Multilateral Diplomacy: Wild Card with Caveats for Seoul
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Multilateral Diplomacy: Wild Card with Caveats for Seoul


APLN member Kim Won-soo argues that value-based approaches to multilateralism are critical for South Korea’s diplomacy, but in the conduct of multilateral diplomacy, Seoul has to be conscious of three caveats. Read the original article here.

Multilateral diplomacy has been in full swing for the new government of South Korea since right after the inauguration of President Yoon Suk-yeol four months ago. Most recently it culminated in the United Nations summit in New York, home to the most universally multilateral institution. This fall will see the upcoming G20 summit in Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Thailand held consecutively in mid-November.

This swing, in diplomacy, was partially spurred by the revenge boom of multilateral diplomatic gatherings after the three-year lull caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the larger reason can be attributed to the growing recognition of the strategic value of South Korea as a swing force in the new global diplomatic chess game amid intensifying rivalries among major powers.

Multilateral diplomacy is a wild card for South Korea, which is surrounded by four much bigger neighbors and one smaller but very tough neighbor. Above all, it provides South Korea with a crucial avenue through which global and regional norms and standards are made or updated. For South Korea, these multilateral norms serve as a safety net to check against the unilateralism of its tough neighbors. South Korea must do everything it can to nurture multilateral norms. It is for this very reason that value-based approaches to multilateralism are critical for South Korea’s diplomacy.

A multilateral forum also offers South Korea breathing space in managing bilateral relations with bigger neighbors which prefer bilateral diplomacy as the main tool to impose their wills over South Korea on contentious issues. Seoul can further use multilateral settings to arrange a number of meetings with other partners in one go, which otherwise are difficult to arrange for logistical or political reasons.

Seoul must make the most of multilateral diplomacy. The window of opportunity is wide open for the Yoon government. The government is right in using the scheduled multilateral summits as an opportunity to elaborate on its policy vision for global, regional and Korean peninsula agenda, as well as to set up as many meetings with friends and other partners as possible at the margins of the summits. But in the conduct of multilateral diplomacy, Seoul has to be conscious of the following three caveats:

The first is that multilateral diplomacy does not replace but complements bilateral diplomacy on the issues of bilateral contention. Grounds must be prepared well through bilateral channels before a meeting takes place at the multilateral venue. Close coordination with the target country is an absolute essential for what will be announced before the meeting takes place, particularly when the bilateral pending issues with a country are very sensitive domestically.

The insufficient preparation and coordination may be behind the recent confusion over the purported South Korea-Japan meeting which was eventually held at the margins of the U.N. A valuable lesson must have been learned for the foreign policy team of the Korean government.

Secondly, multilateral diplomacy at the U.N. summit is like playing at the diplomatic Olympics. The spotlight is usually on either big powers with varying global agendas or other players with a burning agenda like Ukraine for example. The United States with both a global and powerful agenda and as the host country of the U.N. is inevitably in highest demand during summits.

Given this reality and the fact that a fully-fledged bilateral summit meeting was held only some months ago through U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Seoul, it would have been far better this time to seek an informal pull-aside chat rather than a formal bilateral meeting at the U.N. Priorities of bilateral meetings at multilateral venues must be carefully weighed (the pros and cons) in the meetings.

Thirdly, the selectiveness and exclusiveness need to be minimized by Seoul when deciding which multilateral forum to attend. For South Korea, openness and inclusivity must be maintained as the governing principle for its participation in any multilateral forum unless otherwise required by compelling considerations of vital national interests. This principle should be continuously applied to the ensuing deliberative and normative processes of any multilateral forum in which Seoul participates.

Against this backdrop, the future focus of South Korea’s diplomacy should be on maximizing the utility of multilateral diplomacy while minimizing the risks associated with the above caveats regarding multilateral diplomacy. For South Korea, no stone should be left unturned when it comes to its diplomatic efforts.

Among other things, Seoul must base its diplomatic conduct on the values to which it aspires, so as to maintain consistency in its foreign policy and cultivate the support base for the policy, both domestically and internationally. Seoul’s diplomacy should also be backed by thorough and advanced preparations and discharged with diplomatic finesse.

Seoul’s track record for multilateral diplomacy has been stellar with the triple crowns achieved at the helm of the three most important principal organs of the U.N., namely the secretary-general, the president of the General Assembly and the Security Council membership, in the shortest period. With the lessons learned from past trials, South Korea will excel even higher by perfecting the use of multilateral diplomacy as its wild card.

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