International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

19 January 2021

The incoming Biden Administration is sparking a degree of apprehension for the government of South Korea, Jeffrey Robertson writes.

Despite relief at greater predictability, there remains uncertainty for South Korea about President-elect Joe Biden’s North Korea policy – and the serious concern that the country’s voice is nowhere to be heard.

Despite some American convictions to the contrary, the United States and South Korea do not always have the same national interests on the Korean peninsula.

On the surface, the United States focuses on ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, while South Korea focuses on threat reduction and maintaining stability. Below the surface rests a more complicated picture.

South Korea has reached a stage of development at which it feels more secure, confident, and willing to chart a new strategic course. Once-taboo strategic ideas like rethinking its alliance with the United States, accepting a regionally dominant China, pursuing neutrality, and securing an independent nuclear weapons capacity are all now on the agenda for discussion for South Korean policymakers.

On top of this, four years of President Trump’s meddling on the peninsula – starting with ‘fire and fury’ and the threat of war, climaxing with the global publicity stunt of his summit with Kim Jong-Un, and ending in a feckless mess of pointless letters and claims of success – did little to give the government the confidence that its national interests should be tied to the United States.

Nor has the chaotic aftermath of the United States election or the country’s ongoing healthcare debacle. The bilateral relationship between the United States and South Korea is at a turning point and deserves greater attention.

More on this: North Korea, the USA, and a question of trust

Without a shift, sooner or later the allies’ diverging national interests will result in a serious policy disagreement. Seoul’s greatest challenge over the next 10 years will be ensuring that decisions made on core national interests are fully understood – and preferably supported – by the United States.

This is more difficult than it may seem, and failing to secure attention in Washington is a recurring problem for the relationship. Current plans to influence the incoming Biden administration, with an ‘early presidential summit’ and calls to ‘bolster the alliance’ are a start, but they show a lack of creativity and preparedness.

South Korea needs a long-term strategy. It especially needs to lay the foundations to better influence American North Korea policy discourse.

There are four easy steps it can take to do this.

First, South Korea needs a more coordinated digital diplomacy strategy. Often, the American North Korea policy debate simmers on social media before bubbling over into actual policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs lacks a coordinated digital diplomacy strategy to take advantage of this freely available intelligence on the way the policy winds are blowing for its ally.

It has the infrastructure, capacity, and experience to excel in this space, but instead, suffices with intermittent bursts of often misdirected activity. A coordinated strategy, like those used by the Netherlands or Australia, would enhance South Korea’s voice in American foreign policy circles.

Second, South Korea needs a competent, high-profile, active English-language spokesperson. For better or worse, the role of presidential spokespeople has increased in the digital age, a phenomenon exemplified by Russia’s Maria Zakharova or the United States’ Kayleigh McEnany.

An English-language spokesperson could strengthen influence over foreign audiences, help build and support their narrative, and contribute to a coordinated digital diplomacy strategy. The government took steps towards this with the recruitment of former CNN reporter Sohn Jie-ae as G20 Seoul Summit spokesperson during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak. The re-invigoration of a similar position would do much to give its interests a place on the global media stage.

More on this: The Inter-Korean Summit: what’s next?

Third, South Korea needs a larger platform to generate dialogue. Through the government-affiliated Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, it already supports a not-for-profit think-tank, the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEIA), which acts as a centre for research, education, and public outreach on Korean Peninsula issues.

With strong leadership and well-coordinated programs, KEIA does a tremendous job promoting dialogue. However, it could be further strengthened with greater funding, and the restructuring and expansion of its remit to cover all Korean Peninsula issues – perhaps including an emphasis on North Korea policy.

Finally, South Korea needs more creative diplomatic strategies. There are alternative strategies that would potentially allow South Korea to capitalise on its middle power strengths, including through the use of active fast-track diplomacy, niche diplomacy, multilateral coalition building, soft power, or some combination of these.

Instead, South Korea routinely falls back on less creative, tried, and often failed, strategies that emphasise leadership summits and high-level bilateral engagement.

Encouraging creativity and rethinking diplomatic strategies would substantially strengthen South Korea’s ability to influence its primary ally. This could be achieved by the establishment of a fully independent and accountable, non-partisan think-tank, along the lines of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute or the American Council on Foreign Relations.

Through its research and analysis, such an institute would raise the profile of key issues and provide an alternative source for creative government policy.

The pursuit of an ‘early presidential summit’ and calls to ‘bolster the alliance’ are never going to give South Korea the influence it needs over American North Korea policy. If South Korea really wants to build influence, it must lay the foundations for a long-term strategy along these lines.

While new and creative strategies may not change things overnight, South Korean policymakers must be satisfied knowing that if they take up these changes and succeed, future administrations will be able to better influence North Korea policy in the United States, for the likely betterment of all on the peninsula.

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