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Public Diplomacy: when public opinion meets IR

Whenever South Korea is the main issue in the news, the word “soft power” is mentioned in the media repeatedly. Countries around the world now keep their eyes on South Korea, propably with admiration and awe. Soft power seems like a gift which South Korea accidentally got in the blink of an eye. 

Did they plan for it? Why is it so massive? 

If we talk about planning, we might have to think about the term “public diplomacy,” the field that becomes more and more popular among the students in International Studies. And at Ewha GSIS, we have the first Public Diplomacy Center in South Korea (2008), founded by Prof. Kisuk Cho, the professor of Public Diplomacy course.

Photo courtesy of KAPD

Ewha GSIS blog had a chance to interview Prof. Cho, who has just become the first president of Korean Association for Public Diplomacy, newly established in 2020. The association will hold an international conference on this incoming November 27, 2020, inviting renowned scholars in public diplomacy around the world to discuss the field. 

Before joining the event, this interview is a great opportunity for you to learn about the meaning and importance of public diplomacy, the current gaps of scholars in the field, and also the career path as public diplomats.

What is public diplomacy? Is it equal to soft power?

Public diplomacy is the diplomatic activity towards the foreign public. In the past, the purpose of diplomacy was to promote national interests, but these days the unilateral activities are not well received by the foreign public. So public diplomacy is to communicate with the foreign public to promote mutual benefits between both countries for a long-term relationship. Soft power is a tool that can be used in public diplomacy. If we have a stronger or greater soft power, we will be attractive to the foreign public and the foreign public is likely to support our agenda in the international arena.

They are not the same thing?

No, soft power is actually a resource and assets or a good weapon that can be used for public diplomacy. There are many different sources of soft power. For example, our cultural heritage or a famous pop culture could be the sources of attraction, and also the values that we advocate, our institution, or our government, the way we manage the pandemic situation. All these things can be regarded as sources of soft power.

Photo by Pixabay on
What inspired you to study this field?

I am a PR specialist. I have been studying public opinion and elections. So, I understand mass behavior and attitudes and international politics. In the past, traditional diplomacy was the business for professional diplomats who passed the official exam and made backdoor deals secretly from the public. Most of their documents are classified as a secret. So the public was not much interested in international affairs. Statesmen and diplomats were freely able to make a deal with foreign governments. 

But due to democratization, technological development, and globalization, the boundary of the national border is blurred. The boundary between domestic versus international or global became blurred as well. So the public is now keen on international relations and also speeches of foreign statespersons because it affects our daily life. So the public became very vocal and participative. Globalization made the boundary between global vs. domestic meaningless. Technological development enabled the foreign public to actively participate in global affairs. These three things brought about the new arena, which is called public diplomacy.

But unfortunately, there is a silos wall between the diplomatic scholars and public opinion specialists. There was no communication between the two areas. In my case, I’m a communication and public opinion specialist, but I am teaching at a graduate school of international studies about international relations. So I thought I am the one who can bridge these two different areas. 

Photo courtesy of KAPD

When the seemingly anti-America street demonstration first occurred in Korea in 2002, right before the presidential election, experts were astonished because South Koreans have been pretty much pro-American for a long time, and they will never be interested in international issues. So a lot of works and papers and books were published in the early 2000s, right after this incident. But I was not satisfied with their explanations because the writers were mostly international political scholars who do not have any understanding of mass behavior and attitudes. They made a conclusion that this is anti-Americanism and the phenomenon will go forever, even becoming more serious, so the US cannot make a reasonable foreign policy towards South Korea because South Korea is fickle or ambivalent.

I was not convinced by their conclusion. For me, I couldn’t see any problems with South Korean politics. They simply requested an apology from President Bush because two Korean school kids were hit by the US military armor vehicle. It was natural that the South Korean public requested an apology from President Bush. It was not anti-American at all. They fail to differentiate between anti-Americanism, which is a really strong ideology, and anti-American attitudes and behavior against the Bush administration.

I thought my knowledge in public opinion research should be introduced to explain all these phenomena and make reasonable future foreign policy to the US. So I started studying this area and then this became a hot topic since 9/11 because of the terrorist attack. People started questioning the failure of the public diplomacy of the US. It was a coincidence that I started developing an interest in public diplomacy while public diplomacy as an academic field also started growing. That’s why Ewha became the first university that offered public diplomacy as a regular course for both undergraduate and graduate in 2008. I established the Public Diplomacy Center, which is the first research Institution in Korea that specializes in public diplomacy research.

I started conducting a public diplomacy forum, the Korean-German Junior forum, because I knew that the public opinion was formed at an earlier age, such as in the late teens and early 20s. The role of public opinion leaders of people in their fifties and sixties is very limited in the age of digitalization and their attitudes have been already formed. In order to change the future relationships, it’s time to invest in the younger generations. So I created the Korean-German Junior forum. That was the public diplomacy practice that I started in 2012. Next year will be the 10th anniversary.

I was so surprised when I learned that South Korea’s government actually just began its interest in public diplomacy in 2010. Why is the country so successful in this kind of diplomacy in a short time?

First of all, South Korean public officials are very competent, knowledgeable, and full of passion. That’s one thing. And secondly, as a latecomer, we were able to take advantage of the failures and successes of the front runners like the US and European countries. They have a long tradition from the colonial period. To us, it was so new. As we have a latecomer advantage, like in development, we were able to shrink the period of development. We made an economic miracle in a short time and also for public diplomacy, that was our own advantage.

