[TODAY] 'Personal' Diplomacy Has Its Limits

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[TODAY] 'Personal' Diplomacy Has Its Limits

After appointing a representative of the splinter Democratic People's Party as foreign affairs and trade minister and a retired-general from the Honam region - President Kim Dae-jung's home - as defense minister, the government is pointing to the new ministers' strong personal connections in the United States to stave off criticism that the appointments represent a sinister political alliance and special consideration for a specific region. The claim is that Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo and Defense Minister Kim Dong-shin both have many personal contacts in the United States, making them good channels to help restore strained relations with the United States.

Minister Han probably does have a well-developed contact base in and out of the U.S. government based on his service as commerce minister during the Roh Tae-woo administration and as ambassador to the United States during the Kim Young-sam administration. Minister Kim Dong-shin studied in the United States and speaks fluent English, and also made many friends in the U.S. Defense Department and the military while serving as the deputy commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command. The new foreign affairs and national security team, including Unification Minister Lim Dong-won, seems to be qualified in terms of personal connections with the United States.

But what significance does personal connections hold in diplomacy? Professor Kim Kyung-won, former ambassador to the United States, says people who know you can judge your credibility, and trust, an especially desirable trait in American society, flows from credibility. Minister Han agrees: "Since diplomacy is carried out by people, a diplomat deemed credible can inspire a greater degree of confidence in the nation's policy. The advantage of personal connections is that greater trust is built the longer you knew each other. I am glad I continued to maintain good relationships with the people I met when I was the trade minister and the ambassador to the United States."

But personal contacts in themselves do not solve international problems. Professor Chung Chong-wook, former foreign affairs and security advisor to the president and ambassador to China, says there are limits to what personal ties can achieve in countries where diplomacy takes place transparently based on a firm system. The fact that personal connections are not much help when a fundamental difference divides the positions of two countries was starkly illustrated in the 1970s when Seoul-Washington relations went downhill.

Former Foreign Minister Kim Dong-jo had very strong personal connections in the United States. He served as the ambassador to the United States from 1967 to 1973, and was close friends with then-Secretary of State William Rogers and Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson. He also enjoyed strong support from influential pro-South Korean members of the House of Representatives, including Carl Albert, William Broomfield, Edward Derwinski, and Richard Hanna. He was among the five "star" ambassadors Newsweek designated in 1972 after surveying the White House, the Department of State and other diplomats. At the recommendation of the secretary of state, he became a member of Washington's prestigious Chevy Chase Golf Course and Burning Tree Club, and also frequented the Metropolitan Club that counts the beautiful, the powerful and the rich in Washington among its clientele. But Ambassador Kim's distinguished friends were no help when the Nixon administration decided to withdraw the 7th Infantry Division from South Korea and proclaimed the so-called Nixon Doctrine, announcing that the United States would not necessarily commit its ground troops if war broke out in Asia. When President Park Chung Hee changed the constitution in 1972 to sustain his hold on power and U.S. public opinion turned against South Korea, Ambassador Kim had to fight a lonely battle despite his personal connections.

Personal connections cannot be a diplomatic cure-all in a transparent society where a firm line is drawn between public and private matters. True, they can open the doors to the persons you need to meet. From then on, however, it is a matter of national interests of South Korea and the United States, and a matter of whether what you say to them stands to reason.

The European Union is reportedly planning to dispatch a delegation headed by Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who holds the rotating presidency of the EU, to visit the two Koreas. European intervention in North-South issues might serve as constructive pressure on the United States, or it might trigger diplomatic discord with the United States. Seoul-Washington relations are thus very sensitive these days.

Personal contacts might be a necessary condition in diplomacy, but not a sufficient condition. The newly appointed ministers should not count too much on their personal connections, but focus on clearly explaining the objectives of South Korea-U.S. relations and North Korea policy to restore the traditional alliance.

The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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