The leaders of South Korea and Japan met with U.S. President Joe Biden last month in a “historic” trilateral summit aimed at expanding strategic cooperation. Photos of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio smiling at each other at the Camp David retreat near Washington, D.C. were accompanied by press statements and joint declarations of bonhomie.
But tensions were running high between the East Asian neighbors in the summer of 2019. While Japan imposed curbs on high-tech exports to South Korea, Seoul refused to renew an intelligence-sharing pact and put its armed forces on notice. This was not unusual; the two countries have had an acrimonious relationship since Japan’s colonization of Korea a century ago.
Curiously, the escalating feud that year found no mention in the social media posts of either the Japanese embassy in Seoul or the South Korean embassy in Tokyo. Instead, it was the South Korean mission to Washington, D.C. that tweeted about the dispute. The reason: South Korea relies on U.S. backing to hold its ground against Japan. The embassy tweet, while not officially a complaint, signaled South Korea’s intent to draw U.S. attention to the row – and perhaps also an expectation that Washington would intervene on Seoul’s behalf.
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Digital platforms, and Twitter (now X) in particular, have gained currency over the past decade or so as channels of public diplomacy – a means for diplomats and foreign missions to interact directly with the local public and influence their opinions and perceptions. But as the South Korean mission’s tweet indicates, these platforms also allow countries to send quasi-official signals to each other’s policymakers about their issues and concerns, intentions and motivations. In doing so, they reveal the vicissitudes of international relations that lie behind the veil of official statements and even independent news coverage.
To better understand these dynamics, we analyzed tweets from the South Korean embassies in Tokyo (@KoreanEmb_japan) and Washington, D.C. (@RokEmbDC) as well as the reciprocal embassies of Japan (@JapanEmb_KoreaJ) and the United States (@USEmbassySeoul) in Seoul, posted between January and December 2019. Our study, published in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Policy & Internet journal, sheds new light on how “digital diplomacy” functions and its wider ramifications.
One of our main findings is that tweets of the two South Korean missions – to the United States and to Japan – are quite different from each other. Moreover, each Korean embassy’s tweets tends to mirror, in some important ways, how the corresponding U.S. or Japanese mission in Seoul posts on Twitter.
Culture or Politics?
For instance, the reciprocal South Korean and Japanese embassies tweeted frequently about cultural events while avoiding political differences. Nearly 40 percent of the 374 tweets from the Korean embassy in Tokyo were about announcing or inviting participants to festivals, exhibitions, and competitions. The Japanese embassy in Seoul posted far less often – only 38 tweets over the year – but more than a third of these tweets were also related to cultural exchange. No other topic came close.
Tourism was another focus of the South Korean embassy in Japan and the subject of just under half of its tweets. Many tweets included links to the social media posts of Japanese students that the embassy sends annually on short trips to South Korea in order to improve their knowledge of Korean culture and history. These “SNS reporters” produce videos of their tours and post them online for other Japanese to watch and learn from; @KoreanEmb_Japan promotes them assiduously.
Even as the Korean embassy’s posts evinced an eagerness to represent South Korea as a culturally rich tourist destination, the Japanese embassy assumed a rather disinterested posture while acknowledging their cultural ties.
Except for a Japanese tweet mentioning South Korea’s ban on Japan’s marine products, the mounting bilateral tensions hardly registered in the Twitter posts of either mission.
In contrast, about 60 percent of the 657 tweets from the Korean embassy in the United States raised political issues and security concerns related to China, North Korea, and, indeed, Japan. Nearly a third of the 913 tweets from the U.S. embassy in Seoul were also about politics and security – more than any other subject. Although the U.S. mission avoided making direct references to the Japan-South Korea feud, its posts stressed the need for trilateral cooperation – indicating how much Washington wanted Tokyo and Seoul to mend fences in order to stand together against China.
Some of the visual and interactive elements of Twitter also reflected these stark differences. Almost 80 percent of the tweets from the Korean embassy in Japan featured images, and most of these were photos of locations in South Korea. The mission also used emojis frequently, especially in the tweets about tourism and SNS reporters. The photos and emojis served to reinforce South Korea’s image as a fun place to visit, particularly for young tourists. But even though emoji culture has its roots in Japan, the Japanese embassy rarely used them – in line with the stern posture it assumed in the text of its tweets.
Both these missions retweeted accounts belonging to their respective governments or posted links to their webpages. But they rarely interacted with each other or with the accounts of their host governments. Occasionally though, the Korean embassy’s tweets would link to the Japanese embassy’s Instagram account when it featured a tourist destination in South Korea.
Emojis were not too common in the tweets of the South Korean embassy in Washington or the U.S. embassy in Seoul. These accounts used images frequently. But unlike the images from the reciprocal Korean-Japanese missions, the images from the reciprocal Korean-U.S. missions were more likely to feature people rather than places. Some of these photos also depicted Korean and U.S. citizens together – which was never the case in the Korean-Japanese tweets.
The tweeting patterns we identified have two important implications. First, diplomatic social media accounts are not simply a means of interacting with local publics, as commonly assumed. Instead, diplomats and missions deploy them to represent their nation, and its intentions and motivations, to their counterparts. Tweets can signal agreement or dissent, a desire for peace, or a call for action. Even the use of images, hyperlinks, and emojis can at times be significant.
Second, in so far as digital diplomacy reflects the intricacies of international relations, it can serve as a window to the dynamics of global power politics. But these dynamics are often complex and they need to be interpreted with regard to bilateral and multilateral context. On social media, conflict is sometimes conspicuous only through its absence.