By Yim Sung-joon
President Lee Myung-bak has recently reshuffled the ambassadors to three of Korea’s five most important overseas missions by assigning seasoned diplomats to Japan, China and the United Nations. In contrast with the present ambassadors to the U.S. and Russia, the newly-designated ambassadors are high-level diplomats who have each worked 30 years each in the Korean Foreign Service.
Before this, many Koreans believed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) was experiencing a significant setback in its authority and role under the Lee administration. This was possibly due to President Lee’s experience in working on foreign construction sites for significant periods of time when he was younger and his firsthand experience with the unremarkable and uneven results of Korean embassies abroad.
Their failure to meet his business standards undoubtedly played a big influence in his decision to initially fill all the ambassadorial posts to the so-called ``Big Four” powers of the U.S., Japan, China and Russia with political appointees, not career diplomats, for the first time in the history of MOFAT.
This move struck a deep blow to the prestige of the MOFAT officials, who have been embarrassed even further by recent controversies involving dubious recruitment procedures and translation errors found in international agreements. With their morale in tatters, they were thus surprised and encouraged by the President’s philosophical switch in appointing the three career diplomats as chiefs of mission to China, Japan and the U.N.
In the age of globalization, diplomacy has become significantly more important to the operations of every country throughout the world. This holds true in particular for Korea, in view of its rising global position and in light of the threats posed by North Korea. Under these circumstances, it is essential for the role of Korean ambassadors to be clearly defined to meet the expectations of the nation.
The first and foremost mission of ambassadors should be to represent their country, especially its head of state. Accordingly, once ambassadors arrive in their country of sojourn, they present the credentials of the head of state prior to the commencement of their official duties. During the course of such duties, the words and deeds of the ambassadors should be prudent and also, of course, refined.
Next, ambassadors should confer with the government of their host country to discuss pending issues in accordance with instructions from their own government, and enter into negotiations if necessary, to secure national interests. To achieve this end, ambassadors should be proficient in the language of their host country and be equipped with sharp negotiation skills.
Finally, ambassadors should befriend influential figures in their host country to collect essential information regarding its politics or economy and report thereon to their own country. For this purpose, ambassadors should actively participate in social events held by their host country or foreign embassies in that country, and likewise, should host social functions of their own as well.
In order for ambassadors to perform such duties successfully, many believe that in addition to having the necessary qualifications, they must also have at least 25 years of experience as a diplomat. For this reason, many countries maintain a very strict tradition and practice in appointing seasoned career diplomats to important ambassador posts (in some countries like the U.S., non-diplomats may be appointed as ambassadors as a result of political considerations, but such appointments are made with prudence).
The current Big Four ambassadors to Korea are all career diplomats, and it had usually been the practice of these countries to send experienced diplomats only. One notable exception is former U.S. Ambassador James Laney, who was credited with playing a crucial role in assisting former Korean President Kim Young-Sam with his difficulties in dealing with North Korea. He had served as a missionary in South Korea and president of an American university, which probably served to develop his favorable reception in Korea.
However, many of the Korean ambassadors sent to the Big Four powers in the past were selected based on incoherent standards in many cases. There were instances where ambassadors served only a little more than one year, which resulted in a significant waste of governmental resources and some national shame as well.
Moreover, with the revision of the Korean Public Official Election Act last year allowing Koreans living overseas to exercise their voting rights in Korean elections, overseas missions will inevitably be called upon to administer the voting process, and it will be crucial that ambassadors remain politically neutral to administer the voting process fairly. This obviously poses more of a challenge for politically-appointed ambassadors than career diplomats.
As a result of all of the foregoing reasons, it is imperative for the Korean government to continue to appoint and dispatch highly-skilled and experienced career diplomats as ambassadors abroad, especially to the Big Four countries. With the stakes being very high for Korea, this logical move is the only one that will best serve the nation’s interests.
The writer is a distinguished professor at the Graduate School of International Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. A career diplomat, Yim is also senior advisor for Lee International IP & Law Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.