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Eco-diplomacy and the Korean New Deal

This article is a summary of the paper “South Korean New Deal and the Role of Eco-diplomacy”, published in the “Collection of Essays on Korea’s Public Diplomacy: Possibilities and Future Outlook” and awarded a Special Prize in the 2020 Korean Public Diplomacy Paper Contest by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea.

Looking to overcome faster the Covid-19 crisis in the country, President Moon Jae-In anticipated the launch of the Korean New Deal. South Korea decided to invest heavily in technology and green energy to create sustainable growth for its economy until 2050. The Korean New Deal is divided into two constituents: the Digital New Deal and the Green New Deal. To start the plan, the government has established 10 major projects. For the Digital New Deal, these projects include the development of smart medical infrastructure, intelligent government, and the Data Dam (the collection of data from public and private sources to be standardized so it can be analysed). As for the Green New Deal, projects include green-friendly mobilities, green energy, and ecological remodelling. The remaining four projects encompass the convergence of digital and green initiatives with green smart schools, digital twin, and the inclusion of smart green manufacturing complexes.

Korea is aiming to establish a foundation for competitiveness in the ecological and digital fields for the future. The country was already the first nation to implement and commercialize 5G services, and it is helping broaden the world coverage. Under the New Deal, the government hopes to continue to shape its lead. In 2019, the country had already announced an artificial intelligence (AI) national strategy to encourage the expansion of AI domestically.

The Korean New Deal carries an ambitious economic development plan requiring a lot of public spending. The success of this project will depend on the involvement and cooperation between Korean civil society, the private and the public sectors. All these sectors will need to have a strong commitment to the achievement of this program. The Korean government aims to create a base where the country can lead the world on green energy initiatives. Thus, in order to reach this goal, both nationwide efforts and contributions by global actors are necessary, with an active participation in diplomatic affairs from South Korea, developed and developing nations.

Recently, with the Covid-19 outbreak, most of the stimulus plans around the world have concentrated on helping firms survive the pandemic downturn. While Korea has also focused its attention on the New Deal, which represents a long-term investment in the Korean economy, it is evident that the nation is worried not only about controlling Covid-19 infections but also about its economic future.

South Korea’s recent diplomatic role

The Public Diplomacy Act reflects a contemporary take on South Korea’s new public diplomacy. The Korean government’s understanding of public diplomacy not being based on marketing terms is a recent development. From the economic factors to the social changes that led to the Korean Wave spreading worldwide, and doing wonders for Korea’s soft power, a new approach is necessary. Introducing to the foreign audience the role that South Korea can play in the development of green initiatives and new related technologies will require a special effort from the government aimed specifically at the international community.

Lately, policymakers, experts and scholars have been discussing the role of South Korea in terms of middle power diplomacy. Yet, the concept and policy objectives related to the term still have some variations. Which leads to analytical confusion towards South Korea’s actual role as a middle power nation. Shaping South Korea’s reputation as amongst the most innovative developed countries could reap tremendous political and commercial benefits, thus helping address the existing security dead-end in the Korean peninsula. This could also provide geopolitical solutions in a multi-polar world, along with speeding up Korea’s participation in emergent scientific activities. One example being space exploration, with the launch of South Korea’s first military satellite in July 2020.

Eco-diplomacy as a new trademark for South Korea

The New Deal requires high investments, it represents an economic challenge that requires the State’s commitment to achieving its goals. It should be taken into consideration that 2020 has brought a lot of worries back to the international community due to the pandemic crisis. Nations focused on solving their own domestic problems in the short term, to later be able to re-focus on foreign policies. As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, many nations were hit hard and are still adapting to a new way of conducting diplomatic relations. But this challenge presents South Korea with an opportunity, due to its technological edge over many of its partners and competitors. This technological edge could easily be turned into the creation of technological synergies with other nations. This environment can therefore create a path for South Korea to be able to advance from a middle power in the making to a well-developed one.

In order to meet its goals on climate change and energy, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has established in 2012 the Global Energy Cooperation Center (GECC). In 2016, the Basic Plan for Climate Change Response and the Road Map to Achieve National Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals were also introduced. By the end of that year, MOFA launched the Green Round Table, an initiative aimed at debating ways to reinforce cooperation between international organizations and domestic agencies. And in recent years, South Korea led the establishment of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), which was part of the government’s efforts to spread out the green growth program and attain leadership in international collaboration on a green economy. Covering matters of climate change, the environment and green economic development, these initiatives enabled national players in their gathering of business intelligence in the energy and natural resources markets worldwide.

The challenges of leading a new format of communication under an eco-diplomacy-oriented approach could make South Korea rethink its foreign affairs in a way that will establish strong relations with developing countries, by using technology cooperation and green initiatives as a link and allowing these nations to reach sustainable growth in a more cooperative and efficient way. Leading the way to sustainable cooperation through green energy initiatives can reinforce South Korea’s reputation as a technologically advanced power, while trying a « sustainable » foreign policy in addition to or as an extension of President Moon Jae-In’s innovative growth agenda might contribute to its overall policy success.

In order to build an adequate environment to create a more sustainable foreign policy and develop an « eco-diplomacy » with the global community, South Korea should focus on projecting an image of a self-sufficient, digital and green innovator nation. More than just the image, it is fundamental to make an additional effort to focus on innovation in terms of sustainability. In this sense, the Korean New Deal could consolidate both the socio-economic and political strategies to achieve these sustainability objectives.

Accomplishing this could be possible through diverse approaches, such as:

  • putting in place an effective eco-diplomacy plan ;
  • allowing the participation of non-state actors to help shape a sustainable foreign policy ;
  • building centers of eco-diplomacy using the network and know-how of embassies, consulates and high commissions overseas to create strong international cooperation.

These goals can be realized if participating nations and non-state actors agree upon legal frameworks. Thus, with the development of the Korean New Deal and the adoption of eco-diplomacy, the government could involve an extensive group of international non-state actors from the technological and academic communities, while allowing Korea’s diplomatic network of embassies and consulates to develop small, focused centers as relays of influence. Such is the price for South Korea to play a major role as a nation focused on innovation and sustainable development.

Picture credits: Lee Chung-Woo /

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