S. Korea, Japan should not let politics override personal ties

foreign policy
public diplomacy
international student mobility
intergroup communication

Kadir Jun Ayhan

Nancy Snow


Thursday, August 15, 2019

This column was originally published by the Korea Times on August 15, 2019.

In its simplest form, Nicholas Cull defines public diplomacy as “the process by which an international actor conducts foreign policy by engaging a foreign public.”

In the case of Korea, the country’s public diplomacy activities gained momentum after the enactment of the Public Diplomacy Act in 2016. In two short years, the public’s understanding of public diplomacy activities and participation in them have grown exponentially, with greater numbers of foreign students coming to Korea in sponsored international exchange programs, as well as growth in awareness of sports diplomacy (PyeongChang Winter Olympics) in thawing international relations, just to name a few.

If more people supported public diplomacy policies and actively participated in international engagement activities, a more globally engaged Korea would take effect. To this end, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Korea Foundation organized the first Public Diplomacy Week (Nov. 1-3) to include public diplomacy scholars, practitioners and interested people in dialogue about various practices of this new foreign policy advancement tool.

Kadir Jun Ayhan Using Korea’s first Public Diplomacy Week as an opportunity, we would like to examine public diplomacy’s purpose from a regional perspective.

Public diplomacy is not simply about promoting a country to increase the favorability of a nation. Public diplomacy emphasizes making connections across borders, be it borders of the mind or earth-bound borders that require a passport to cross.

When you engage in public diplomacy, you should approach the person or institutions with which you communicate with an open mind. Then it can be used to create global public goods that contribute to the peaceful coexistence of nations.

A representative example of such public diplomacy is international educational exchange, also known as exchange diplomacy. Korea’s neighbor China has invested heavily in such diplomacy, combining financial diplomacy with its cultural diplomacy “brand” Confucius Institutes (CI) and strong sister city ties. In the East Asia Pacific (EAP), Japan, South Korea and Australia receive the highest and most diversified volume of inbound Chinese public diplomacy activities.

A report, “Ties That Bind,” quantified Chinese public diplomacy activities and concluded that these three “receive a disproportionate share of Chinese sister cities, CIs and official visits compared to other EAP countries.” Is it possible that regional relations can be improved over time through more international engagement of this type?

Over 40 years ago, American Senator J. William Fulbright asked the question: “Can we humanize international relations before we incinerate them?” He argued that there is no other way to expand the boundaries of human wisdom, empathy and perception except through international educational exchanges, like his namesake Fulbright Program. This is not an exercise in blatant propaganda.

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye argues that the aim is not to convert foreign students coming to the U.S. to be pro-American, but rather to complexify their thinking, making them understand both the strengths and weaknesses of America to have a more accurate account of the country.

As public diplomacy scholars, we believe that without global education, we remain fixed images in the minds of each other. Korea becomes kimchi and “Gangnam Style,” China becomes “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and The Great Wall, and Japan just sushi and Hello Kitty.

We are more than our stereotypes. We are more than our contested histories. We are global educators. It is our duty to explain and interpret cultural and communication differences and how they affect policy choices.

One of Korea’s main public diplomacy programs is the Korean Government Scholarship Program (KGSP ― which is under the umbrella of the Global Korea Scholarship). KGSP invites students from countries that have diplomatic relations with Korea to study at Korean universities. Based on our recent research, the program is increasing foreign students’ understanding of and favorability toward Korea and it also contributes to global public goods. KGSP students develop global-mindedness as they learn and experience another country’s culture and language.

In our survey of the KGSP alumni, we found that more than 60 percent of them have not experienced living abroad before coming to Korea. This effectively means that Korea becomes their window opening to the world. Furthermore, this educational exchange program empowers the young talent of the world.

Korea has a great educational environment, particularly for students coming from developing countries who may not have the same opportunities at home. When these young minds return home, they contribute to the development of their own countries, a global pay-it-forward. When we consider that most KGSP students come from developing countries, Korea contributes significantly to international development through the program.

Public diplomacy is not only about branding a nation or communicating a message. It is about building and managing relationships between people of different backgrounds, different socializations and possibly those on different sides of borders of the mind.

In our survey, 88 percent of the KGSP alumni said they maintain ties with their Korean friends, 78 percent with their Korean acquaintances and 72 percent with their professors.

Social capital theorists suggest that the odds of conflict decreasing significantly result from people of different backgrounds getting opportunities to meet, talk and cooperate. British philosopher John Stuart Mill said that “a neighbor, not being an ally or an associate, since he is never engaged in any common undertaking for joint benefit, is therefore only a rival.”

Participants in global educational exchange programs become bridges between their home and host countries, and between them and the world. Investment in these globally minded talented young people is the best investment any country can make for peaceful coexistence with other countries. Global education exchanges are global public goods that also justify their cost for the benefits they provide to their sponsors.