(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 13)
: Maximize national interests with thorough preparations
President Yoon Suk Yeol faces a hectic diplomatic schedule.
Yoon will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Thursday. He will fly to Washington in late April to hold a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. The president may also attend the G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May as a guest.
How Yoon fares at these meetings with his U.S., Japanese and other Western counterparts will chart Korea's diplomatic direction, at least until he leaves office four years and two months later.
Many Koreans have a bitter aftertaste, considering that Yoon's visits to Japan and the U.S. were announced right after Seoul made a big -- almost humiliating -- diplomatic concession to Tokyo. And the public will be watching closely what Korea will receive in the spirit of diplomatic reciprocity.
Last Saturday, thousands of citizens filled Seoul Plaza in front of City Hall.
The protestors denounced the government's plan to resolve the issue of Korean victims of wartime forced labor during Japan's occupation (1910-1945) of Korea. Under the plan, Seoul will compensate the claimants first with money donated by Korean companies that benefited from Japan's grants and loans according to the 1965 Basic Agreement. However, there have been no corresponding measures from Japan so far.
In their summit talks, Yoon must elicit a "clear" expression of remorse from Kishida for Japan's misdeeds during its colonial days and Japanese companies' "direct" participation in the compensation. Nothing less will calm the victims or their sympathetic compatriots. Japan also should lift its export ban on three core semiconductor materials to Korea. However, Tokyo has yet to make any positive signals on any of the three issues. The lack of corresponding steps will only amplify calls here to drop the plan.
Yoon must also act appropriately in Hiroshima. Media reports say Japan will use the occasion to draw international support for its planned discharge of nuclear-contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima plant into the sea. And Japan might also try to justify Tokyo's move to have a gold mine linked to the wartime forced labor of Koreans listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Korean leader should make clear his opposition to both issues. Otherwise, he will not avoid criticism at home and he might instead be characterized as acting as a front man for Japan.
In Washington, Yoon should prioritize the economy over security.
Instead of focusing on extended nuclear deterrence -- which the U.S. has already promised several times -- he must try to minimize the effects of Biden's America-first industrial policies on Korean semiconductors and electric vehicle makers. Yoon must remind Biden of the massive investment by Korean companies in the U.S., which has created numerous jobs for Americans. And that these unsavory policies, if they continue, will estrange one of the U.S.' most loyal friends.
Meanwhile, Yoon must be cautious in committing to Korea's participation in Quad, a U.S.-led team also involving Australia, India and Japan. China regards it as being aimed at countering its influence in this part of the world. Beijing is quite wary of Seoul's unreserved attachment to Washington, as shown by its recent exclusion of Korea as a destination for group tours by Chinese travelers.
Caution and balance are two basic and essential elements in diplomacy. We keep our fingers crossed that Yoon's hasty, single-minded attitude toward domestic governance will not be repeated in his diplomatic approach abroad. As former President Kim Dae-jung said, a leader must carry both a telescope and a microscope.
Above all, Yoon and his diplomatic aides must drop their self-demeaning, colonial view of history. A future-oriented relationship is impossible without pride in South Korea's history and confidence in its potential.
Likewise, Seoul must make its appropriate demands to Washington. Trust is a must in bilateral ties. However, suppose one party erodes it with regard to the critical national concerns of the other. In that case, the other need not remain a diplomatic constant but become a variable.
We hope the upcoming diplomatic events will serve as opportunities to show foreign partners that there is no free lunch in diplomacy -- instead of learning the lesson, once again, from them.
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