Expectations High on Envoy Who Speaks Korean Like Koreans
Multiple modifiers of ``the first" can be placed before the U.S. ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, who arrived in Seoul this week.
Ambassador Stephens is the first female mission chief representing the U.S. government in Korea. She may also be the first top American envoy to have started her diplomatic service in Korea; has a son with a Korean ex-husband; and taught at Korean high schools.
Most of all, no other U.S. ambassadors would have had a Korean name 33 years ago, all of which indicates the deep knowledge and affection Amb. Stephens, or Shim Eun-kyung, has for this country.
No wonder many people on both sides of the Pacific expect she would play a vital role in bridging the two traditional allies at a time when they need to cooperate more closely to jointly tackle regional and global problems, be they North Korea's denuclearization or the ongoing financial turmoil.
When the national interests of Amb. Stephens' motherland and a second home clash, she will undoubtedly act in the way a U.S. official is supposed to do. This may be a little far-fetched but one can interpret it in the same context that the delay in her confirmation at the Congress was reportedly due to her less than unequivocal commitment to wresting with North Korean human right issues while here.
Likewise, in a news conference at her arrival airport, Stephens showed an understanding of the candlelight vigil as a ``sign of democracy's development in Korea." She did not forget, however, to quickly add that her role is to have more Koreans consume safe U.S. beef without concerns.
It does not take diplomatic expertise to know the relationship between Korea and the United States over the past decade has been not so smooth, particularly from the viewpoint of Washington. And the change, which came as a reaction to rather unequal bilateral statuses during the preceding decades, mostly took place while Amb. Stephens was away from Korea, which we hope would not hinder her correct understanding of Korea today.
This is also why the new ambassador's pledge to mainly ``listen to the voices of the Korean government and the people" is all the more reassuring.
Some within the U.S. establishment reportedly expressed concerns about what they was as her ``light-weightedness" as a top diplomat here to handle many problems expected to crop up during a transition of bilateral relationship. Similar concerns were expressed by domestic diplomatic watchers, too, about Washington's long list of demands in military and economic cooperation, capitalizing on the inauguration of a strongly pro-U.S. administration here.
Whether Amb. Stephens will be leaving Korea after serving her full term and leaving a successful stint behind is important for the two countries. Both governments are also advised to cooperate to turn this into a reality.
So fight it out and good luck, Ms. Shim.