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[Hwang’s China and the World] Tough diplomatic security environment waiting to greet the next administration

Discourse with Kim Ki-jung, president of Institute for National Security Strategy

Dec. 27, 2021 - 11:41 By Korea Herald
Institute for National Security Strategy President Kim Ki-jung (left) speaks with professor Hwang Jae-ho in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald).

Korea’s national security can be mainly divided into the policy toward North Korea and toward the others. Since last week’s interview with the president of KINU (Korea Institute of National Unification) covered Korea’s policies toward North Korea, the interview this week is about Korea’s overall national security. Kim Ki-jung, the president of the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), has shared his views on the Moon Jae-in administration’s national security strategy over the past five years and the diplomatic security that will be greeting the next administration. 

Before joining the INSS, President Kim was a professor of the department of political science and diplomacy at Yonsei University and has served as the second deputy at the Office of National Security at the very beginning of the Moon administration. He is also the so-called designer of the ‘Peace Process on the Korean Peninsula’ which is the core of the Moon administration’s North Korea and diplomatic policies. At the same time, he is also a poet and has published multiple pieces.

Hwang Jae-ho: To begin with, I would like to ask how you evaluate Moon Jae-in administration’s past five years from the aspect of diplomatic security policies and the outcomes.

President Kim Ki-jung: It is quite a misfortune that the two Koreas lost the momentum to move forward since the No-deal in 2019 Hanoi, however still, I also agree that the Moon Jae-in administration’s most noticeable achievement is building the foundation for the momentum in the Inter-Korean relations and peace. In the long-term perspective, I assume the Moon administration’s five years have contributed a significant role in leading Korea to reach the ideal nation that we have dreamt about, which is a Korea that shows its competence to the international community with a concrete economic capability. Under the acceleration of the US-China competition, Korea has just stood on tiptoe to be a greatly significant nation to both the US and China in strategical terms. During the Moon Jae-in administration, Korea was invited to attend the G-7 summit twice, and also performed successful and noteworthy management of the coronavirus pandemic. Korea could strengthen its national brand within the international society by showing its national capacity to the world.

Hwang: How do you view the circumstances surrounding diplomatic security that the next administration will bump into?

Kim: For Korean diplomacy, the main and core challenges that we used to confront against would be still there no matter which administration comes into power. When we narrow down the prospects to the Northeast Asia region, the diplomatic security circumstances that Korea will face has more unstable and vulnerable factors that would stand out more than the stable ones. Particularly, Northeast Asia is where the vulnerable variables were sustainably reproduced over and over. Such issues of North Korea, territorial disputes, or ethnic conflicts are escalating and maintaining the vulnerability. Since World War II, these regional problems in Northeast Asia seem to expand and raise conflicts. In addition, in recent days the Northeast Asian countries are escalating the arms race. This arms competition is simmering year by year. Lastly, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula problem, the peace and coexistence could not be settled till today, and the solution to institutionalize the peace and coexistence is still not there yet.

Hwang: Considering that the US has set two pillars in its foreign policy, which must be the Atlantic and Pacific, seemingly there are some signs of changes in the Pacific side. During the reorganizing era after the world wars, China has been partially dragged into the center of the world by the US. However, it seems to take up the center of the world by its own capacity. Also, watching Japan’s moves, it seems to be immersed in the competition with China within the Northeast Asia region to make its last jump since its “Two Lost Decades.”

Kim: In Korea’s perspective, the main reason for all these issues actually start from the point after World War II. How Japan has readjusted during the postwar period and how the situations were managed after the Korean War can be the representative points. What the current Korean Peninsula is struggling with is also partially related to all these post-war readjustment errors. We can conclude that the Northeast Asia region was rather a history of segmentation and distrust than a history of cooperation and harmony. What we are carrying on our backs have their roots in history.

Hwang: I guess we can understand that the decline of the US and Japan and the rise of China and Korea eventually have built up the current unstable Northeast Asia’s political circumstances. In the end, it could be thought that it is time to rearrange the power distribution as one side is declining. Taking these historical flows into consideration, what capability and qualification should the leader of the next administration have?

Kim: Historically, Korea used to have one extraordinary leader who is responsible for the national operations and the country was anticipating him/her to play the right role in the regional; or international stage. Therefore, people’s expectation level toward the leader is usually extremely high. We are desiring a leader who has great insight into the further direction that Korea should walk toward, as well as the one who can be the leader of Korea but also the one who can present the future and historical direction of the regional diplomacy in Northeast Asia. To sum it up, I think the insight and the capability to read the era is the most significant and essential qualification that the next administration’s leader must possess.

