Kang Kyung-wha’s RhodesIt was a refreshing surprise and a prelude to personnel reform when President Moon Jae-in named a retired female lieutenant colonel of the Army to be his veterans affairs minister, a position that has traditionally been held by retired male generals. Moon also broke the traditional practice of seniority-based promotion with his revolutionary choice for head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office.
As we are in the storm of a security crisis on the Korean Peninsula amid a contest between the United States and China, President Moon has nominated an unlikely candidate, Kang Kyung-wha, for foreign affairs minister. We don’t know what catastrophe will be wrought by the reckless and unpredictable North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and U.S. President Donald Trump on the peninsula, and China is not hesitating to retaliate against South Korea for its deployment of the Thaad missile shield while holding back on critical options like suspending oil supply to pressure North Korea.
Kang has worked longer for UN organizations than at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is not what career diplomats call “a traditional diplomat.” President Moon seems to think that someone with a broader set of perspectives and experience in the United Nations is a more fitting foreign minister than a conventional diplomat with a simple mind-set who can ride the conveyer belt to a guaranteed ambassadorship without really displaying any creativity or imagination. Here, President Moon is right.
But is Kang the right choice? She used a false address to get her children into better schools, one of five types of corruption that President Moon had vowed to eradicate during his campaign. But Moon has since asked for understanding from the opposition parties and citizens for his nomination of people who have used fake addresses in the past. Dialectically speaking, it was a denial of denial. Cho Kuk, the president’s senior secretary for civil affairs, had written in a Hankyoreh column in August 2010 that falsifying an address “hurts the feelings of the people who cannot afford to move to a good school district due to their lack of capacity or connections.” It is like calling other people’s extramarital affairs “adultery” while claiming one’s own infidelity as “romance.”
It is up to the National Assembly to investigate the fake address controversy during Kang’s confirmation hearing today. We also need to discuss whether she is capable of leading our diplomacy. Just like Veterans Affairs Minister Pi Woo-jin, Kang is a symbolic choice; if she is confirmed, she will be Korea’s first female foreign minister. The current defense ministers of Germany, France and Japan are all women, and the United States has had two extraordinary female secretaries of state.
For a country like South Korea, though, diplomacy requires more than just symbolic significance. Unlike the United States, Germany, France and Japan, South Korea is under an existential security threat. Kang has been an outstanding UN diplomat, but it is uncertain if she has the foreign policy strategy, imagination, drive and force to get through obstacles. Her biggest weakness is having little experience in diplomacy with the four major world powers: the United States, China, Russia and Japan. Her short career with the ministry is not a strength, either.
Kang is confident that her experiences at UN agencies will help her get through the challenges our nation faces. But we have witnessed that North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats often get pushed aside due to abstract and conceptual issues before being swept up in the flashy rhetoric of UN ambassadors.
In “Aesop’s Fables,” there is a famous tale called “The Boastful Athlete.” Upon returning from a visit to foreign lands, a pentathlete claimed he was able to make a long jump in Rhodes just like an Olympian. Then a bystander shouted, “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” which translates to “Here’s your Rhodes, jump here!”
The philosopher Georg Hegel cited the tale in the preface of his book “Elements of the Philosophy of Right” to emphasize the importance of “here and now.” Karl Marx also used the phrase “Here’s your Rhodes, jump here!” to show one’s own competency in the present in his book “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”
The crisis-ridden Korean Peninsula is Kang’s Rhodes. As long as war clouds hang over the region, South Korea is not the conceptual, abstract stage of the UN. To quote from another one of Hegel’s sayings, the position of foreign minister is the rose on a cross. It is not a rose that she can get by simply reaching out. The members of the National Assembly’s confirmation hearing committee must not cling over her morals but strictly verify her competency to head our nation’s diplomatic corps. She may represent President Moon’s taste for symbolic significance, but it is not enough to entrust her with the grave job of diplomacy.
It is uncertain whether Kang will be approved. Here, President Moon must ask himself if she is really competent enough to take on the role of foreign minister and worthy of backing down from his own promise to end corruption. Or is Moon not willing to give up her symbolic significance as our first female foreign minister? This is an issue that may affect public trust in President Moon, who has proven to be competent and reliable so far.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 5, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.