[Letters] Libya overreacts to spy scandal

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[Letters] Libya overreacts to spy scandal

The extent to which formal relations between friendly countries resemble a marriage of convenience has once again been demonstrated by the spy case between South Korea and Libya. The outraged spouse catching the other supposedly cheating has, as an indignant alternative to formally commencing divorce procedures, demanded an extremely expensive gift in order to soothe the hurt and extract material evidence of just how much the one means to the other.

In this case, having deported a Korean intelligence agent in June, called back its diplomats from Seoul, and still holding in detention two South Korean nationals, the Great Socialist People’s Libya Arab Jamahiriya is demanding $1 billion worth of civil engineering work from South Korea. That’s a fairly substantial rock. The further demands for a confession, an apology, and a list of contacts, are the through-the-ages wronged spouse’s roadmap back to the marriage bed.

The demands are widely seen as excessive in South Korea. Had Libya asked for a majority stake in Samsung, two light water reactors, and a southern province of their choice, it could hardly have signaled its broken heart more opportunistically. What caused Libya’s hurt to add up to $1 billion?

Prior to this spat, the two countries had not endured any portending blow-ups. Consular relations established in 1978 became formalized diplomatic relations in 1980. South Korea had already set up its Consulate-General in Tripoli when Libya opened its embassy equivalent in Seoul in 1981. By the mid-eighties it had become the second most popular destination for South Koreans going to work in the Arab world. Libya supported Ban Ki-moon’s candidature for UN Secretary General and the Republic of Korea reciprocated in sorts by supporting Libya’s candidature for the UN Security Council’s non-permanent membership in 2008. So far, so good. But the first betrayal is always the hardest to take. And the details of the demand for an apology reveals that party’s inner self.

In 2008, Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi’s son Hannibal was charged with mistreating a Moroccan and a Tunisian who were in his domestic employ while in Switzerland. In response, his father called for the dissolution of that country. The colonel proposed that it be carved up along linguistic lines and the German-, French- and Italian-speaking regions be integrated into those states. Debate on the proposal never reached the point where it could deal with the tricky problem of the Matterhorn (which is linguistically German but borders Italy) since the motion was thrown out for violating the UN Charter, which states that no member can threaten the existence of another.

All oil exports to Switzerland were halted. The Swiss subsequently banned 188 high-ranking Libyans from entering their country, including Gaddafi. And so the Libyans stopped issuing visas for citizens of every signatory nation to the 25-member Schengen Agreement, a zone of countries in Europe which have abandoned border controls - only one of which is Switzerland.

Is there a connection between the absence of so much Schengen-originating business and the Libyan demand for $1 billion in free contracts? Are the Libyans exploiting a perception that South Korea is that determined to buy good relations for the sake of future access to Libyan oil?

Or are they heavy-handedly warning the South Koreans to quickly break off an escalating chain of events that might result in the cessation of visa issuance for the 854 South Korean nationals who lived there as of 2009? Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has stressed the need for patience in this matter. In any case, South Korean diplomats, more than most, are plenty experienced in dealing with opening bids that are symbolically visceral.

News that the two incarcerated South Koreans have now been transferred to a general prison might suggest that headway is being made in the affair. But at the time of writing the Libyan embassy in Seoul’s website was still down. I’ll click refresh if I hear that South Korean diplomats are pouring over maps of the Swiss border with Italy.


Neil Ben Armstrong,

English tutor to a Korean professor of South Korean security issues and Northeast Asian politics at Kyungnam University
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