A diplomatic vacuum

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A diplomatic vacuum

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


A parliamentary hearing on the Foreign Ministry on Oct. 26 exposed the poor readiness and aptitude of South Korea’s diplomats. During the hearing, held eight days before the U.S. presidential election, Rep. Park Jin of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) inquired about how Seoul was preparing for a change in leadership in Washington. The Foreign Ministry said it was building up readiness both officially and unofficially.

Park asked all the top diplomats in the government — Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, her two deputies, as well as Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs and Kim Joon-hyung, head of the National Diplomatic Academy — whether they knew Joe Biden’s key aides like Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state and a long-time confidante to President-elect Biden, who’s expected to be recruited as his secretary of state or national security advisor, and Michèle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense and Biden’s top pick for defense secretary. They played key roles in Biden’s campaign on foreign and security affairs.

But none of the top Korean diplomats had met them before. Rep. Park asked how Seoul could ready itself for a new leadership in Washington when it has no contact with figures who can sway U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. The Foreign Ministry explained that the Biden camp did not allow meetings with officials from other governments due to concerns about foreign countries meddling in U.S. elections.

Still, it is a wonder that none of the senior diplomats had ever come across them who served high positions in the past U.S. administrations. Blinken came to Seoul four times while serving as deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017. Flournoy, a fan of kimchi, came to Korea in 2016 and 2017 with a number of U.S. security experts. She had been to Korea twice before. How Foreign Ministry veterans avoided meeting them is stupefying. It is no wonder that Seoul had not been able to get in touch with Biden’s diplomatic line.

It should not come as a surprise given the narrowness of the diplomatic focus of the Moon Jae-in administration. There were many diplomats who built connections with various figures involved in Korean affairs across U.S. governments. But veterans in the United States, North Korea and denuclearization affairs were mostly pushed out to the periphery. They were replaced with figures who were compliant with the liberal Moon administration regardless of their expertise and careers. Of 42 special envoys named by Moon, 28 fell under that category.

Senior diplomats are routinely replaced by a new government. But it has been rare for qualified career diplomats to be ousted en masse. Former liberal president Kim Dae-jung recruited Hong Soon-young, a former vice foreign minister under his predecessor Kim Young-sam, as his first foreign minister. Yoo Myung-hwan, the first foreign minister under conservative president Lee Myung-bak, also was a vice foreign minister under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.

Among the three East Asian countries — Korea, China and Japan — Korea is the most unconnected with Biden. According to Japanese journal The President, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had built trust with U.S. officials while discussing the U.S. military base issue as chief cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The journal noted it was fortunate that Suga has strong connections with incoming foreign and security aides for Biden since they were likely to be recruited from the Obama administration.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is also acquainted with Biden as they had been vice heads of state in 2009. The two dined together eight times over four years. Their aides are familiar with one another.

The Moon administration may have to pay for disregarding career diplomats. Seoul is devoid of a reliable channel to communicate with the Biden camp on North Korean issues. It must consider the idea of seeking help from PPP members who are more familiar with the past Democratic administration.

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