International relations, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia

18 April 2018

For a country so reliant on soft power, why is South Korea neglecting science diplomacy as a tool of statecraft? Olga Krasnyak suggests three ways for Seoul to have diplomacy down to a science.

Science diplomacy offers governments significant potential to grow international influence and improve diplomatic relations. This potential has already been recognised by countries such as the US and the UK.

But South Korea – a world expert in the use of soft power – is yet to recognise the power of science diplomacy. If incorporated into Seoul’s foreign policy agenda, science diplomacy would advance South Korea’s image as an attractive, cooperative, and influential country.

With rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the return of great power politics between the US and China, strengthening South Korea’s influence regionally and internationally is an urgent task.

On the North Korea nuclear crisis, South Korea is squeezed between Beijing and Washington, the former leveraging economic interdependence for its own security interests and the latter, South Korea’s key strategic ally, threatening to launch a military operation against the North.

Beyond the Peninsula, the US-China rivalry places additional constraints on South Korea. Seoul is party to neither China’s Belt and Road Initiative nor the recently revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia. This exclusion puts South Korea in a situation where proactive policy and skilful diplomacy are especially needed for it to maintain international influence.

More on this: Why science gets shut out of policy

Encouraging the development of science diplomacy to foster a stronger academic-practitioner community could strengthen South Korea’s voice and promote its image. Science diplomacy could also be an extension of President Moon Jae-in’s “innovative growth” agenda.

So, how could it be achieved? There are three things South Korea needs to do to encourage the growth of science diplomacy and reap the benefits.

First, Seoul needs to give science diplomacy a higher profile.

South Korea has recently demonstrated how sports and cultural diplomacy could help with North Korea during the Winter Olympics. Science diplomacy has the potential to be used as a universal tool to smooth the cultural gap between the two Koreas, thus securing the foreign policy objectives for both.

South Korea has already built an image as a strong, capable, and reliable international partner through intergovernmental organisations such as the UN and the World Health Organization and through international agreements such as the Antarctic Treaty. Future international treaties will require South Korean diplomacy to become more savvy and skilful.

By creating a high profile for science diplomacy and understanding both diplomacy for science (facilitating international science cooperation) and science in diplomacy (informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice), South Korea can promote its future foreign policy concerns and increase its influence.

Second, Seoul should encourage the wider inclusion of non-state actors and develop public diplomacy as a whole.

The first ever meeting of South Korea’s committee on public diplomacy took place in August 2017, at which a five-year ‘master plan’ was created. The plan includes 410 billion won (US $383 million) for public diplomacy projects in six fields, including policy, knowledge, and culture, with the biggest focus on culture.

Science diplomacy, however, was not officially recognised in this diplomacy master plan.

More on this: South Korea is failing North Korean studies

The plan also measures the success of public diplomacy through citizen participation. This means that Korean citizens are the target group, which overlooks opportunities for foreign communities to spread South Korean influence abroad.

For science diplomacy, foreign non-state actors are essential. These foreign communities might be represented by academic networks in other countries as well as foreign academics living and working in Korea.

The inclusiveness of non-state actors for science diplomacy can build on South Korea’s nation-branding from already well-known, different kinds of soft power – such as K-pop or electronics – towards a more scientifically-relevant, academic image. Focusing on non-state actors for science diplomacy offers key advantages in the long-run and contributes to a higher profile.

The third ingredient for successful science diplomacy is establishing a network of ‘science diplomacy centres’ under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Initially proposed in a report by the Asia Institute, these centres of excellence would operate within the worldwide network of South Korean embassies and consulates. The role of embassies and consulates has shifted from pursuing only intergovernmental contacts to connecting with a wide range of non-state actors such as companies, various institutions, and individual professionals. This expanding network is a potential tool to promote Korea’s science diplomacy.

The centres might also affirm a democratic, knowledge-based model with a balance between economic growth, political development, social justice, and human security. Additionally, they could coordinate joint scientific projects and diplomatic negotiations and monitor research opportunities for long-term sustainability.

By building goodwill and influence, these centres could become strategically autonomous based on science policy. And South Korea doesn’t need to look too far to find an example of how to do this – ‘innovation hubs’ can already be seen in the United Kingdom’s network of embassies and high commissions.

Taken together, these three steps might increase efficiency of traditional diplomacy, enhance scientific cooperation, and ultimately, allow South Korea to shape its future as an important geopolitical player and demonstrate that its soft power skills go well beyond K-pop and electronics.


This piece is based on the author’s paper for the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI) ‘Science diplomacy: An underestimated toolkit of South Korea’s foreign policy‘ and her associated public talk at KEI ‘Knowledge is power: How science diplomacy can advance South Korea’s foreign policy agenda’. Watch a video of the talk below.

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