[Interview] Domestically unpopular foreign policy will be exploited by counterparts, says former senior diplomat

Posted on : 2023-04-14 18:15 KST Modified on : 2023-04-15 12:57 KST
An in-depth interview on the Yoon administration’s foreign policy with Choi Jong-kun, who served as first vice foreign minister under Moon Jae-in
Choi Jong-kun, the former first vice minister of foreign affairs, speaks to Hankyoreh21 at his office on the Yonsei University campus in Seoul on March 20, 2023. (Ryu Woo-jong/The Hankyoreh)
Choi Jong-kun, the former first vice minister of foreign affairs, speaks to Hankyoreh21 at his office on the Yonsei University campus in Seoul on March 20, 2023. (Ryu Woo-jong/The Hankyoreh)

The Korean public is livid about President Yoon Suk-yeol’s diplomacy. A survey released by Gallup Korea on March 24 found that only 34% of respondents positively evaluated Yoon\'s performance as president while 58% saw him as doing a negative job.

Among the reasons why respondents unfavorably evaluated the president’s performance were “relations with Japan” (23%) and the “forced labor compensation issue and diplomacy” (25%). In other words, a combined 48% of those who view the president’s performance in a negative light said they were disappointed with the outcome of the South Korea-Japan summit.

(The survey was conducted from March 21 to 23 after the South Korea-Japan summit and reflect the answers of 1,001 Koreans aged 19 and older, and had a confidence level of 95% and a standard error of plus or minus 3.1 points.)

Nevertheless, the presidential office has hailed Yoon’s diplomatic approach to Japan as “a great success.”

“Seeing how President Yoon receives applause from Japanese citizens at places like hotels and airports, at this point I think he has succeeded to an extent at winning the hearts of Japanese people,” presidential office spokesperson Lee Do-woon boasted.

That is indeed the mood in Japan. A poll of 1,304 Japanese voters conducted by the Asahi Shimbun on March 18-19 showed that 63% of respondents felt positive about the South Korea-Japan summit, far exceeding those who felt negatively (21%). The approval rating of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet was also 40%, up 5 percentage points from February figures.

President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan bow before their national flags ahead of their summit in Tokyo on March 16, 2023. (Reuters)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan bow before their national flags ahead of their summit in Tokyo on March 16, 2023. (Reuters)
“I get nervous whenever he goes abroad”

This is because Yoon gave Japan exactly the deal they wanted when he met with Kishida to confirm the third-party repayment plan for victims of forced mobilization while bonding over a meal of omurice and Japanese beer.

Japan, which warmly received Yoon, continues to make diplomatic gains with South Korea. Some examples include the implementation of the South Korea-Japan “comfort women” agreement, Japan’s claim to Dokdo, the discharge of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the 2018 radar lock-on dispute.

As criticism of Yoon’s “humiliating” diplomacy poured in, the president responded through remarks made at a Cabinet meeting that was televised live on March 21.

“There are forces in our society that are trying to make political gains by advocating exclusionary nationalism and spreading anti-Japanese sentiments,” he said, calling this a “political offensive.”

Yoon, known for giving short speeches, delivered remarks that stretched for 23 minutes that day.

What we see with Yoon is a diplomacy in which approval ratings are shaken just by the president going abroad—a diplomacy which claims to be a decision for the “future,” but is enveloped in controversy over being an all-out giveaway to Japan with Korea gaining nothing.

On March 20, the Hankyoreh met with Choi Jong-Kun, the 49-year-old former vice foreign minister for South Korea, and talked for an hour and a half about where South Korea’s diplomacy is heading.

Choi served as secretary to the president for peace and arms control in former President Moon Jae-in’s National Security Office and was appointed as first vice minister of foreign affairs on Aug. 14, 2020. Besides dealing with inter-Korean issues, he was also deeply involved in South Korea-Japan relations.

Since then, he has returned to academic life and is currently a professor of political science and diplomacy at Yonsei University. In his office hangs a framed print of the words “Peace, Please.” Choi said he was feeling distressed because the recent situation feels far from peaceful. According to Choi, the culprit is South Korea’s diplomacy, which is being conducted naively amid a fierce set of international affairs.

Hankyoreh: People are curious about why Yoon went ahead and acted in accordance with exactly what Japan wanted. What do you think was his rationale?

Choi Jong-kun: If explained rationally, there would have been pressure coming from the US, and second, there would have been a desire from the people in this government to promote South Korea-US-Japan cooperation or to further raise the level of South Korea-Japan cooperation.

Or maybe he really did believe that Japan’s claims were valid. In other words, believing that it was settled in 1965 with the claims agreement and that the 2018 Supreme Court ruling did indeed violate international law. This position is reflected in claims made by Kim Tae-hyo, first deputy director of the National Security Office, and through the words of President Yoon Suk-yeol.

President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan cheers with beer at a meal after their summit in Tokyo on March 16. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan cheers with beer at a meal after their summit in Tokyo on March 16. (Yonhap)

Hankyoreh: In an interview with Japan\'s Yomiuri Shimbun, Yoon parroted Japan’s logic perfectly, saying that there were “contradictions” or “discrepancies” between the 1965 settlement deal and the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on compensation for victims of Japanese colonial era forced labor. What do you make of that?

