How increased public engagement could engage a politically polarised and protest-ready population.
South Korea faces some momentous foreign policy challenges: addressing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; seeking redress of China’s economic sanctions against the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) deployment; strengthening relations with Japan; and dealing with the Trump administration. But with every step, South Korea faces a greater challenge – and it’s not North Korea, China, Japan, or the US. Rather, it’s South Korea’s own population. How do you engage politically polarised and protest-ready citizens? Foreign policy engagement has never been a strong point for South Korea’s presidential administrations. This can be blamed on culture, security or even recent history.
Culturally, South Korea’s public administration inherits a degree of Confucian scholarly aloofness. Administrators are meant to be benevolent, and deserving of obeisance, leading to a sense of separation and a reduced need for discussion or explanation. An individual or group can petition (a lower subordinate position), but can’t expect discussion or consultation before decisions are made.
In security terms, South Korea has survived because it feels vulnerable. Foreign policy is a sensitive subject. As scholar Hoon Jaung once noted, until recently foreign policy was decided “in the secret garden of the president”. For this reason, practitioners have a tendency to hold their cards close to their chest. Public engagement only helps the enemy.
While democratisation greatly improved public engagement, the presidential system still limits the necessity of public outreach. This was highlighted under the ‘imperial presidency’ of Park Geun-hye, which became notorious for neglecting the press and the National Assembly.
There are definite benefits to improving foreign policy public engagement. First, an engaged public shoulders a degree of responsibility for decisions. The public buys into policy and accepts its consequences. Recent public demonstrations on foreign policy issues, such as the May 2008 protests against US beef imports, and the June 2015 protests against the Japan ‘comfort women’ deal, resulted from a distinct lack of public engagement.
Public engagement also helps build a constituency, strengthening the foreign ministry’s bureaucratic position.
Second, an engaged public allows decision-makers to become aware of gaps between national interest and public knowledge. At worst, it allows decision-makers to avoid issues if the gap can’t be narrowed. Brexit serves as a warning. On the night of the referendum, ‘What is the EU?’ became a trending search term on Google. The level of public knowledge regarding the EU made the referendum a highly risky strategy.
Finally, engagement strengthens the public’s support for national objectives, and signals to partners a state’s broad intentions.
So, what are the options for South Korea to improve public engagement? The public is politically polarised and public trust is at historical lows. Public engagement may be crucial, but it’s also fraught with risk. One option that has to date eluded South Korea’s foreign policy administrators is the white and green paper processes.
A ‘white paper’ is a strategic level process designed to engage the public on core issues. The public is invited to address terms of reference detailed in a public discussion paper on the state’s international engagement through public submissions, roundtables, and seminars. This allows the public to better understand and influence the country’s broad strategic priorities.
The terms of reference are used to guide public responses, but at the same time give valuable insight into stakeholder opinions, including those who will protest any government position.
The final result is a strategic document, which guides (rather than determines) policy for the next five to seven years, increasing continuity, whole-of-government coordination, and awareness of policy direction amongst parliamentarians, the press, epistemic communities, foreign partners, and the broader public.
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) currently publishes a “diplomatic white paper”, but this annual policy document acts more as a condensed retrospective report on the administration’s achievements rather than a prospective strategic document.
"Why South Korea needs to get the public onside with foreign policy", ANU Policy Forum, 19 July 2017.