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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 24)

All News 07:03 May 24, 2023

A diplomatic president
Time to think about balanced, practical approaches

Yoon Suk Yeol deserves to be called a "diplomatic president."

President Yoon held three summits with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in less than two months.

Yoon met with U.S. President Joe Biden three times, including at two trilateral summits with Kishida, over the past half year. That is if their "two-minute" talks in Hiroshima on Sunday could be called a meeting.

On the sidelines of the G7 summit in Japan during the "super week," the Korean president held summits with 11 foreign counterparts, including the EU's leadership. Yoon's approval rating has rebounded to nearly 40 percent. Diplomacy is the principal reason for liking and disliking him.

Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course. At the summit of Western leaders aimed at keeping China and Russia in check, Yoon was one of eight guests and was among the most active. He opposed China's attempts to change the status quo by force, criticized Russia's infringement on Ukraine's freedom and prosperity and rebuked North Korea's human rights abuses.

Yoon elevated the Republic of Korea to a global pillar for freedom and democracy if The Chosun Ilbo is to be believed. His "value-based" diplomacy gets a warm welcome from Washington and Tokyo. Yoon speaks on behalf of the U.S. on the global stage and buries the unhappy past with Japan for future cooperation. He caught the eyes of global leaders in Hiroshima, where Biden rushed past all of them to greet the Korean president.

From the start, the conservative leader made it clear that he would drop his liberal predecessors' strategic ambiguity stance between the U.S. and China. Yoon chose America and its key partner in Asia, Japan. The direction itself could be right, for now. Unlike other middle powers, the geopolitics facing the Korean Peninsula may not leave many other alternatives for Seoul. Taking the role of a regional "balancer," as former President Roh Moo-hyun once dreamed of, may just be an idealism.

Nevertheless, at least two problems remain.

First, controlling the damage to ties with China will be far more complex than Yoon expects. On Monday, his diplomatic aide said that Seoul would hold a strategic dialogue with Beijing, trying to calm critics against lopsided and imbalanced diplomacy. Europe and most others can say that they are "de-risking" instead of "de-coupling" when dealing with China. Yet, the New Cold War, where one severs the economy from politics, will be more of a crisis than an opportunity for Seoul.

Second, one can seldom know from where Yoon's diplomatic ideas originate.

Yoon said that he likes former President Roh and also hadn't spoken ill of his predecessor Moon Jae-in, until that is, he jumped into politics two years ago. Why the sudden about-face?

Kim Tae-hyo, like Antony Blinken for Biden, may be behind Yoon. Kim worked under another conservative president, Lee Myung-bak. He caused widespread outrage, advising Lee to implement an excessively pro-American policy. Kim later advised Lee to visit Dokdo, claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo, freezing the bilateral relationship for over a decade.

Then, and now, the U.S.-educated Japanophile presented no sincere policies concerning North Korea. Yoon's Audacious Initiative is a rehashing of Lee's promise of "$3,000 per capita income if North Korea denuclearizes and opens itself," both of which appear to be Kim's handiwork. All this shows why Yoon must find one more aide with different ideas.

Diplomacy is a game where countries secure short-term practical gains while playing the long game. All the nice words are nothing but decorations. Like a person, a country's diplomacy cannot change but develops based on accumulations. U.S. presidents, liberal or conservative, put national interests at the top of their agendas. The Chinese and Japanese leaderships have not changed, at least since WWII, and continue to seek their long-term goals.

What is Seoul's eventual aim? South Korean presidents with five-year tenures must take up where their predecessors left off. It is the only way South Korea can transform from a shrimp into a dolphin and reunify.

This is why Yoon must focus on regarding his deep diplomatic thinking instead of just learning pop song lyrics by heart.

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