Sung-Joo Han Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Diplomacy and International Politics: Conversation with Sung-Joo Han, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea; October 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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The Work of Diplomacy

You're suggesting that part of what diplomacy and international politics are about is navigating between these changes in the world and the changes or non-changes in old ways of thinking. And one needs to sort all this out, [to see that], in fact, the refueling was not an affront; it was just a matter of logistics. But it could be used in debate about how your country should respond to North Korea.

You know if this happened, say, in Britain -- if President Bush stopped in Madrid or in Paris instead of London, I don't think the British would have minded that much. But, of course, there's more to diplomacy than just to navigate between these conflicting demands. I think we tend to, not only in Korea, but most people tend to look at diplomacy as an almost immediate give-and-take kind of thing. Any outcome is seen as the product of the contention between different forces and different views.

From my own experience, very often it is the product of thinking out, finding what the best solution is that is advantageous to both sides, even between adversaries. Let's say between North Korea and the rest of us on the nuclear issue, there can be a solution that is advantageous to both sides. And this is even more so between allies. Recently I said, "Diplomacy should be seen more like playing a Go game, rather than running a 100-meter race going straight to the goal." In a Go game, you have to look at the whole board and you touch here and there, and sometimes you sacrifice small things for larger gains. Both flexibility and medium-term, long-term goals should be taken into account.

I also sometimes compare diplomacy to acupuncture. I don't know if you're familiar with acupuncture or not, but they don't always go after the place where it hurts. If you have stomach trouble, sometimes they will poke the palm of your hand. If you have a backache, they will put the needle on your leg. Sometimes when you have heart trouble, they will treat the bottom of the foot. One has to have the ability to look at the totality and to find the right formula to deal with the problem or solve the problem.

You're saying that you begin with the presumption that the problem can be solved, or at least some interim solution can be found, so the worst doesn't happen.

Well, obviously, some problems may not be solved. But I'm generally optimistic that with enough effort and clear thinking, we can find a way to resolve the problem.

Taking those metaphors as the essence of diplomacy, that suggests that in a room full of diplomats it would be much easier to play Go, or do acupuncture, and move along this positive road. But as diplomats or somebody with a foreign ministry portfolio, you have to respond to the domestic forces that you were just describing, which complicates both metaphors, doesn't it? In other words, the thing that interferes with your seeing the systemic picture, or understanding that doing something here might help the problem that's over there, is the factions, the debates within a domestic political system.

Yes. One thing one learns, especially somebody like myself, who comes out of academia without much experience in diplomacy, is the tremendous relevance of domestic politics. This is something that Henry Kissinger pointed out long ago, the importance of the domestic linkage. One has to be able to deal not only with foreign governments, but also with your own domestic constituency. I used to say, "It's more difficult to deal with your relatives than the barbarians."

Right now there seems to be an intense debate in your country on issues across the board, but especially with regard to the U.S. role in resolving the conflict with North Korea. Is that an overstatement? In other words, is there a range of views within your own country about how to deal with North Korea in the context of the U.S.-South Korean relationship?

It's partly the case. Yes, there is the significant part of the population which thinks that the U.S. is not showing enough enthusiasm to resolve the issue in a peaceful way. Much of this is out of misunderstanding of what transpired in the past. Right now, I can say that the United States is making a genuine effort to find a peaceful solution to this problem.

Of North Korea ... ?

Of the North Korea nuclear issue. But the bottom line is that we have to see the dismantlement of North Korean nuclear facilities -- weapons, if they have them, and material. It takes all kinds of ways and methods, and people have different views about how to approach this. I don't take personal credit for it, but fortunately, during the past few months, there has been much closing of the gap, if there was such a gap, between countries, especially between the United States and South Korea as to how we should and can deal with this problem. I think we are making some progress, although we can never be totally optimistic.

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