South Korean Participatory Diplomacy - lessons for the UK

South Korean Participatory Diplomacy – lessons for the UK

On Friday 16th November the BFPG hosted a private roundtable event to explore what the UK can learn from South Korea’s innovative approach to popular diplomacy. The speakers for this event were:

Ambassador Sahng-hoon Bahk, South Korea’s Ambassador for Public Diplomacy and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

Ms Hyeo-kyeong Lee, Chief of Participatory Diplomacy Team

Kathy Leach, Joint Head, Policy Unit, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Participatory diplomacy

South Korea has recently started developing an initiative around ‘participatory diplomacy’ as part of their foreign policy approach. A lack of informed public engagement on foreign policy issues has led to a focus on a bottom up approach that seeks to create cohesion between groups and build trust between the South Korean government and public on international issues. The discussion, hosted by BFPG, and with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also present, looked at what lessons could be learnt by the UK and South Korea from each other’s experience in this space, as well as further thoughts on some of the challenges that these initiatives face.

The South Korean Participatory Diplomacy approach is designed to maximise constructive public engagement on foreign policy matters. This approach is based on three main pillars: communication, participation and capacity building. The combination of these three pillars helps to ensure that the participatory diplomacy model does not become a one-way street based on a singular agenda or narrative. This careful balancing act of managing the expectations of both the public and the South Korean government is designed to allow policy makers to achieve their ultimate goal: larger public participation. One of the core ideas behind the participatory diplomacy model is that diplomacy should not be solely for diplomats. In addition to this, the participatory diplomacy model also aspires to incorporate the foreign policy interests and knowledge of all citizens. As such there is much to learn from how elements of the South Korean participatory diplomacy approach could be adapted here in the UK to create new channels of communication on foreign policy.

UK & participatory diplomacy

In principle, this concept creates access points for the public and policy makers, so that they can discuss issues that are in the national interest. However, there are also limitations to the effectiveness of the participatory diplomacy model. Attendees stressed that in order to allow for quality strategic dialogue, expectations of the public need to be managed. In addition to this the issue of the general public often being not well informed about foreign policy in general needs to be factored into consideration. This does raise an important question about how the UK can merge the participatory diplomacy approach with a national engagement agenda to engage with people’s concerns rather than eliminate them. Some suggested that the referendum has demonstrated that parliamentarians, diplomats, and public bodies have not done enough to manage concerns of discontent towards Whitehall.

Today’s British Ambassador

A key point raised by attendees was that of the impact of the lack of diversity within the FCO. This raises an important question about the culture that some institutions may have towards embracing diversity and recognising that there are clear structural issues that need to be dealt with in order for the UK to succeed with any international agenda. Connected to this point, is the problem of the lack of diversity within British post-secondary school curriculum and how this effects the way the public view the UK’s place in the world. How can the UK become more outward looking and international; if its institutions and curriculum, insufficiently reflect the diversity of British perspectives- whether cultural or regional ? A holistic approach to any public participatory diplomacy model, which includes devolved nations, would also be crucial. Post Brexit, the UK’s relations outside of Europe will become more significant. The lack of diplomatic engagement between the public and policy makers could be damaging if the UK is to succeed at an international level.

Local access hubs and digital diplomacy

Due to the limited options that the general public currently have for speaking to ambassadors and policy makers, the discussion touched on what local community access points might look like and how they could be managed.

The role of technology was also widely discussed. The term digital diplomacy has been widely used by policy makers and diplomats as an alternative access point. However, managing digital content is also important in an era of fake news and misinformation. It’s important that diplomats and policy makers assess how they might utilise their online platforms to engage with the public in a way that mitigates these risks.

One example of what these access points could look like is the BFPG’s National Engagement programme, partnering with universities and other local organisations throughout the UK. The key to the success of access points such as this one is broad representation, to involve as many stakeholders as possible. The participatory diplomacy model shows that this can be done effectively if community cohesion is prioritised.


The divisive discourse on Brexit has consumed a majority of space around the UK’s foreign policy choices. The amplification of the Brexit debate has left little room for trust between policy makers and the public which, in turn, has prevented, in some ways, real strategic engagement between government bodies and the public. It was widely acknowledged that there is scope for a greater participatory diplomacy approach in the UK against the back drop of Brexit. This is worth exploring if the FCO is to engage effectively with groups that have been marginalised from conversations around UK foreign policy. Engagement with diaspora communities and faith groups could be part of a public participatory model for the UK.

South Korea has been admirably forward looking in developing an initiative for more coherently and systematically engaging with its population on foreign policy issues. Many of the drivers for doing so are shared by the UK. Both countries have more internationally influential and diverse domestic actors which are ever less instinctively supportive of national policy approaches. Yet often these domestic actors are vulnerable to poor information as well as disinformation.  These changes demand a more proactive domestic approach from foreign ministries. At the same time there is no one size fits all approach and the UK and South Korea clearly have significant differences that demand different responses. Much of the discussion revolved around the UK’s unique circumstances and how different approaches might work. It is clear however, that both the UK and South Korea have much to learn from each other as they pioneer approaches that other countries are likely to draw from over coming years.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Nadia Khan

Nadia is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group. Nadia is a graduate in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. Prior to joining BFPG Nadia worked in Vienna and Kosovo on Human Rights issues around post-conflict state resolutions. She has a keen interest in British foreign policy, in particular the role played by international Space programmes in fostering cooperation between states to achieve the UN sustainable development goals. Nadia is fluent in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati.