Moon needs to join G-7 summit with well-thought diplomatic strategy
President Moon Jae-in leaves for the UK on Friday to attend the Group of Seven summit over the weekend, the first major in-person multilateral diplomatic event since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the world early last year.
South Korea is not a member of the club encompassing the world's richest nations, but Moon has been invited to this year's summit as a guest along with the leaders of Australia, India and South Africa.
During a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, Moon said the G-7's invitation could be seen as an indication that South Korea's international stature had been heightened to a level comparable to that of its member states -- the UK, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. He pledged to use the gathering to reinforce Seoul's role in resolving pending global issues and broaden its diplomatic horizons.
Yet he needs to come on the stage not just with a feeling of pride but also with a thought-out diplomatic strategy designed to secure South Korea's long-term national interests.
The G-7 summit to be joined by the four nonmember powers comes as US President Joe Biden's administration is pushing to form a coalition of democratic allies and partners to counterbalance a rising China. Biden is poised to use the gathering to show off the solidarity among the world's major democracies and promote the rules-based international order, which Washington believes is being challenged by China.
Moon faces a delicate task of striking a right chord in China-related discussions at the summit, though it remains undecided whether the G-7 leaders' remarks will directly target Beijing in a blunt manner.
Since Moon took office in 2017, his administration has tried to keep an equal distance from the US, its key security ally, and China, its largest trading partner.
Last month's summit between Moon and Biden at the White House was seen as marking Seoul's departure from this ambiguous stance in support of Washington's position on contentious issues with Beijing. A joint statement issued after the summit articulated the two leaders' commitment to consolidating and upgrading the seven-decade-long alliance.
But Seoul officials have since appeared to retreat to what they call a strategic ambiguity between the world's two mightiest powers, noting the joint declaration by Moon and Biden just outlined the allies' shared understanding in "broad generalities."
Moon may seek to sound relatively inclusive toward China. But he should make it unequivocal that Seoul is ready to move in step with the US and other major democracies in ensuring the rules-based international order and reorganizing key global supply chains to prevent them from being rattled by possible disruptions in China.
The extended G-7 summit could also serve to make a breakthrough in South Korea's icy relations with Japan.
Moon suggested his eagerness to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during Wednesday's Cabinet meeting when he said that the gathering would set the stage for a brisk round of bilateral summit talks.
Suga may balk at holding one-on-one talks with Moon. But there is the likelihood that they will sit with Biden for a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the summit. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday no trilateral meeting had been scheduled for the three leaders, but noted the possibility of "virtually anything" taking place, citing what he called small spaces of the venue for the G-7 summit in Cornwall, England.
The Biden administration has been trying to bring Washington's two key Asian allies closer together to cope with challenges from China and North Korea. What should draw attention from Moon and Suga is the outcome of a recent survey of 1,000 South Korean citizens and 1,063 Japanese citizens. The poll jointly conducted by a daily newspaper each from South Korea and Japan showed nearly 70 percent of the respondents in both countries agreed on the need to improve Seoul-Tokyo ties to help bolster cooperation with the US in increasing pressure on Beijing and Pyongyang.
In the eyes of critics, the Moon administration was negligent in seeking diplomatic solutions to long-standing historical discord with Tokyo, letting diplomacy become complicated by court rulings here. Moon and his aides now appear embarrassed by contradictory judicial judgments on compensation for South Korean victims of forced labor and sexual enslavement during Japan's harsh colonial rule of the peninsula in the early 20th century.
The Moon administration needs to address sensitive issues with Japan in a way that meets globally accepted standards and complies with international law.
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