International relations, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia

12 November 2018

By failing to have a strategic plan for digital public diplomacy, South Korea is missing an important instrument in its diplomatic toolbox, Jeffrey Robertson writes.

Digital diplomacy is the application of digital technologies, including information and communication technologies, software engineering and big data, and artificial intelligence, to the practice of diplomacy. Digital public diplomacy is applying the same, to the practice of openly engaging and persuading foreign publics, thought leaders, and ultimately decision-makers.

South Korea has some amazing advantages in digital public diplomacy. It is a deeply digitally-engaged society; consistently ranks amidst the best in innovation and technology statistics; and is emerging as a soft power giant as K-pop acts enter the global mainstream. However, South Korea is failing to exploit these advantages to secure what has become its core diplomatic objective – securing support for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

To date, South Korea’s digital public diplomacy efforts appear uncoordinated and incapable of capitalising on global interest and attention. There are three broad reasons for this failure.

First, South Korea has no strategic plan for digital public diplomacy. In 2016, South Korea enacted legislation to support coordination, management, reporting and oversight of public diplomacy. The legislation requires the lead agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to establish a Master Plan for public diplomacy. To date, there is no publicly available strategic plan and no noticeable change in digital public diplomacy.

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Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain, Israel, Singapore, France, Poland, and Japan all have public diplomacy strategic plans that are publicly available online. Most plans take the form of ‘green papers’ with public, industry and stakeholder consultation prior to release. They detail the strategic rationale for investment, aims and objectives, benchmarks, participant roles, and measures for implementation. These plans act as guides for leadership, management, and line officers within responsible agencies; improve continuity across government administrations; and, by improving transparency and accountability, instill public confidence.

A strategic plan is particularly important given the impediments of foreign ministry organisational culture. A strategic plan makes a substantial difference within one year, as ‘digital champions’ emerge. With the correct training and guidelines, year upon year, graduating cadet classes would further strengthen South Korea’s ability to influence online foreign policy narratives.

Second, the strategic rationale for digital public diplomacy is misunderstood. Despite recognising its importance, South Korea’s understanding of public diplomacy is still evolving. In particular, the South Korean conceptualisation of public diplomacy conceives of a ‘borderless world’, in which the state seeks to persuade both external and internal audiences.

While the Public Diplomacy Act specifically targets “foreign nationals”, what is often called ‘public diplomacy’ in South Korea can actually be a form of ‘public outreach’. Multiple programs, events, and even social media platforms labelled as public diplomacy utilise only the Korean language (including the only YouTube channel, linked from the foreign ministry’s English language homepage). The people of only one foreign state speak Korean, and needless to say, few of them are paying attention.

Public outreach is important and plays a role in developing awareness of what public diplomacy is and its role in promoting diplomatic objectives. The importance has been put on display in Seoul’s first “Public Diplomacy Week” – a week of lectures, shows, displays, and exhibitions on the subject of public diplomacy. While the people of Seoul enjoy the promotion, a more cost-effective and efficient means would logically have been to call for public consultations and input on a strategic plan.

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Third, the Moon administration has failed to clearly enunciate its strategic narrative. The administration is taking a longer-term approach to Korean Peninsula peace – a multidimensional, open-ended, confidence-building approach that aims to remove North Korea’s rationale for seeking and maintaining nuclear and missile programs. This is clearly distinct from the US approach, which focuses on constraining and immediately winding back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Given the consistent failure of all previous approaches, one can argue the Moon administration’s approach is no better or worse. However, without being clearly enunciated, the hurdles to success will grow.

Without enunciating its strategic narrative, the Moon administration opens itself, and the Trump administration, to criticism as their policy objectives become more distinct. It also opens the bilateral relationship to deeper misunderstanding, or even exploitation by third-parties, as policy differences haphazardly emerge.

Public diplomacy and digital public diplomacy cannot succeed without a clear strategic narrative. Digital champions lack the confidence to lead; social media campaigns invite more criticism and become highly polarised; and multimedia materials are less effective – and even invite ridicule. With success dependent on the strategic narrative being accepted in the United States, and modern political discourse very much centred on social media, digital public diplomacy should be a South Korean priority.

There are multiple internal and external hurdles to securing the Moon administration’s core diplomatic objective to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula. Strategic neglect of digital public diplomacy means that in its efforts to achieve this aim, there is one less instrument in the diplomatic toolbox.

This article is based on the author’s paper in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, Organizational culture and public diplomacy in the digital sphere: The case of South Korea. All papers in the journal are free to read and download.

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