplomats are always the best — some outsiders do perfectly good work, but that is very rare. Diplomacy is a sophisticated and complicated field where experience and expertise is crucial. Personal strength and eagerness often can do more harm than good.

Are we so short of experts on the United States, China, Japan and Russia? Did we have to send an economist to Washington at a time when the most delicate and sophisticate diplomatic skills are needed to mediate war-like tensions between Pyongyang and Washington? And what about former lawmaker Noh Young-min, who’s been deployed to Beijing at a time when it is most belligerent toward Seoul? Or Woo Yoon-keun, secretary general of the National Assembly, who should be sharing his expertise on constitutional reform rather than representing Seoul in Moscow. And while Prof. Lee Su-hoon may be well-versed in East Asian affairs, he is hardly the best person to untangle ties with Tokyo amid a standoff on the “comfort women” issue.

Ambassador posts have long been handed out as a reward to contributors of an election campaign. Shin Gak-soo, former ambassador to Japan, has named communication skills as the top virtue of a diplomat. A diplomat must be eloquent and crafty in order to achieve a diplomatic goal. He or she must have an instinct about whom to contact and how to approach them.

Han Duck-soo, former ambassador to the United States, met with over 250 American lawmakers while Seoul and Washington were negotiating on the free trade agreement. What can Korean officials do to prevent termination of the hard-won trade pact? Kim Soon, former ambassador to the United Nations and a veteran diplomat on U.S. affairs, spoke of the difficulties in getting access to the inner sanctum of U.S. politics even though he had been in Washington for 10 years and was an expert in American affairs. The nominated envoys have earned a reputation in their own fields in Korea, but they are inexperienced on the international stage.

Kim Jong-un’s nuclear warheads are in combat posture. The world’s four great powers have their top weapons and military to protect their national interests. South Korea, on the other hand, has filled its diplomatic front with neophytes following an idealistic and moralistic recipe from their boss. How do they expect us to feel safe?

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 5, Page 31

*The author, a professor of sociology at Seoul National University, is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Song Ho-keun