Park Geun-hye’s short-sighted diplomacy limits her policy options

Park Geun-hye’s short-sighted diplomacy limits her policy options
South Korea's President Park Geun-hye.

Just like the namesake board game, diplomacy needs at least two players. Your every move entails a message for your counterparts, while shaping your options for the next step.

Seoul officials have long been grumbling about the cozy relationship between the Japanese government and the media. In particular since Shinzo Abe was sworn in as prime minister in late 2012, Tokyo officials have apparently been trying to test public opinion by leaking a secret policy agenda or pursue domestic political interests at the expense of diplomacy.

Yet Cheong Wa Dae’s unveiling on Friday of scathing criticism by the leaders of South Korea and China against Japan was nothing less than a diplomatic fiasco.

Shortly before President Xi Jinping left for home, Ju Chul-ki, senior presidential secretary for foreign and security affairs, held an unscheduled press briefing and said that during their lunch meeting President Park Geun-hye and Xi “expressed concerns” about Tokyo’s revisionist push including its pursuit of the right to collective self-defense and “shared their regrets” over its attempt to damage the watershed 1993 apology for its wartime sexual enslavement of Asian women.

The announcement was unusual not just because of its timing or because it breached a diplomatic protocol, under which two countries are not supposed to disclose what was discussed at an informal occasion, even more so if it involves a third party. Neither in a joint statement nor at a joint news conference after their summit on Thursday was there any indication that could be seen as a slap at Japan, despite China’s desire to insert some.

And that is in line with what Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong called a “global standard.”

It was a no brainer that Park and Xi could have raised the Japan issue and related concerns. But to form a united front and attack the country is not the right thing to do and may undercut Seoul’s own diplomatic leverage, he said during a television appearance merely two hours before Ju’s briefing.

The “naming and shaming” by Cheong Wa Dae appears to reflect Park’s discontent with media coverage of her much-trumpeted summit with Xi. Most mainstream outlets stroke an upbeat tone, except for its lack of a widely expected alarming message for Tokyo.

Park’s decision may have served her political interests at home given deepening public resentment toward an unrepentant Abe and his hawkish foreign and security policies.

Yet it is set to shrink her foreign policy options at a time South Korea is walking a tightrope between two essential goals ― upholding security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan to counter North Korean threats and intensifying its partnership with China to maintain economic vigor and realize a nuclear-free peninsula.

Despite a common belief that foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics, what Park needs in the face of a fast-evolving geopolitical landscape is far-sighted strategies accompanied by practical action plans and shrewd judgment. One primary task at hand is to improve relations with North Korea, which would give Seoul a bigger say in many regional issues.

Only with that will she be able to “bask in the unprecedented position” on the grand chessboard where both the global superpower and a rising one are competitively reaching out to her homeland, as Korea National Diplomatic Academy chancellor Yun Duk-min puts it.

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