After Libya attack, Seoul lost track of its envoy

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After Libya attack, Seoul lost track of its envoy

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs belatedly revealed Tuesday it didn’t know the location of its top envoy to Libya following the shocking attack by gunmen on the Korean Embassy in Tripoli on Sunday, which left two local guards dead.

A Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Sunday, after the attack by an armed group claiming links to the Islamic State, or ISIS, that Korean Ambassador to Libya Lee Jong-kook was currently in Tunis, Tunisia.

But it turned out Lee was actually in Korea.

Because of the unstable situation in Libya, the Embassy in Tripoli opened a temporary office in Tunis last June, and Korean diplomats shuttle between the two locations every two weeks.

The Seoul official initially said, “Currently, the ambassador’s post has come to an end and he is set to be transferred, so he is in Tunis, Tunisia. He will return to Korea soon.”

However, Lee had returned to Korea on April 1 after his tenure came to an end and had already reported his return, the ministry admitted Tuesday.

In the aftermath of the attack, which did not harm any Korean citizens, it became evident ministry officials didn’t telephone or check on the ambassador.

The ministry was already under criticism for having failed to brief the media about the attack for nine hours - until after Chinese media reported the incident on Sunday.

Korean officials in Tripoli and Tunis oversee the protection of some 33 Korean citizens remaining in Libya.

On Sunday, an unidentified vehicle drove up to the Korean Embassy in Tripoli and gunmen fired about 40 machine gun rounds at the building. Two Libyan police officers dispatched to guard the diplomatic mission were killed and another injured.

Lee’s successor, Ambassador Kim Young-chae, arrived in Tunis on Monday.

The foreign affairs official who initially claimed Ambassador Lee was in Tunisia said Tuesday, “In a situation where we were pressed for a countermeasure plan, it seems I have misspoken. As we were acting focused on the situation on location, it seems like I have made such a mistake.”

“It appears as if there was an error as we tried to quickly explain the situation to reporters, and we are very apologetic,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Gwang-il.

“We have mainly been in contact with a deputy ambassador-level official in Tripoli about the shooting incident.”

After reviewing a contingency plan amid the instability in Libya, the Foreign Ministry also decided to temporarily shut down its embassy in Tripoli and move two diplomats to the Tunis office.

While the Korean government has advised its citizens in Libya to withdraw from the country, 33 people remain because of livelihood reasons.

BY YOO JEE-HYE, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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