Why Korea Should Make the Most of Multilateralism
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Why Korea Should Make the Most of Multilateralism


APLN member Kim Won-soo writes on the advantages of the new South Korean government’s participation in multilateral fora. Read the original article here.

The new government of Korea is off to a hectic start with multilateral diplomacy. Last month, President Yoon Suk-yeol made a diplomatic debut at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit alongside the leaders of 30 member states, and for the first time, three other Asia-Pacific partners, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

This attendance marks a double first: 1) the first time ever for a Korean president to attend a meeting held by an alliance group outside the Asian country’s immediate regional security interests; and 2) the first overseas visit by Yoon. Last week Foreign Minister Park Jin followed suit by attending the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting.

From geopolitical and diplomatic perspectives, both gatherings are quite significant. NATO is extending its partnership with the Asia-Pacific with a clear view to check the growing Russia-China alignment. On the other hand, the G20 meeting was the first international gathering where Russia sat down with the Western leaders following its invasion of Ukraine.

Korea’s participation in both gatherings bodes well for its new government. It is a clear departure from the past practices where the new president would visit the United States, China, Japan and Russia, usually in that order.

Overall, this is a great example of what Korean diplomacy should aspire to in a multilateral setting. Multilateralism is defined as the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states (Robert Keohane), based on the generalized principles of conduct (John G. Ruggie). This definition shows how multilateralism could greatly benefit Korea given how it is surrounded by bigger neighbors. Korea is considered one of the greatest beneficiaries of multilateralism in the postwar era.

Ever since gaining independence in 1945, multilateralism has been the preferred method of diplomacy for Seoul. For instance, the United Nations has been deeply involved in Korea’s path toward political and economic development. Multilateral institutions, both global and regional, continue to offer Korea precious avenues of diplomacy in three important ways of providing:

1) norms and standards, through which Korea trades and invests freely and fairly around the world;
2) protection against the bullying behavior of its bigger neighbors; and
3) cost-effective venues for coalition building with like-minded countries. Multiple birds can be caught with one stone, so to speak. In fact, Korean leaders took advantage of both the NATO summit and the G20 meeting to meet a number of foreign leaders in diverse bilateral and multilateral settings.

So the new government of Korea deserves a big applause. But a large part of the credit should go to a set of external factors that turned American and European attention toward the Asia Pacific. The most important of them would be the rise of a more assertive China, coupled with an increasingly besieged Russia.

This situation provides Korea with both challenges and opportunities. The Western partners are coming to Korea, but with strings attached. There is no such thing as a free lunch in international politics. Not only that, Russia and China’s negative reactions to the perceived NATO enlargement are heralding their stronger pushback to come.

Moreover, multilateralism cannot replace bilateral diplomacy necessary with Korea’s bigger neighbors. The northern neighbors of Korea share a deep-seated fear of the current multilateral order as dominated by the US. To them, the recent NATO summit is a clear vindication of their fear of encirclement by an enlarged NATO partnership across the Asia Pacific. In this regard, having a Korea-China foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the G20 following the NATO summit was the right move to allay China’s fears.

Here are three tasks to keep multilateralism at the forefront of Korean diplomacy, while complementing it with bilateral diplomacy:

First, Korea should stick to the principle of open and inclusive multilateralism. If invited to a multilateral forum, Korea should always give the priority to participating, regardless of which country proposes it.

Second, Korea should promote value-based approaches in any multilateral forum it chooses to participate in. This will allow Korea to maintain consistency throughout all forms of multilateralism and avoid arm-twisting by its bigger neighbors.

Third, Korea should complement multilateralism with bilateralism. The above two principles must be made clear to all of its neighbors, including China, consistently through bilateral diplomacy.

Korea-Japan relations should be mended as an immediate priority of bilateral diplomacy. The funeral of the late Prime Minster Shinzo Abe can serve as an opportunity to help restore mutual confidence between the leaders and peoples of the two countries.

Multilateralism matters to Korea. But it is not a panacea for all challenges facing the country. Multilateralism cannot completely replace bilateral diplomacy preferred by Korea’s bigger neighbors. Korea has no other choice but to rely on multilateralism as much as it can in managing challenges coming from various sets of bilateral relations with its neighbors. The new Korean government has gotten off to a good start on the multilateral side. But that is the relatively easy part. Now the harder part is about to unfold. I count on the new government to handle it with finesse and consistency.

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