Choi: The president of the Republic of Korea, who is supposed to defend the Constitution, acknowledged that the ruling made by our Supreme Court was an obstacle to South Korea-Japan relations. Accepting this stance, the Japanese prime minister said the relationship between the two countries has become healthy thanks to the Yoon government’s solution. Does that mean the relationship was unhealthy for all this time?

And at the joint press conference, the first question asked by a Japanese reporter was about [South Korean victims] exercising the right to indemnity against Japanese firms sued [in the Supreme Court case on forced labor]. Yoon had already said in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun that there wouldn’t be [exercising of the] right to recourse, but it seems they wanted to ask the same question one more time to hear these words come directly from the president’s mouth on that occasion.

Hankyoreh: This incident can be seen as an insult to our diplomatic history.

Choi: That\'s how I see it. That’s why it’s painful.

When I asked Choi whether South Korea gained anything at all from this diplomatic episode with Japan, he suddenly got up and looked for a piece of paper in the jacket he had taken off. They were notes he had taken while watching the joint press conference of Yoon and Kishida on March 16.

According to the scoreboard-style notes taken by Choi, the only thing South Korea gained from this summit was Japan withdrawing its export regulations on semiconductors. Japan, however, scored much higher in terms of diplomatic gains, according to Choi.

Among Japan’s wins are 1) South Korea withdrawing its World Trade Organization complaint against Japan, 2) the normalization of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), 3) Yoon’s verbal promise not to exercise the right to indemnity, 4) South Korea’s cooperation on the abductee issue, 5) implementing the 2015 “comfort women” agreement (as requested by Japan), and 6) comments related to Dokdo.

“It’s actually a relief that there was no joint declaration,” Choi said with a sigh.

Hankyoreh: You said that pressure from the US could be the reason why Yoon made these decisions. Was the reason why they continuously demanded increased cooperation between South Korea and Japan aimed at Washington’s goal of keeping China in check?

Choi: It was the same in my time. Regarding this, the Moon Jae-in government’s position was simply “OK.” We responded to South Korea-US-Japan cooperation, South Korea-Japan cooperation, and historical issues with a so-called two-track approach. However, Japan insisted on one track and argued that [a two-track approach] was not possible due to historical issues. With us being the victim country, it being a human rights-related issue and a Supreme Court ruling having already been made, we asked the US how we could act against the democratic principle of separation of powers.

Withstanding US pressure under last administration

Hankyoreh: Did the US show understanding?

Choi: We always kept the US apprised of the various negotiations and discussions we were having with the Japanese government. This was for three years under the Donald Trump administration and two years under the Joe Biden administration.

During the Trump administration, it wasn’t a major issue in terms of the Korean Peninsula peace process. The Biden administration indicated pretty strong hopes for trilateral cooperation by South Korea, the US and Japan. So we agreed to trilateral vice foreign minister talks, national security advisor talks, and foreign minister talks.

Hankyoreh: So it wasn’t a situation where the South Korean government was helpless in the face of US pressure.

Choi: We had to hold out. It would have been better for us to stand our ground. Why are they acting like they agree with the notion that we’re the reason trilateral cooperation hasn’t been happening?

Hankyoreh: Some observers are predicting the possibility that the GSOMIA normalization will lead to us getting roped into the US strategy for hemming in China as we increase our military cooperation with Japan.

Choi: That’s an area where we’ll just have to wait and see. Because of its pacifist constitution and exclusively defense-oriented system, Japan can only engage in military activities that are passive or reactive.

More aggressive trilateral joint exercises would require retooling of their internal system. South Korea has been lukewarm or opposed when it comes to amending their constitution, and if we say it’s OK, that push in Japan could gain more traction.

What’s even more worrying is the fact that Japan has always signaled it wants to take part actively in the South Korea-US exercises. When we do those bilateral exercises, the only observers are UN Command member countries that fought in the Korean War.

Japan has said it wants to take part in the UN Command, arguing that it is home to a UNC rear base. It’s also asked to be allowed to observe the joint exercises.

Hankyoreh: It sounds like Japan wanted to leave room for military involvement on Korean Peninsula matters.

Choi: Yes. They’re claiming that they have a stake in it too.

The third-party compensation plan affirmed by Yoon included no apology from the Japanese companies implicated in war crimes and would invalidate the achievements realized by South Korean victims through their difficult legal process.

Commenting on the process, Kim Tae-hyo, first deputy director of the National Security Office, said that Japan was “taken aback when we indicated that would be our decision.” He also shared Tokyo’s response to the plan that was reached, calling it the “solution we have been waiting for, even if it’s not clear how it will go over in the South Korean political environment.”

Victims fought to assert their rights

Hankyoreh: Kim Tae-hyo has insisted on the need for a third-party compensation approach [on the forced labor compensation] issue. He’s raised questions about whether we can afford to leave our relationship with Japan unaddressed. How do you see the issue?