But above all, we are very strong in digital technology. Almost the whole population has their smartphones and they are using SNS (social media) everyday. So we have the potential in technological development and advanced communication technologies. President Kim Dae-jung installed all these digital highways everywhere. He invested a lot in not only the wi-fi but also promoting IT venture companies. That’s another thing. 

Another incident is that since democratization, President Kim Dae-jung invested a lot in Korean culture, pop-culture, movies, K-pop, and dramas. Democratization benefited the South Korean government because South Koreans are very active and participative in public diplomacy, and it also makes the creative industry flourish. All these creative industries made the Korean government find it easy to do public diplomacy. All of a sudden South Korea became very hot and well-known because of pop culture. 

But the purpose of President Kim Dae-jung in that investment was not yet focused on public diplomacy? 

No, but he was aware. Because we were undergoing a financial crisis when he became president. So we were in a very difficult economic situation. That’s why he thought about how we can bring a prosperous economy back again. He invested a lot in IT and culture because he saw that is our future. 

Photo by Pixabay on

One of my students wrote a thesis in 2008. She was the first student in my public diplomacy class. In the thesis, she interviewed public officials at the MOFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) whether they are aware of public diplomacy. They didn’t know the term. They were confused between public diplomacy and civilian diplomacy. But only two years later, they decided to make public diplomacy one of the most important agenda for MOFA. And now they are far ahead of other countries.

What public diplomacy activities of South Korea that you think are worth learning from?

A lot. First of all, they are publicizing K-pop to foreign countries. There are quiz contests or K-pop contests. Every embassy has a lot of activities where people in the host country can participate. These are leisure activities, which are related to K-pop. They show Korean movies and organize K-pop dance and singing contests. They have quiz contests about, for example, South Korean history. The embassies are very active in organizing these programs. 

Also, we raised our share for aid since the Roh Moo-Hyun administration. Roh Moo-Hyun became president right after Kim Dae-jung. At that time, Ban Ki-moon was running for the secretary-general for the UN. So, to do our responsibility in the development, we started collecting tax money from the airport. If you go abroad, then you have to pay taxes. That tax money has been used for development aid. We increased the development share and became a member of OECD. We used to be the recipient country, but we became a donor country in the shortest period of time. I think all of these contributed to active public diplomacy.

Why did you establish KAPD and what are its expected missions?

Among the political scientists or foreign relations scholars who are studying public diplomacy, they know nothing about public attitudes. People in the other areas which are communication, PR, and journalism, study public opinion but know nothing about international relations. So still, I think I am the only person who can be the link between the two. The scholars in international relations who are lacking knowledge in public opinion and scholars in PR and journalism who are lacking knowledge in international relations should learn from each other. That’s why I decided to establish the Korean Association for Public Diplomacy (KAPD). This association is truly interdisciplinary and the people who have different backgrounds started communicating.

Photo courtesy of KAPD

This is the first and the only association for public diplomacy. And public diplomacy scholars mostly attended international political association or international studies association. So far there is no academic association for public diplomacy only. There is a segregation between the international political scholar associations and then the communication and PR scholars’. We are the first and only independent academic organization of public diplomacy in the world. If we work hard, we can be number one because we have a group of people who are really well-educated and trained. We are collaborating and crossing the silos. So I think we can be the front runner in the global community, at least with regard to public diplomacy. 

The first mission is to maintain our status as the number one in public diplomacy. And secondly, we plan to launch an academic journal, not only in Korean but also in English. This English journal will be a front runner for global scholars. And this year we are organizing an international conference. There have been few international conferences, for example, the events organized by Wilton Park, the research organization associated with the UK’s MOFA, and conferences held by the Israelis’ government. KAPD’s international conferences which will be held on November 27, 2020, will be a truly global conference because we are inviting scholars from the US, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Australia, and so many countries. 

How can students and alumni of GSIS here participate in KAPD’s activities?

First of all, you can become a student member of the KAPD. If you participate as a student member, you can have access to all the conference proceedings, journals, and, and every information from our members who have their own conferences and seminars on PD.  You can get access to all these members. Even if you are not a member, still, you can attend the conferences. And if you attend the conferences, you have access to the publications at the conference. Members can also present a paper at the conferences. 

What are the preferred characteristics of people who wish to work in the public diplomacy field?

First of all, this is a business or a task dealing with other people, so you should enjoy interpersonal interaction. And secondly, you should, you need a basic knowledge about mass behavior, public behavior, and attitudes, and you need some expertise in language because it’s all about communications. Your message is A, if you are not good at communication skills, then the people can interpret it as B. So you need communication skills.

Other than diplomats or ambassadors, what else can be a career path for public diplomacy students?

These days, all diplomats are trained for public diplomacy because the portion of public diplomacy is growing. But they are also hiring separate posts for public diplomacy. For example, the public diplomats who are dealing with media, digital media, and engagement, like NGOs or opinion leaders engagement, and also positions for strategic communications. For example, if our image is damaged due to a certain incident and we would like to recover our image, then you have to make a plan for strategic communications. For those posts, they are particularly hiring public diplomats. So, to be public diplomats, you should enjoy interacting with so many people.

Photo courtesy of KAPD


Dr. Kisuk Cho is a professor of political science at Graduate School of International Studies educated at Ewha Womans University, Korea and Indiana University in the U.S. She is a founder and director of the Public Diplomacy Center. She has served for President Roh Moo-Hyun as a Senior Secretary in Public Relations and editor of Political Science Review.

KAPD International Conference. (November 27, 2020)* You can register for the conference via the link below.
YouTube live link (broadcasted on the conference day)

Published by Khing Amatyakul

Thai, Working at SuperPlanet, IR grad from Ewha GSIS | @khingamat

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