An invisible envoyAt the end of 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and made an important declaration. She vowed to change the basics of diplomacy and sent a simple message to American diplomats. She called for a “smart power” approach to solve global problems.
What is smart power? It is the power to move other people with trust and favorable feelings instead of guns and swords.
And then the idea of cargo pants emerged. She said diplomats must not only meet their counterparts but also elderly people in rural villages, and for that, they must not only wear pinstripe suits but also cargo pants to work. She also made it clear that active civilian exchanges such as meeting local residents, having media interviews, participating in voluntary activities and attending small-scale regional events are the duties of American diplomats. It was an order to put forward America’s best efforts in diplomacy.
No one exemplified such best efforts better than Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who enjoyed her duties and performed them perfectly. Stephens, who also used the Korean name Shim Eun-kyung, spoke fluent Korean and traveled to just about every corner of the country.
She participated in a bike tour of the southern region with Korean university students. She walked the Ole path in Jeju and an old hiking road of Mount Mudeung. She danced with guests at a folk event at Gyeongbok Palace.
She gave a special lecture on the role of women at a girls’ high school in Gwangju. And during the World Cup preliminary between Korea and Greece, she wore a Red Devils T-shirt and appeared in the street cheering at Seoul Plaza. Her appearances were always highlighted in the media and touched the Korean people’s hearts.
Sung Kim is the successor of Stephens. He came to Seoul in November 2011, so two years have passed. The Korean people were thrilled with the news that Washington would send a Korean-American as its ambassador for the first time. Expectations were high that they could communicate in Korean with an ambassador who would understand the sentiments of this country better than any of his predecessors.
And yet, it is hard to feel his presence. Of course, Ambassador Kim must be working, but it looks like he only attends American Chamber of Commerce meetings, Foreign Ministry events and Korean War commemorations. It appears that he only attends events that are formal and with restricted guest lists, which are hard for the general public to attend.
The relationship between Korea and the United States recently grew a bit chilly. It appears clear that the U.S. intelligence community spied on the Korean president and the Korean Embassy in Washington. The United States also openly supported Japan’s pursuit of the right to collective self-defense, a more aggressive defense posture, despite the Korean public sentiment.
It also pressured Korea to join its missile defense system and the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, although they seemed to be not much of a gain for Korea. Since the end of the Roh Moo-hyun presidency, ties between the countries improved rapidly, but recently they started to fray. The U.S. ambassador to Korea must work hard to assuage the Korean public.
Kim may feel it’s unfair to be compared to a predecessor who was so special. Some say Kim has no choice but keep a low profile because he is Korean-American. Others say the U.S. State Department is confident of Kim’s performance. But such remarks seem to be excuses.
A similar phenomenon took place in China three months before Kim arrived in Seoul. Gary Locke, former U.S. secretary of commerce and a Chinese-American, was appointed U.S. ambassador.
Ambassador Locke has become a celebrity to 1.3 billion Chinese residents. He used a discount coupon at Starbucks and picked up his own luggage at the airport. News of his humble attitude spread through the Internet and he provided a great contrast to arrogant, high-ranking Chinese officials who enjoy their privileges. Recently, Locke visited Tibet under the authorization of the Chinese government, winning more fame as a human rights advocate.
Modesty and passiveness are different. Kim’s background is too special for him to be just another ambassador.
Because he is the first Korean-American to be appointed U.S. ambassador to Seoul, and because he is the forerunner for other people of Korean descent who will take senior posts in other countries, our expectations are high.
It is not too late. We want to see His Excellency Kim meeting Koreans over glasses of makgeolli during the rest of his term.
*The author is a senior reporter of international news at the JoongAng Sunday.
by Nam Jeong-ho