South Korea is a latecomer when it comes to public diplomacy. It can learn from Taiwan's experience, especially its public diplomacy with the United States. It's a fitting proposition because there is a view that South Korea, under Park Geun-hye, displayed the appearance of "tilting" towards China at the expense of the U.S., its major ally.
Meanwhile, the recent phone conversation between U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen was hailed as a victory for Taiwan's lobby. In fact, it can also be viewed as a victory for Taiwan's public diplomacy that has had a robust presence in the U.S. for decades.
The difference between Taiwan and South Korea is that Seoul has a formal alliance with Washington that leads Koreans to believe that the U.S. will defend them in case of a war. In this institutionalized alliance system, South Korea didn't feel the dire need to invest amply in public diplomacy towards the U.S., being allies, friendship was taken for granted. The relationship was seen as something that required little maintenance and greasing.
On the contrary, Taiwan doesn't have a formal alliance with the U.S. It also lost U.N.-member statehood to China in 1971 when the world body chose to recognize the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.). Feeling vulnerable, Taiwan early on invested heavily in public diplomacy with the U.S., hoping that the world's superpower would stand by Taiwan in times of trouble in the geopolitical jungle.
The origin of Taiwan's public diplomacy can be traced to May-ling Soong (Soong Mei-ling), who later became Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi)'s wife. In 1917, she graduated from Wellesley College, an exclusive all-female college, comparable to South Korea's Ewha Womans University. Many graduates of Wellesley were married to American political figures and Soong's alma mater connection also turned out very helpful for her networking in the U.S.
Soong herself was a charismatic figure. Having been versed in both Chinese and western culture, Soong gained popularity in the U.S. with her talent for public speaking and personal charm. She was on the cover of Time magazine three times and addressed the U.S. Congress in 1943. When she visited the U.S. again, a crowd of 30,000 gathered to see her. Life magazine called her the "most powerful women in the world." Overall, Soong is widely regarded as having paved the way for Taiwan's public diplomacy in the United States.
Even today Taiwan maintains a close network with the U.S. Congress. The Congressional Taiwan Caucus, for example, is the second largest country caucus with 137 members. The Korea Caucus, for reference, had only 58 members, as of 2013.
A defining feature of Taiwan's public diplomacy is its utilization of Taiwanese-Americans in the U.S. who engage their local politicians. Of notable is the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA). Founded in 1982, the organization has branch offices in each state and deploys outreach to the local congressmen and senators. Their engagement in the local community and local concerns naturally make them a powerful constituency in U.S. politics. On the other hand, South Korea's public diplomacy is centered around holding conferences and cultural events, organized by Korean delegations visiting the U.S., with the help of the Korean embassy. In a nutshell, the Taiwan public diplomacy is more locally grounded; the Korean public diplomacy is more like a one-time event.
Another contrast is that Taiwan's public diplomacy tends not to emphasize the term "public diplomacy," while South Korea openly features its diplomacy prominently. For instance, South Korea holds many government-sponsored conferences abroad, literally titled "public diplomacy forum." Taiwan is subtler, using instead wordings such as "international exchange," wishing to avoid the negative connotations of "propaganda," embedded in the term public diplomacy. In addition, Taiwan's outreach toward the U.S. is on a "party-to-party" basis, while that of South Korea is on a "government-to-government" basis.
Taken together, for a public diplomacy strategy to succeed, first, it is helpful to have some distance from the government. Even though it is funded by the government, the government doesn't have to be in the front seat and visible all the time. Taiwan intentionally keeps the government "invisible" in conducting public diplomacy. The Korean government seems to be too eager to be shown out front.
Second, Korea should engage in strategic thinking about whether it is more effective to achieve a goal through lobbying or public diplomacy. Lobbying is legal in the United States. Public diplomacy is a long-term process. Lobbying is about a pending issue. They can have a synergetic effect, as seen in the Trump-Tsai phone call. They can, however, backfire when unscrupulously combined; South Korea has suffered one such case recently.
Third, South Korea should not only think about public diplomacy "toward" the U.S., but also "with" the U.S. Instead of making one-sided crusades to earn the hearts and minds of Americans, it should also find new agenda items that both Korean and American citizens can engage in together. People bond easily when they work together for a common cause. For instance, lately, the U.S. has ramped up its campaign for freedom of information in North Korea ― seeing that as a major way of raising North Korean citizens' awareness of the outside world ― by sending USBs, DVDs, and radios into North Korea. There are already likeminded American and Korean NGOs involved in this new digital public diplomacy frontier.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org