Friday, June 16, 2017

Moon's public diplomacy

Lee Seong-hyon,

image from

Scenic Jeju island is one of South Korea's best places for public diplomacy. It has natural beauty and a story to tell. If President Moon Jae-in has to visit Jeju Island for public diplomacy, the best timing could be one for the annual Jeju Forum and the other for the Jeju 4.3 Uprising memorial service. 

Public diplomacy is seen as a manifestation of soft power ― the ability to shape a perception through attraction. Joseph Nye states that soft power is associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions. In other words, a country's soft power rests on its resources of culture, values and policies.

Holding international conferences is a common way to promote public diplomacy. It's no wonder then that international conferences are often held in scenic places, such as Jeju. Jeju Island is a Korean version of Hawaii or Hainan or Okinawa. It is well known today as the nation's top tourist magnet, especially as a honeymoon destination for its volcanic beauty and seclusion. During the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1897), the island was used as a seaboard prison for political exiles. It was Korea's Monte Cristo. In 1945, the Japanese troops tried to use the island as the last stronghold against the Allies and stored weapons in the island's many caves. 

Jeju Island is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, and also the venue for the annual Jeju Forum, the government-backed premium international conference. It aims to be South Korea's Davos (hosted in Switzerland) or Boao (hosted in China). But to make it truly on the par with them, it needs direct attention from the nation's top leader, Moon. I saw Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang at the Boao Forum, for instance. The Boao Forum has been maintaining its premium because China's top leaders go there. Attending the Jeju Forum, therefore, should be on Moon's calendar. Personal attendance by the nation's top leader is simple yet it is the best way to guarantee the continuing success of the forum. 

Public diplomacy is generally understood as engaging foreign visitors. It is largely about sculpting a good image. However, Wang Jisi, a prominent Chinese scholar for international relations, once commented that a government which doesn't have a good image in its own people's eyes cannot have a good image abroad either. This is a deceptively simple yet profoundly insightful observation. It raises the question of whether the scope of public diplomacy should expand to include the domestic audience too. If public diplomacy is the art of winning hearts and minds, a leader then should win the hearts and minds of his own people first, before he goes out to win other countries' hearts. For instance, a country with poor human rights records cannot be respected internationally in that regard. Speaking of human rights, Jeju can be a good place to promote human rights too. And President Moon can play a role here

Seventy years ago, the island was soaked with the blood of 30,000 residents. The "April 3 Incident," as it is commonly called, refers to a particularly tragic incident in 1948 between Jeju residents and the authorities, resulting in the massacre of 10 percent of the island's population.

The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident concluded in 2003 that it was "a tragic incident the casualties for which are second only to the Korean War in modern Korean history." The truth committee recommended the government do more for consolation and to restore the honor of the victims and the bereaved.

Despite the official verdict, the root cause of the civil revolt in Jeju even today remains controversial in South Korea's highly polarized society. 

"The indiscriminate counterinsurgency campaign waged against the islanders reflected a tragic misunderstanding of local history and the island's relationship with the outside world," historian Hwang Su-kyoung said. For many years, the surviving victims and bereaved families were treated as social outcasts and experienced many kinds of discrimination.

By attending the memorial for the victims, President Moon can help the nation remember those neglected human rights abuses during Korea's tumultuous years so as to give proper tribute to the fallen and grant them due the human dignity they deserve. This public diplomacy for reconciliation has not been carried out by the previous two administrations ― a testament to how deeply divided the nation is over this tragedy.

Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at

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