Hwang: What would be the spirit of the times for today’s international society?

Kim: For the thousand years of the history of civilization, human beings have pursued the values of freedom, equality, justice, and life and peace. Therefore, what the present and future spirit of the times require would not be far away from this frame of values. In my personal opinion, I would like to emphasize more on the value of justice and fairness, both on the domestic and international stages. Furthermore, from the perspective that we desire Korea’s leader to be the leader of the time in Northeast Asia, settling down with the peace problem might be the most exigent matter. The core of the political situations surrounding the Korean Peninsula and the core of the characteristics of Northeast Asia’s regional order meet each other. In this sense, the most ideal flow would be the one if the stable and peaceful existence of the Korean Peninsula that we pursue, successfully turns into the peaceful order of Northeast Asia.

Hwang: Every time the new administration comes in, their main emphasis on diplomacy tends to change accordingly. What would be the next administration’s diplomatic emphasis?

Kim: The Korean Peninsula is divided into half while Korea is geopolitically located at the center of Northeast Asia and is surrounded by strong states regardless of our own wills. Looking at Korea from the world map, Korea relatively belongs to a remoted area far from the world and confronted various challenges. Nevertheless, it has overcome the obstacles and has reached today’s status. As we have dreamt for so long, Korea is actually heading toward the center of the world. Under this environment, up to how far are we going to draw the line of diplomatic strategy would be the matter of political decisions.

Hwang: Since we are looking forward to the upcoming presidential election, what strong points would Korea’s diplomacy have if either the conservative or progressive comes to power?

Kim: I guess the conservative administration has its strength in the perspective of the US-ROK alliance, because it would be able to utilize the US in practical measures. On the other hand, if we think about the strategic decisions and peaceful resolution of the North Korea issue, progressives seem to have relative advantages. Above all, I value strategical flexibility as the most important factor that both the conservative and progressive must keep in mind. In specific, Korea should make a step away from the discourse of obsession in selecting one when it comes to US-China relations.

Hwang: There are quite a number of voices that understand the current US-China relationship as the New Cold War, both domestically and abroad.

Kim: Unlike how it was back in the US-Soviet Cold War, the current US and China are under a relationship of extremely high mutual dependency. In addition, back in the US-Soviet Cold War, there was a political and ideological confrontation which later was expanded to worldwide military conflicts. However, today’s US and China are sharing massive economic benefits under mutual dependency. Therefore, the core of the conflict between the US and China is rooted in who takes the larger pie. To sum it up, their relations is rather a political competition or a power game for the sake of having a larger piece of the pie.

Hwang: Probably the core of the US-China relations might be new technology. What would be Korea’s countermeasure to this flow?

Kim: One of the most essential parts of the core of US-China competition is the technology hegemony. Science and technology will steadily play a larger role in a broader area, which will eventually have a greater influence over international politics. For Korea to successfully adjust to the future science and technology competition, we might need a strategy at the national level, which goes beyond the interests only of the enterprises. In other words, there must be support or assistance in building the cooperative structure between the nation and enterprises in the national strategic aspect.

Hwang: The end-of-war declaration is the last but the main diplomatic agenda for the Moon administration. I wonder what discussions there was between the US and Korea and what different viewpoints they had in their opinions.

Kim: As far as I know, the US Department of State and the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs at least have made some successful agreements at the working level. Korea has consistently reminded the fact that Korea is the one that is most engaged in solving the Korean Peninsula issue in a peaceful way, and that Korea can be the only one that is able to sustainably raise this issue. However, the truth is that the Korean Peninsula issue is very low in the US’ priority since the US itself is facing difficulties in domestic politics.

Hwang: Recently, the US is trying to encourage the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics along with the sanctions on North Korea. Adding all these circumstances into the calculation, the possibility of the declaration of the end of the war seems to fade away.

