Full plate for envoy to Washington

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Full plate for envoy to Washington

Lee Soo-hyuck, the new Korean ambassador to the United States, said Thursday he will prioritize encouraging Washington to “play a constructive role” in resolving relations between Seoul and Tokyo, a pressing issue especially ahead of the termination of a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Japan next month.

Lee, a diplomat-turned-lawmaker, officially became the ambassador to the United States last Tuesday and is set to depart for Washington Thursday. He was tapped for the post by President Moon Jae-in in August and received agrement, or diplomatic consent, from Washington last week. He is expected to work toward strengthening diplomatic overtures to the United States amid a slew of bilateral and regional issues at hand.

South Korea’s General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan is set to expire on Nov. 22, and Lee told reporters in Seoul that “encouraging the United States to play a constructive role is the most important task in the short term.”

Seoul plans to terminate the bilateral intelligence-sharing pact amid increased tensions over the South Korean top court’s rulings on the wartime forced labor issue and Japan’s implementation of export restriction measures on South Korea in apparent retaliation.

Lee recalled speaking to high-level U.S. officials as a lawmaker two months earlier on the issue, who told him that while it is difficult to “mediate” between Seoul and Tokyo, Washington has to play a “positive role.”

Lee added that renewing the Seoul-Washington defense cost-sharing agreement is also an “urgent” and “difficult” issue.

The ambassador had been listing several important issues between Korea and the United States but brushed off concerns about any fissure in their bilateral alliance.

Likewise, he noted that “international relations are about having strife,” adding it’s “only natural.”

He added, “It is the role of diplomats to resolve any irregular tensions and find a balance” with each county’s interests. Lee served as Seoul’s first chief negotiator to the now defunct six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, launched in 2003 to denuclearize Pyongyang.

At that time, Lee said it was his “dream to hold a summit of the leaders of the six-party nations.” Noting the North-U.S. and inter-Korean summits over the past two years, he added, “In as much as the situation has changed [since then], the weight on the leaders’ shoulders is that much heavier.”

He likewise said there is no need to be caught up too much in the highs and lows of the denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, referring to the working-level talks in Stockholm earlier this month.

Lee noted that North Korea sometimes “needs to use speed bumps in its diplomatic policy” and said it’s a part of its negotiation tactics, sometimes bringing in “thunder and lightning and rain clouds before showing blue skies and sunshine,” saying “a strategy looking at the long term has to be set.”

A former career diplomat who joined the Foreign Ministry in 1975, Lee previously served as ambassador to Yugoslavia and Germany. He served as an envoy for the four-party dialogue on North Korean issues in 1997 and a foreign affairs secretary to former President Kim Dae-jung in 1999. He also previously served as a deputy director of the National Intelligence Service under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

After spending some years in academia, Lee became head of the Democratic Party’s subcommittee in charge of Korean Peninsula and inter-Korean affairs in 2016 and earned a proportional representation seat in the National Assembly in 2017.

Lee especially stressed that how U.S.-China relations pan out will determine the direction of Korea’s future diplomacy. He added, “Korea’s future, history and policy all hinge upon U.S.-China relations,” saying he plans during his time in Washington to expand systematic studies into this topic at the embassy.

Lee also expects to coordinate closely with Moon Seoung-hyun, a former Korean ambassador to the Czech Republic, who was recently appointed as the new political minister at the Korean Embassy in Washington. The political minister post at the embassy has this time around been elevated to a vice minister-level position. This move is an attempt to give the political minister, considered a key right-hand man to the ambassador, greater berth to carry out tasks in Washington.

The position has been vacant over the past five months following the leak by the former political minister at the Korean Embassy in Washington of a phone conversation between the South Korean and U.S. presidents in May.

Lee said that he also previously worked with Moon during their time at the Korean Embassy in Washington as more junior diplomats.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joognang.co.kr]
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