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Talk off the record. Moon Jae-in (left) and Kim Jeong-un in Panmunjeom, 27 April 2018 (KBS Livestream, detail).

Multi-Level Diplomacy in a Polycentric Constellation

02.05.2018 A historic meeting of the heads of state of both Koreas on 27 April in Panmunjeom flags the most striking diplomatic success so far in what is considered the longest lasting interstate conflict in today's world at all. In an outstanding manner this conflict elucidates how the global dimension of regional conflicts is associated with threats and opportunities at the same time. Success in the long run seems possible only, if change and reconciliation can be accomplished by an interplay of different levels. Anyhow, the integrating refinement of these regional actors accrues from historic roots.


Regional conflicts figure prominent in the governance of international relations. They multiplex power relations that can considerably exceed the respective regional setting and the danger of proxy wars is often imminent. It is therefore an element of global responsibility to contain such conflicts by international accords and to ensure their monitoring and verification by the international community.

A typical constellation encompasses in addition to actors that are involved as parties of conflict those influential states that are meant to act, often in their capacity as members of the United Nations Security Council, as protecting and guarantor powers of the agreements. However, a sort of neutrality of those powers usually can hardly be expected. The balancing and reconciliation of such divergent ambitions and interests of power - in the limited context of a specific conflict - always constituted the noble task of diplomacy.

Diplomacy will display a creditable situation or scenario as an advantageous context for all participants to the conflict and act as a necessary storyteller in service of those narratives.

South Korean diplomacy since 2017 serves as a recent example for how such a - 'polycentric' so to speak - promotion of one's own interests, here with the target to solve a conflict lasting over decades, can be framed strategically and communicated and implemented in practice.

The conflict of a separated country constitutes a special case of a regional conflict. A source of complexity of the Korea conflict results from the tensions in the relations of four historic and current great powers that are concentrating around it: the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the State of Japan and the United States of America. A further special aspect of the current situation relates to Koreans' historic experience. The country over centuries developed skills in dealing with great powers and the scandal of Japanese occupation from 1905 until the end of the Second World War results from the fact that this occupation of the whole country was without precendent. Korea for long was able to indemnify itself by wisely negotiated tributes ever again with far more powerful neighbours.

Korean Confucianism therefore provides not only a ground for the governance of internal affairs. It is estimated as a proven instrument of Korean diplomacy already at the court of King Sejeong, inventor of the Korean alphabet in the early 15th century.

Korean partition afforded, as long time was the case with the German, a multi-level diplomacy, presenting a special challenge and nevertheless a unique constellation as well that can provide to regional actors a bunch of strategic advantages.

The Korea Summit of 27 April 2018 was flanked by intense travelling diplomacy and visits. Security experts from Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo have been welcomed in Seoul only a few days prior to the summit. Both sides payed respects to their respective protecting powers: Kim Jeong-un on this occasion met the Chinese President for the first time at all, which underlines the urgency of the re-insurance (for both sides). South Korea's Moon Jae-in, considered a 'wise man' therefore by senior Asia correspondent Klaus Scherer of German Public Television's First Channel, stunts to remain approachable and responsive for his North Korean counterpart as well as for the incumbent US-President. In difference to both, there was no need during the last weeks for him, to change his positions and wording during the last months at all.

Moon's dual formula, combining the threat and maintenance of sanctions with constant efforts to find channels for communication and opportunities to talk, pacifies the hardliners on both sides and as well prevents blockage of the ongoing change process. He succeeded thereby in underlining credibility for his endeavour, also in the international arena.

Sceptics did talk of 'small steps' and 'big gestures' in view of Panmunjeom. But a conflict kept in check by freeze since over six decades may profit in a decisive way from an alternation of one's perception of the 'other'. Regional and other players are united in cognizance that this frozen political constellation in East Asia is for no one's sake any more. A way out is (re-)searched for a long time. In Germany, the acknowledgement of the existence of two German states, as we know ex post, made the start for a development that finally ended in a German re-unification. But history does not repeat (literally).


Lyle Goldstein developed a concept for the Korean peninsula which he labels 'cooperation spiral'. Therein he proposes two times five reciprocal measures, whereby the USA and the PR China could approach a nuclear free Korean peninsula. This study, published in 2015, wants to commit China to the role of a protecting power for North Korea and proposes that China supervises a freeze of North Korean nuclear production as well as a subsequent nuclear disarmament (scrapping). The United States in return acknowledge North Korea as a souvereign state under the condition that disarmament is verified and reduce their own nuclear arsenal accordingly. Goldstein's approach builds on reciprocal steps and envisions the deployment of Chinese troops in North Korea. He remarks that China already 1958 withdrew troops unilaterally (a gap firstly closed by the former Soviet Union from 1960 on). Goldstein's 'cooperation spiral' is not yet a white paper for the solution of this dilemma. His approach nevertheless opens an option based on reciprocity for the design of a security-political process, possibly leading to more predictability, not least between the military actors in the region. China's now affirmed proposal for a 'freeze-to-freeze' process points in a similar direction.

The strategic threats and claims in this region are present at any time and increasingly overlapping in a dense area. One day after the summit, on 28 April, a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft without prior notice entered the South Korean Air Defense Zone (KADIZ) and stayed there for more than four hours.

 

Sources

Klaus Scherer (NDR), 'Was für eine Wende!', Kommentar zum Koreagipfel, Tagesthemen, 27.4.2018

Christoph Neidhardt, 'Kleine Schritte, große Gesten', Sueddeutsche, 27.4.2018

Lyle J. Goldstein (2015). Meeting China Halfway. How to Diffuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press

'Chinese military plane enters S. Korea's air defense zone'. Yonhapnews, 28.4.2018

'China espouses peace regime on Korean Peninsula, vows to play role', Yonhapnews, 2.5.2018

Martin Wolf
Head of Public Relations
Tel: +49 (0)203 379 5238