Kim: The expectations that the Beijing Olympics would be the turning point seemed to come from the PyeongChang Olympics. As the PyeongChang Olympics could fully perform its strategic and periodic value, the Beijing Olympics also might have looked forward to a similar effect. But the thing is that while PyeongChang Olympics was successfully hosted, the following Tokyo Olympics lost its sincere meaning due to the coronavirus crisis, and Beijing Olympics is at the forefront of concern. Under the conditions, the possibility to accelerate the declaration of the end of the war with the momentum from the Beijing Olympics is barely there. I do not take this as the failure of Korea’s diplomacy and therefore there is no need to be too much disappointed. In fact, the declaration of the end of the war also is a political and symbolic action, and the best place to declare it would be Panmunjeom, not Beijing. To conclude, what must be considered most important is understanding the meaning of the declaration in terms of the periodical turning point. Utilizing this symbol as the diplomatic measure is unlikely to be the right approach.

Hwang: How should the next administration set up Korea’s relations with China?

Kim: I agree that Korea and China are tied under competitive relations due to the industrial and investment areas. However, in the longer term, both countries must maintain mutually friendly relations. From Korea’s perspective, we are standing on the point of maintaining the strategic relations with China but at the same time required for the De-Sinicization. In the end, we need to continue the relations with China with a flexible approach, but to use the pivoting strategy to strengthen the partnership with China amid US’ emphasis on the alliance. Only by expanding the space of diplomatic decision, Korea will be able to develop its status within the US-China relations.

Hwang: Please share your thoughts on Korea’s relations with Japan in the next administration.

Kim: The Moon administration has come up with a two-track strategy for its diplomacy toward Japan. It was basically to separate the historical issue from further cooperation. Although the Moon administration’s two-track strategy did not make a noticeable outcome, I still think we need to maintain this two-track approach. Also, if possible, a multitrack that covers multiple aspects on multiple levels seems like an idea. Two countries were tied with knots of anticommunism and the liquidation of colonialism since the Year 1965 System, and today might be the right timing to come up with a new strategy. We must continuously bring up the suggestions and discourses to break from the post-Year 1965 System and make a new move.

Hwang: In order to strengthen Korean diplomacy’s competitiveness, what would be the necessary reformation, for instance, organizational restructuring or reformation of human resources?

Kim: Korea has several other diplomacy departments besides the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For instance, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, Ministry of Education, or Culture, Sports, and Tourism are actually implementing diplomatic roles. Along with the government departments, what really matters is the role of Blue House. Considering the relations between the Blue House and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the messages from Blue House must be clearly delivered to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so that the ministry can develop and practice the diplomatic strategies based on the streams from the Blue House. Additionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should increase its discussions and talks with the external think tanks and go deeper in mapping out the strategies.

Hwang: Should the new administration establish an additional government organization like Japan’s Ministry for Economic Security or do you have any suggestions on reforming the overall formation?

Kim: I agree that Korea also needs a new department that is in charge of economic security. The reason that Japan founded the Ministry of Economic Security is not only to create great benefits from the economic field, but also to respond to the crisis of the international supply chain. Therefore, the economic flow could be interpreted within the security terms. I anticipate an organizational restructuring that could connect science technology with international politics, and eventually can contribute to diplomatic strategies.

The past administrations’ foreign policies had different diplomatic strengths and emphases. Regardless of whether all those foreign policies and diplomacies were actually implemented or not, the highlights were all distinguished. Geographically, they were all different starting from the Korean Peninsula, moving on to Northeast Asia, East Asia, Asia, and finally to the global level. Ideologically, there were voices from one side that actively support the US-ROK alliance under the US’ alliance policy to the other side that would reflect the realities by putting more weight on the relationships with China. However, even though the past governments attempted to expand the diplomacy with new agendas, the discourse could not overcome the Korean Peninsula due to the risk of North Korea. Though Korea desires to make a new voice in between the US and China, the alliance with the US and China’s support on the North Korea issue were always what Korea was tied up with. In the end, Korea was trapped in a dilemma, stuck in between the US and China.

However, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Korea’s diplomatic security environment and status met a great change. Korea could stand up as an advanced country in the international society with a new pride, that Korea is no longer in the position to focus only on passive diplomacy or the unrequited diplomacy toward North Korea. Now, the people have perceptions of being the citizens of an advanced country. They have the ambitions of being global citizens. All these changes will give attention to the new administration’s foreign policies, and its influence would never be small. Therefore, the new administration is under considerable pressure to perform a new diplomacy that fulfills the expectations both from the inside and outside. Now is the era that requires leadership with fresh and dynamic diplomatic capacity, which goes beyond ideology, party, or interest conflict, than any other time. The presidential election on March 9 is coming right in front of us. The time to present the new diplomacy is ticking. 

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.

By Choi He-suk (