Do analogies steer South Korean foreign policy?

Learning lessons from history

Jeffrey Robertson

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

13 September 2017

We can learn a great deal about South Korean foreign policy through the lens of historical analogy, Jeffrey Robertson writes.

South Korea’s position at the intersection of US and North Korean intentions and capabilities stirs substantial domestic debate. A perennial feature of these debates is the use of analogies to frame different policy approaches.

Analogies are memories of previous experiences that act as an aid to understand and/or frame situations of a similar nature. In foreign policy, they can also act as all-important cognitive short cuts that are particularly influential on decision-making during crises, periods of high-pressure and rapidly evolving situations. But foreign policy analogies have both positive and negative effects — they guide, but can equally misguide foreign policy decision-making.

The classic example is the Munich Agreement. In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Munich and agreed to Hitler’s demands that Nazi Germany annex the predominantly German speaking regions of Czechoslovakia in return for a promise of peace that was never fulfilled. The Munich Agreement soon became the epitome of appeasement. As an analogy, it guides decisions to oppose aggression, but can equally misguide decisions to pre-emptively oppose some perceived aggression.

The Munich Agreement may be an ideal example to explain how analogical reasoning works, but it also acts as a red herring. My research on South Korea suggests that such classic ‘global’ analogies are much less influential on foreign policy decision-makers than ‘local’ analogies — memories of previous experiences with which decision-makers have stronger cultural, institutional, or personal connections.

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So which analogies are most influential on South Korean foreign policy decision-making? I have found 14 core analogies that guide South Korean foreign policy decision-making, which can be broken down into three different types — historical, institutional, and archetypal.

Historical analogies are based on well-worn historical narratives, taught from primary school through university. The Taft-Katsura discussion serves as an example. In July 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro and US Secretary of War William Howard Taft outlined their respective positions on regional affairs. Their discussions included a Japanese recognition of the US role in the Philippines, and a US recognition of Japan’s position on the Korean peninsula.

For South Koreans, the Taft-Katsura discussion highlights the fact that the state itself is the sole guarantor of its own survival, and that duplicity is an inherent and recurring feature of foreign relations. As an analogy, it influences decisions involving trust in relationships with major powers; and has been used in the context of China-US negotiations on North Korea and US-South Korea negotiations on nuclear energy and missile control.

Institutional analogies are closer to the individuals making, advising or implementing decisions. They can appear inconsequential to outsiders, and often involve the relationships between stakeholders, such as between the executive, the foreign ministry, diplomats at embassies, the press, and the public. The 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, popularly known as the Normalization Treaty, serves as an example.

The Normalization Treaty was the result of over a decade of talks between official representatives of South Korea and Japan to establish a final agreement on reparations for Japan’s colonial rule and to establish ongoing diplomatic relations. The negotiations invoked massive public opposition, threatening to bring down the government. Significantly, anger was also directed at the negotiators themselves, with their actions seen as treacherous and/or traitorous. It demonstrated that individuals, rather than the government as a whole, can be viewed as responsible for policy.

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For South Koreans, the Normalization Treaty highlights the divergence between government and public interest in foreign relations. As an analogy, it influences decisions on issues of public interest; and has been used in the context of KORUS FTA negotiations, US-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement negotiations, and comfort women settlement negotiations.

Finally, archetypal analogies are international events that, wrongly or rightly, are thought to be directly applicable to events underway in Korea. This can range from examples of armed neutrality to examples of cultural influence and soft power. The classic example is German unification. For South Koreans, German unification highlights the importance of preparedness in foreign affairs, but also concern and fear regarding a lack of preparedness. As an analogy, it influences all decisions pertaining to North Korea and its potential collapse.

While it is hard to determine the degree to which these analogies influence decision-makers, the fact that they come up again and again in attempts to frame foreign policy decisions means that they could conceivably also come up during crises, periods of high-pressure, and rapidly evolving situations.

The big question today is which analogies would be most influential when South Korea is forced to decide on questions of the United States and North Korea? As Trump seeks to renegotiate the KORUS FTA and/or exacerbate the North Korea situation, will it be the cynicism and perfidy of Taft-Katsura; the unpopular rigidity of the Normalization Treaty; or the risk and fear of German unification?

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