Ministry grapples with growing list of scandals

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Ministry grapples with growing list of scandals

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was in glum mood after the financial authorities asked on Wednesday for a prosecutorial investigation into a former vice foreign minister suspected of playing a central role in a swirling diamond mine scandal.

The scandal was sparked by a press release from the ministry over a year ago that promoted a shady diamond mine deal that a local developer made with Cameroon.

Kim Eun-seok, the resource ambassador who issued the press release, is currently under investigation by the Board of Audit and Inspection.

Many of the ministry officials this reporter talked to said they have no comment on the affair.

The ministry has been plagued by scandal in recent months. It came under fire in September 2010 when it was suspected that the daughter of former Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan won a mid-level post at the ministry despite her alleged lack of qualifications. The minister quit his job later that month to take responsibility for the scandal.

That was followed by another scandal last March centering on several Korean consuls in China suspected of passing information to a woman from Shanghai. The consuls were officials of other government agencies but it still took a toll on the Foreign Ministry, which was criticized for losing control of diplomats overseas.

Two months later, the wife of the Korean ambassador to Ivory Coast was caught smuggling ivory into Korea.

“I really [don’t understand] why our superiors are doing this to us,” said a 40-year-old diplomat who recently returned from a multi-year overseas mission. “One gargantuan scandal originating with the Foreign Ministry breaks out just as another disappears and most of those involved are some of the highest ranking diplomats,” the junior diplomat said. “It enrages me.”

Some have said the diamond mine scandal could deal a more serious blow to the ministry than previous scandals, as government officials have been accused of winning several hundreds of millions of won in profits by misappropriating government authority.

Expressing his frustration, another Foreign Ministry official said, “What’s the use of opening high-ranking foreign diplomatic posts to outsiders or of having the minister say he won’t tolerate corruption by ministry officials?”

The scandals have also raised questions about the ministry’s discipline because it allowed exaggerated data about the value of the deal, provided by the company, to slip through. That could mean that a number of ministry officials will be held responsible when the Board of Audit and Inspection concludes its investigation.

“I feel an indescribable sense of devastation and an immeasurable sense of responsibility,” Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan wrote in a message to ministry officials that was sent when he returned from a visit to Turkey and Denmark on Saturday.

The minister stressed that the ministry will punish the officials who are deemed responsible for the scandal after the BAI investigation.

The audit authorities are expected to announce the results of the investigation as early as tomorrow.

A source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday that the BAI will likely name about five people, including Ambassador Kim, for the illegalities related to the scandal. The board will likely ask the Foreign Ministry to punish Kim with either dismissal or expulsion, the source said.

By Kim Su-jeong, Cho Hyun-suk [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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