Lippert’s Korean education
Lucius Foote and Park Jung-yang served as the American and Korean envoys to Seoul and Washington, respectively, in the late 19th century. They were the first residing diplomats in those countries. Foote’s portrait hangs at the very beginning of a wall inside the U.S. Embassy in Sejong-ro, downtown Seoul, decorated with pictures of American ambassadors. The embassy introduces its envoys, starting with Foote, who arrived in 1883 after the Joseon court signed a diplomatic pact with Washington.
But Park’s picture is nowhere to be found in the Korean Embassy in Washington. The first Korean ambassador to the United States on record is Chang Myon, who was tapped after the South Korean government was launched in 1948. The difference is defined by the buildup of a diplomatic relationship and tradition. Years of cooperation deepens diplomatic relationships.
But no other American envoys have enjoyed as much publicity as Mark Lippert, the newest ambassador to Seoul. He is known to be among those closest to President Barack Obama.
Lippert is very active online and on social networking services. His blog features a picture of a dinner banquet with the U.S. Marine Corps, which has a special place in our bilateral history. The National Museum of the Marine Corps. in Virginia has an exhibition on the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, during which the U.S. Marines were at the end of a surprise attack and encircled by North Koreans and Chinese troops. They waged a brutal battle for 17 days in freezing weather, and the pictures are a vivid testament to this feat. This blood-stained bond is at the heart of the long-standing alliance between the two countries.
The museum also has a corner on the U.S. expedition to Korea, or Shinmiyangyo - the first American military action in Korea in 1871, when American forces occupied the island of Ganghwa and attacked and captured several forts. The cannons that killed hundreds of Korean troops are on display, and the conflict’s six Marine commanders were handed Medals of Honor upon returning home.
Indeed, the two exhibitions tell stories of dramatic ups and downs in the relationship between the United States and Korea. Bilateral relations were at their worst in the late 1970s. Korean President Park Chung Hee and U.S. President Jimmy Carter clashed over whether to withdraw American troops from South Korea and Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Richard Sneider and William Gleysteen were Carter’s envoys to Seoul at the time. A U.S. ambassador plays a key role in setting either a conflicting or friendly tone, and both ambassadors served with an arrogance and a coldness.
When Park visited Ganghwa in 1977, he ordered the establishment of a monument to commemorate Korean soldiers killed by American Marines during the Joseon era. It was a kind of manifestation as well as a message concerning South Korea’s defensive sovereignty. Self-defense is a deeply rooted national yearning and must not be misunderstood as anti-North Korean or anti-American.
The ties between South Korea and the United States have been extraordinary, but even a close relationship has its limits. Resentment and conflict are always on standby - it’s what makes the ambassador’s role tricky.
In 2002, the country was lit with vigils protesting Washington. A military vehicle struck and killed two 14-year-old school girls on a road in Gyeonggi Province. It was a presidential election season, and liberal candidate Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Hoi-chang, from the conservative camp, were in a close race. The collective euphoria from the successful hosting of the World Cup games and a miraculous performance by the national team transformed into inflammatory street fury against the Americans after the soldiers operating the tank were found not guilty of negligent homicide in a court martial. The verdict put Ambassador Thomas Hubbard in awkward position. The ruling was foreseeable, but Hubbard was ignorant to Korean sentiment.
Christopher Hill made an impressive ambassador to Seoul during his one-year service from 2004. He was called back to Washington in 2005 to serve as the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He also headed the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks and bilateral talks with Pyongyang. He and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-kwan, were a formidable team at the negotiating table. But Pyongyang, typically at the brink, reversed its position and all talks to dismantle nuclear facilities ended fruitlessly.
But Hill was not familiar with North Korea despite being a veteran negotiator. By 2005, nuclear weapons had become a kind of insurance for the regime, and Kim Kye-kwan merely put up a diplomatic show.
The North Korean regime is a unique mixture of feudal dynastic rule, deity-like omnipotence and rigid state-controlled Communism. The Kim family has ruled with an iron fist for three generations now. Without knowledge of Confucian royal court culture, the North Korean regime cannot be fully understood. It must have been an area with which Hill was unfamiliar. Talks with North Korea without South Korean presence usually end in failure. Northeast Asia has been swept up in turmoil these days, and China is turning ever assertive. South Korea and China are becoming closer, so the old alliance with South Korea and the Washington is under threat. The question is how we fit China in the picture.
An ambassador’s role is limited. But that of a U.S. ambassador to Seoul should be different, as it demands deeper judgment and response. The key is getting to know the country. Lippert said he is eager to learn about Korea and its heritage and culture. But only once he gets to know South Korea will he gain a better understanding of North Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 27, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon