Moon’s poor picksThe security situation on the Korean Peninsula today demands the most dynamic and creative diplomacy. President Moon Jae-in recently appointed ambassadors to the United States, China and Japan after a long consideration, but the selection showed that he doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation.
The prerequisites for the ambassadors to the four superpowers are based on common sense. They should speak the host nation’s language and have a strong network in the country. They should also have a deep trust of the president. Professor Cho Yoon-je, designated to become ambassador to the United States, Professor Lee Su-hoon, nominated to become ambassador to Japan, and former Rep. Noh Young-min, chosen to become ambassador to China, clearly qualified the third condition of having the president’s trust. But they didn’t appear to have the minimum prerequisites of language ability and ties to the host country’s politicians and government officials, except for Cho’s English-language ability.
Former President Park Geun-hye was strongly criticized for making appointments based on her own pocketbook. Moon already faced criticism for favoring officials from his election campaign. Despite the criticism, Moon still named campaign members to the three important ambassador posts. It won’t be a problem, if the campaign members are qualified for the jobs. But Cho, a gentle economist whose experience as ambassador to the United Kingdom was his entire diplomatic career, is unfit to serve as Korea’s ambassador to the United States.
An energetic and dynamic figure, such as Professor Moon Chung-in, the special advisor to the president, is the best candidate to become ambassador to the United States. He may prefer the current post, but the president should have done his best to persuade him.
Former Ambassador to the United States Lee Tae-sik is also a great candidate for his English-language ability and driving force. Although he may have declined the offer to serve the post again, Moon should have persuaded him. It is unfortunate and suspicious that Lee was once considered as a strong candidate but never got the post.
As the North’s nuclear and missile provocations crossed the critical juncture, difference in opinions between Seoul and Washington is growing. While the South cannot tolerate the North’s nuclear program, the United States is more concerned about the delivery vehicle of the nuclear weapons such as the intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the Hwasong-14. And two critical problems arise from the difference.
First, the intercontinental ballistic missile development became an issue between Pyongyang and Washington, and Seoul can be ignored in resolving the issue that is critical for the country’s fate.
The second problem prompted by the North’s firing of a Hwasong-14 is that the U.S. commitment to offering its extended deterrence, including the nuclear umbrella, can be shaken. If the North operationally deploys intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland and develops nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on them, the United States may not defend the South with its extended deterrence while risking an attack by the North on New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago or Los Angeles.
Ideas such as resolving the nuclear crisis by freezing the North’s nuclear and missile programs and winning China’s cooperation with the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea are being reported by media in Washington. Under such circumstances, Korea’s ambassador to the United States must be an energetic strategist. Does Moon think he has chosen the right person?
The same question goes for his choices of ambassadors to Japan and China. Professor Lee is the expert in the Korean Peninsula issues and North Korea. To him, Japan is unfamiliar territory. Furthermore, Japan is a country that highly values human networks. Korea’s ambassador to Japan is responsible for resolving the comfort women issue and building security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Japan.
Korea-China relations are in their worst state ever over Seoul’s decision to allow the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system. It is unacceptable that Moon chose a mediocre person to handle the frontline of Korea-China relations amid such a crisis. There is no need to stress any further that China’s role is indispensable in resolving the North’s nuclear and missile provocations. If Moon thinks Noh can persuade the Chinese leadership, that is a clear miscalculation.
The entire security lineup in the Moon administration is too weak. The head of the National Security Office is a former diplomat whose entire career was devoted to economic diplomacy. The foreign minister is someone who built her careers with administrative work at UN organizations that have nothing to do with North Korean issues. The weakness of the Blue House and the Foreign Ministry should be complemented with strong ambassadors to the four superpowers.
If the report is true that U.S. President Donald Trump has chosen Victor Cha, a professor of Georgetown University and a clear conservative in Korea issues, as U.S. ambassador to Seoul, it is the complete opposite of Moon’s lukewarm choices for the three key envoys.
Korea has no place in the battle of rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And Moon’s less-than-professional ambassadors are not helping the situation.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 1, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.