Listening to the diplomats

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Listening to the diplomats

Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Donald Trump of the United States could not be more different. Yet they have one thing in common. They distrust career diplomats.

Moon did an end run around traditional diplomats in naming his special envoys to North Korea and ambassadors to four major global powers. In his appointment of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, he boldly criticized the foreign ministry for falling short of expectations and called it a group of elitists that “failed to uphold national dignity and power.” Career diplomats handling U.S. affairs — the main stream in the ministry — were sent to unpopular positions or forced to retire.

Trump has been even crueler. He attempted to axe the State Department’s budget by more than 30 percent last year and then had to compromise in the face of strong opposition by Congress. A third of 150 senior positions at the State Department have yet to be filled even though Trump has been in office for more than a year. Few are left to tend to Asian or Korean affairs. Washington dropped its nomination of Victor Cha — former National Security director for Asia — as ambassador to Seoul. Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special envoy on North Korean affairs, resigned early this month.

The position of special envoy for North Korean human rights is also vacant. Susan Thornton, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, could be next to go after her former boss Rex Tillerson was fired for his dovish position on North Korean affairs. Working-level connections between Seoul and Washington could not be weaker ahead of historic summits between Seoul and Pyongyang and between Pyongyang and Washington.

Diplomats themselves could be blamed for Trump’s cold shoulder. For instance, Korean diplomats look more like event organizers than anything else. Trump thinks diplomats are all-talk-no-action softies.

But a foreign affairs team is comprised of the best experts on international affairs. If their expertise is ignored, nothing good can be expected. Former President Lee Myung-bak’s surprise visit to the Dokdo islet in 2012 despite strong protest from the Foreign Ministry broke Korea’s relationship with Japan beyond repair. The U.S. follies of intervening in the Vietnam War and starting a war in Iraq were committed because the leadership ignored advice from their foreign affairs teams.

Moon must recall the Roh Moo-hyun administration, in which he served as chief of staff. When Song Min-soon, who was foreign minister in the Roh administration, published a memoir, Moon wrote on his Facebook page that the book underscored how healthy the Roh government had been, creating policies after rigorous debates. He advised the Park Geun-hye administration to learn from Roh’s legacy.

But Moon neglected to point out that his former boss recruited Ban Ki-moon and Song — career diplomats with expertise in U.S. affairs — as his security adviser and foreign minister to seek their advice on foreign affairs. He invited in foreign affairs and unification experts every time a key issue came up to reach the best possible decision for national interests. As a result, the liberal president, who had been an outspoken critic of overreliance on Washington, sent South Korean troops to support the U.S.-Iraq operation and kicked off negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States.

A politician’s insight and decisiveness can be valuable in policy-making. But statesmanship can shine when the leadership incorporates expertise and a sense of balance from specialists in the field. Many already predict that the upcoming summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump could be a historical tipping point like the 1972 summit between Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong. But Nixon’s visit to Beijing was made possible thanks to three years of preparatory work by legendary Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

As far as we know right now, the Trump-Kim meeting could be nixed as fast as it was agreed to. To ensure that the summit takes place and achieves the historical opening up of North Korea, leaders of South Korea and the United States should use all the wisdom of their diplomatic teams. Moon should learn from the Roh administration.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 20, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Nam Jeong-ho
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