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IFANS PERSPECTIVES ‘Strategic Thinking’ for Korean Diplomacy Bong-geun Jun Upload Date 2022-09-22 Hits 14263
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Ⅰ. Needs for ‘Strategic Thinking’ in Korean Diplomacy
Ⅱ. Evolution of Strategy-related Organizations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Ⅲ. ‘Poverty of Strategy’
Ⅳ. Definition of Strategy and Its Comparison With Policy
Ⅴ. Proposal for Strategy Development Plan



Ⅰ. Needs for ‘Strategic Thinking’ in Korean Diplomacy

A series of traditional/non-traditional and emerging security crises that have recently erupted en masse on and around the Korean peninsula are threatening the national interest of Korea, putting its peace, security, and prosperity in grave danger. Threats posed concurrently in parallel include: North Korea’s near completion of its nuclear weapons program and its growing nuclear threat; the emergence of China as a new superpower and its pursuit of change in the status quo of regional order; intensifying strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China and their pressure on Korea to take sides; growing U.S. demand to form a ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral security frontline against China; Japan’s undaunted attempt to deviate from its pacifist constitution with military buildup and rivalry with continental powers; unattenuated persistence of tensions between Korea and Japan over unsettled historical rifts; and war in Ukraine that quickly reverted the world to an era of the New Cold War. These threats are driving Korea’s environment of foreign affairs and security into the so-called “Perfect Storm.” Ever-aggravating situations of North Korea’s nuclear armament and strategic U.S.-China rivalry, in particular, pose a formidable threat to the well-being and prosperity of the Korean people, which calls for an urgent, effective response aimed at advancing the national interest of Korea.

Professor Emeritus Ha Young-sun of Seoul National University, a scholar of international relations, defines today’s international environment surrounding the Korean peninsula as a “transition period in the history of civilization,” with the U.S. and China locking horns with each other over the history-making restructuring of the international order, and warned that Korea’s choice made in the next few years would determine its fate for next one hundred years to come. Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, a renowned neorealist of international relations, also pointed out the dire geopolitical drawback of Korea and advised, for Korea’s diplomacy, to “think strategically because it is a vital matter of national survival.”


As for the Koreans’ recent increase in the interests and needs for the strategy in diplomacy, the following several factors can additionally be cited. First, after it joined the so-called “20-50 Club (surpassing 20,000 dollars in per capita income with a sizable 50 million population)” in 2012, Korea further advanced to the “30-50 Club” in 2019 with much greater per-capita income, bolstering the identity and pride of the people as citizens of a middle power. As a result, the interest of the people in “Korean” diplomacy, commensurate with the nation’s upgrade in national power and international status, soared. Second, the Roh Moo-hyun administration that was inaugurated in 2003 started to explore independent foreign policy, veering from the traditional boundary of the ROK-U.S. alliance. Progressive governments thereafter inherit the tradition of Roh’s independent foreign policy. Third, the successful hosting of the “2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit” by the Lee Myung-bak administration earned Korea the undisputed recognition of a middle power from the international community in the field of foreign affairs and security as well (therebefore, Korea’s international status had remained an economic middle power). The expectation of Korea’s role in the sphere of foreign affairs and security has since sharply surged both at home and abroad. Fourth, with its global hegemony weakening in the 2010s and therefore being unable to safeguard the public interest of the international community, the U.S. started to put its own interest ahead of its ally, Korea. Consequently, the domestic voice for Korean diplomacy and national interest-based diplomacy swelled. 

Despite the surging need and demand for strategic thinking, however, the discussion or consensus on what “strategic thinking” is and how it can be achieved is almost nonexistent in Korea. In December 2013, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se stressed the importance of “diplomatic thinking” at a ceremony of admission for diplomatic candidates to the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, saying:

 “as a minister and as a career diplomat with experience, I have a few pieces of advice for you as you are about to start your diplomatic career. First, see the world with a critical mind and hone your ability to think strategically. As I emphasized, strategic thinking is an indispensable, essential quality of a diplomat in today’s multidimensional, diversified diplomatic environment. Even when you read a news article, think deeply about what spillover effects it will have both in terms of time and space: from the past, to the present, and to the future in time, at the geopolitical levels of the Korean peninsula, Northeast Asia, and around the world. You should be able to see both the woods and trees at the same time to have good strategic judgment. I urge you to develop the ability to have both microscopic and telescopic perspectives.”

As such, stemming from the critical mind that, in the face of the ever-daunting environment of foreign affairs and security, Korean diplomacy must beef up its strategic capacity to advance Korea’s national interests, this article herein poses the following questions. First, what is the organizational structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in respect of strategy and how has it evolved? Second, how is “(diplomatic) strategy” understood domestically, and what is its difference from (diplomatic) policy? Third, why do government agencies entrusted with foreign affairs and security tend to suffer the “poverty of strategy?” Fourth, what is the methodology of “strategic thinking” advisable for Korean diplomacy?


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