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The Peninsula

In Search of South Korean Science Diplomacy

Published September 6, 2018

By Olga Krasnyak 

Science diplomacy doesn’t seem to be a recognized tool of South Korea’s foreign policy yet. In the meantime, there is an urgent need to reinforce Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to assist or even take the diplomatic lead in some scientific projects tackled by Korean scientific institutions.

On August 29th, a workshop on ‘Marine Protected Areas in Korea, Japan, and the Antarctic,’ organized by the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, brought together scientists and researchers from Korea, Japan, and New Zealand to discuss their achievements in the nature conservation, ecology, fishery, and management policy for marine protected areas. The participants suggested solutions for what can be done to enhance international collaboration and enlarging scientific networks. The participants also expressed their concerns on public awareness of science, ecological knowledge, and maritime protected areas themselves. I’ll focus on Korea’s perspective here.

Given the geographical circumstances of the peninsula being surrounded by seas, open water ecological concerns, the coastal economy and fishing industry are the important issues in the domestic policy making. Bearing that in mind, the workshop agenda seems timely, reasonable, logically constructed, and was well received by a very small but highly engaged audience. Seas and fishery are vital for Korea. The problem here is that no single participant—they are all well respected scientists—expressed their concerns of combining efforts with MOFA. The bond with MOFA is not obvious—the ecology of marine areas or fishing industry on one side and foreign policy on the other do not seem closely related. However, they should be tied up together now. I propose the ways to justify such a bond in three examples: South Korea-North Korea marine protected area policy; South Korea-Japan marine protected area network; and South Korea’s scientific stake in the Southern Ocean.

Diagnosing a Problem

Apart from merely scientific and economic concerns, Korea lacks international engagement and international intervention on joint efforts in marine protected areas with its closest neighbors. For political reasons, there’s no contacts with North Korean scientists, yet the shared East-West coastal lines might be in the need of joint scientific observation, monitoring and data sharing. As it has been approximately estimated, in the North-West Pacific region protected areas, the coverage in territorial coastal and marine waters is only 2% (10,000 km2 ) for South Korea and 0.02% for North Korea. The target is to increase protected areas up to 10% for each country, yet this number might be achieved steadily if both countries work together.

There’s also the lack of networking with Japanese scientists while the practical outcome in formulating a joint policy on marine protected areas is rather vague. Even during the workshop, Korean and Japanese researchers debated about shared responsibility on marine waters and wetlands and what actually should be included in the term of marine protected areas, and the researchers didn’t reach an acceptable consensus.

In the Southern Ocean and Antarctic, Korea has a scientific stake: a partial protection of the Ross Sea where Korea’s segment is about 1,555,000 km2. Korea also maintains the Jangbogo science station with a focus on collecting data of Adelie penguins and monitoring ecosystem and environmental changes. However, a small number of scientific publications (according to the SCOPUS statistics, there are only 27 papers in the last three decades) and a bystander position in the spectrum of negotiating position on the Ross Sea marine waters, make Korea’s stake rather weak.

Science Diplomacy Is a Solution

At the moment, politics constrains the matter of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea. The solution is science diplomacy. If science diplomacy with North Korea has been already implemented by other countries, it can be done again, or at least to be attempted. Without diplomatic assistance, scientists might be helpless to organize international cooperation or joint expertise. Scientific expertise of the marine waters is crucial for both Koreas in the long run, but without political will, nothing can be done effectively. This sad truth should not only be acknowledged but more publicly discussed. One of the priorities of Korea’s foreign policy is its northern neighbor. To secure foreign policy objectives and ultimately reinforce peaceful negotiations beyond denuclearization, human rights issues, while not violating international sanctions, Korea’s MOFA might use a science for diplomacy approach in which scientific collaboration is a way to maintain bilateral relations when these are strained or limited.

In the case of the building a marine protected areas network with Japan, rational diplomatic negotiations should first aim to overcome old sore spots of shared memory. Science diplomacy with Japan in the dimension of diplomacy for science, meaning here facilitating international science cooperation, might be a priority. Identifying common issues such as ecological networking, species migrations, etc. as well as building a favorable environment for local economies will foster strong human networks. Diplomatic efforts should help to make that real.

Based on the mechanism of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty implementation, Korea realistically might clear its position towards marine protected areas of the Southern Ocean and might project its future role in global governance over the Antarctic. Keeping a lonely bystander position, is not going to improve Korea’s stake there. Building coalitions with other lesser powers, practicing network diplomacy through personal interactions, engaging with the public at home and abroad, while initiating scientific projects might eventually bring different outcomes: Korea might change its position from a bystander to, at least, a mediator and facilitator.

Let’s face it, the Antarctic is the only unique place on our planet by now where major and lesser powers might jointly exercise in global governance. In this case, the two basic foundations—scientific knowledge and skillful diplomacy—matter in forming and maintaining global order.

Science in Korea is developing rapidly, but diplomatic strategies need to be (re)invented and implemented accordingly. Korea might look at historical and current examples of how science and savvy diplomacy played a role in U.S.-Soviet relations in the Cold War; or how current diplomatic strategies of the U.S., the UK, France, Russia, and China (these are the UN Security Council permanent members) are in the use to keep these countries global and/or regional stakeholders.

Without diplomatic approaches towards marine waters, whether around the peninsula or in the Southern Ocean, Korea might further be put aside in the currently forming multi-polar world. Adopting a science diplomacy strategy might be the way for Korea to build its international influence.

Olga Krasnyak is a Lecturer in International Studies at Underwood International College, Yonsei University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Bridget Coila’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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