May 5, 2023
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk Yeol returned to Seoul after a state visit to the US. As the visit is of national interest, it is natural to see many assessments and debates on whether the summit was successful. However, there are concerning elements in the discussions. The evaluations are sharply divided according to the political camps, becoming the subject of political struggle and causing the whole country to be cut in two. However, applying such tribalism to the outcome of the President’s foreign visit is wildly off the mark.
In terms of timing, it is too soon to revert to tribalism in evaluating the outcomes of the visit. It is premature because the results of such summits often surface only after we begin to implement the resulting policies. Furthermore, trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan might be a good thing or a bad thing, and it is difficult to say which just yet. Still, the future of such cooperation should be influenced by the speed and scope of the improvement of Korea-Japan relations. Of course, such cooperation may severely burden Korea-China relations. Trilateral cooperation will also likely nudge North Korea and China closer together. China’s position may take a negative turn in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. If Korea-China relations deteriorate and security threats grow, the summit will be regarded as a failure. President Xi Jinping’s possible visit to South Korea will be the barometer for whether Korea-China relationship is in good shape even after the summit in Washington.
The prospects for the economy and trade are no different. The outcomes of the discussions on electric vehicles or the semiconductor law will also vary depending on future consultations with the US. While President Yoon should have brought back tangible results, it is almost impossible for him to do at this time. This is because President Joe Biden wants to focus on the US’ middle class, and if the IRA or the semiconductor law are revised at the request of other countries, Biden will face massive backlash at home. The US Congress already passed the laws, and it seems unrealistic to expect they will be turned over in such a short time. At the same time, it is unacceptable to create such a disadvantage for Korean companies. As such, the two governments need to find a realistic way forward through constructive dialogue and a more indirect approach. If an ideal solution emerges within the next few weeks, the summit will likely be evaluated as a great success. However, if a good plan is not reached within the next several months, the summit will not be able to avoid criticism.
Any approach mired in political tribalism is an undiplomatic, self-sabotaging act that blocks the possibility of constructive policy changes. The government and the ruling party, for example, commend the President’s achievements as undeniably outstanding, refusing to recognize even the smallest of faults or problems. Of course, it is expected that politicians will refrain from admitting that they made big mistakes. This is wholly representative of the structural issues in politics, and the negligence continues even though the flaws are well-known. In domestic politics, if the government does not correct an error in the policy process, such negligence does not occur because there will be protests by interest groups. However, in diplomacy, the parties in question are mainly foreign governments, companies or organizations, and they are likely to take advantage of the flaws because they are strategic in calculating their profits.
Is there an approach other than political tribalism and partisanship? Yes, there is the bipartisan approach. Is such an approach to foreign policies possible in South Korea, which is in the midst of a heated confrontation with the North? Yes, it is. There were cases of diplomatic achievements through bipartisan cooperation under President Roh Tae-woo or President Kim Dae Jung in the past. Since bipartisan collaboration is essential for a president to make diplomatic progress, it is possible if the President is interested in pursuing such an approach. There is also the opinion that the deterioration of the North Korean nuclear issue will prevent such bipartisan diplomacy from being as successful as it may have been in the past. However, even if the specific diplomatic challenges we face are different, their weight remains the same. Just as the challenges have changed, and just as our expectations and policy goals have changed, the space for diplomatic maneuvering is constantly evolving, and new opportunities continue to present themselves.
What are some specific measures for bipartisanship? It should include effective communication with the people. Since diplomacy is carried out by a delegation elected by the people, without their support and cooperation, the legitimacy of any progress goes away, and diplomacy fails. Therefore, the government must constantly explain and persuade people to win over their support and cooperation. If President Yoon thinks he has achieved outstanding results at the summit and wants a corresponding evaluation, he must recognize that the judge for any assessment of his achievements is the people. It should also be known that the National Assembly, the ruling party and the opposition parties, as well as the media, represent the people in a substantial and official capacity. In order for the Korea-US summit to be considered a success, President Yoon must invite the National Assembly and opposition leaders to explain the outcome of the visit. It’s not that difficult. Eventually, the President is the critical variable for the summit’s assessment. I sincerely hope he will make a crucial decision to earn his praise for the summit’s success and be as happy while singing Song Chang-sik’s songs with national leaders in the Republic of Korea as he did singing Don McLean’s song with his American friends.