Choi: I don’t agree with the current administration’s claim that South Korea-Japan relations were “neglected” under the Moon Jae-in administration. President Moon and his foreign affairs team had numerous back-channel discussions and negotiations to prevent South Korea-Japan relations from deteriorating. It’s also Japan that retaliated against South Korea with its export controls and whitelist.

Japan got more rigid and rejected our compromise plan, claiming that there were various issues with it in domestic politics terms. Their negotiation plan was basically the “solution” that the Yoon administration presented. If there’s blame to be assigned, blame Japan, not the previous administration.

Hankyoreh: Is the best approach in the case one where the Japanese government and the companies responsible comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling?

Choi: The ideal approach would be for the defendants to comply faithfully with the text of the Supreme Court judgment. But if they didn’t comply with the Supreme Court ruling because they were Japanese companies, that could lead to measures to liquidate their assets.

It’s a matter that requires a diplomatic judgment call. In that case, there’s a risk of South Korea-Japan relations ending up worse than they are now, so you have to come up with a compromise, where you’re following the basic structure and intent of the Supreme Court ruling.

So you need compensation measures where there’s involvement and an apology from the war criminal companies. Obviously, that’s predicated on the content of the Korean victims who were the plaintiffs. Their legal rights were something they asserted through a long legal battle, and that’s not something the administration can disregard.

Hankyoreh: Since the South Korea-Japan summit, presidential office spokesperson Lee Do-woon has repeatedly emphasized that Prime Minister Kishida needs to respond in kind to Korea’s proposal. Diplomatically speaking, it seemed like a belated demand, where they were asking, “Why aren’t you doing this?”

Choi: It\'s a lack of experience. It’s also another example of the diplomatic practices of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which kept sending excessive messages before the start [of its summit diplomacy] and has had to keep going back and fixing things.

I don’t agree with the solution here, but if it really was important for them to visit Japan, they should have had a very “dry” schedule: the kind of the things where he arrived, had the summit, had a dinner, and then came back [to South Korea]. Given how angry the public is about the solution and about the South Korea-Japan relationship, did they really need to have two separate dinners and a toast?

After the South Korea-Japan summit, Yoon was invited by Kishida to attend the G7 meeting in Japan next month. Later this month, he is scheduled for a state visit to the US to meet with President Joe Biden.

Having already blocked exports of advanced semiconductor production equipment to China, the US also included terms in its CHIPS and Science Act effectively preventing new investment in China.

For the South Korean companies Samsung and SK Hynix — which have spent tens of trillions of won building semiconductor factories in China — this effectively forces them to make a choice between China and the US.

Selecting their own frame

Hankyoreh: Can it be argued that we’re leaving the free trade era behind and entering an era of bloc-based protectionist trade, where countries have to make the choice between China or South Korea, the US, and Japan?

Choi: It’s more accurate to say that these are “selective blocs” originating in the US. Under that framework, we’ve emerged as the most suitable target.

South Korea is the only country in the world that produces items in the four key categories. In addition to semiconductors, batteries, and electric vehicles, there’s also biotechnology, which has become one of the four key areas over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What the US is now trying to do with its Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS Act — at a cost of nearly 10 quadrillion won — is to place those four items firmly within its own national industry ecosystem. But it’s not really reasonable for them to insist on [semiconductor companies] handing over business secrets or order them not to invest in China.

Second of all, there are a lot of necessary raw materials that China supplies to us. For the 30 key types of raw materials, our reliance on Chinese imports is 82%. That goes up above 90% for the top 10 items.

We’ve already had our problems with urea water solution [when Chinese imports were cut off], but we stand to suffer major issues in those areas too. In that sense, the people who are telling us we need to make a choice are framing things the wrong way.

Hankyoreh: Are you saying we shouldn’t pick any one side?

Choi: What happens when we create our own frame insisting on a choice between the US and China? Discourse is just that, discourse — the real world is a different story.

The Republic of Korea’s foreign policy needs to represent and expand the interests of the middle class. It’s absurd to have foreign policy that prioritizes other things over that and demands sacrifices from [the middle class] or takes their sacrifices for granted.

Hankyoreh: Isn’t the US telling us to make a choice?

Choi: The US isn’t telling us to make that choice. I can say that based on experience. That’s an example of domestic discourse or a discourse among US experts. In terms of on-the-ground [diplomacy], they’re not talking about “pick China or the US.” The US has said it fundamentally understands the structure of our economic interests [in the Chinese market].

Hankyoreh: Now that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is trying to resolve issues of our history with Japan this way, what do you think it should do going forward?

Choi: Diplomatic actions aren’t sustainable when they’re insulated from the public’s interests. If your diplomatic activities aren’t supported by the public, they can end up exploited by the other side.

Ultimately, the important thing is diplomacy that represents the public. The most normal form of diplomacy is the kind where you say, “We can’t do this because we’re upholding our public’s interests.” That’s how all the other countries go about it too.

It’s really a rookie approach to say, “We’ve been generous enough to make these concessions, and now we’re expecting good-faith measures from you.” They’re talking about interest-based bilateral relations as if it was interpersonal relations [based on goodwill]. Diplomacy is a game for professionals.

By Lee Wan, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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