The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] A tale of two ambassadors

By Korea Herald

Published : April 4, 2024 - 05:28

    • Link copied

Korean Ambassador to Australia Lee Jong-sup resigned only 25 days after his appointment. Chung Jae-ho, the ambassador to China, is under investigation after an embassy staffer reported the abuse of power. It might be better to avoid such shameful stories, but the stories of the two ambassadors dramatically show the critical vulnerabilities of Korean diplomacy. It might be worth a detailed review in that they undermine -- not maximize -- the national interests of Korea.

Ex-Ambassador Lee Jong-sup was minister of national defense until October last year. After public sentiment deteriorated due to an issue on the relocation of the bust of a prominent independence fighter under Japanese colonial rule, he stepped down amid calls for his dismissal. When he was suddenly appointed as ambassador to Australia on March 4 this year, the fact that he was on the list of people banned from leaving the country intensified media attention. The reason he was prohibited from leaving the country was that he was the subject of an investigation by a law enforcement authority into the death of a Marine corporal who was on a search and rescue mission during last summer's torrential rains and flooding. The Justice Ministry lifted the travel ban on Lee anyway, and he left Seoul for Brisbane on March 10.

The main opposition party urged the envoy to return home, saying that the government had overtly let a criminal suspect run away to a foreign country. Public opinion against the ruling party has deteriorated sharply as the April 10 general election has approached. Eventually, Lee returned to Seoul on the 11th day after his arrival in Canberra under the premise of attending a Foreign Ministry meeting. According to media reports, even that meeting had been hastily arranged to create the justification for Lee to return to Seoul. Public opinion then got even worse. Lee announced his resignation eight days after his return to Korea. He is now awaiting an investigation.

The story of Ambassador Chung Jae-ho has provided more food for thought. He was a classmate of President Yoon Suk Yeol in his high school days as well as an alumnus of the same university. Many analysts say Chung was appointed due to his friendship with President Yoon. Since Chung arrived in Beijing, his performance has been much lower than expected. According to parliamentary audit data, Chung has met with a Chinese Foreign Ministry official once in the first 10 months since his inauguration, using a network promotion program. Since Chung‘s inauguration, South Korea-China relations have been deteriorating endlessly, and no one knows when a Korea-China summit will be held. When there were reports of North Korean defectors forcibly repatriated to the North, he said, “I asked the Chinese authorities, but they gave no answer.” That is definitely not the answer we wanted to hear. Chung is notorious for not giving standard briefings to South Korean correspondents in Beijing. He is known to read prepared answers only to questions received in advance via email. Lastly, he was accused by a staff member in the embassy earlier this year, and the Foreign Ministry is investigating this allegation that the ambassador used abusive language against the staff member.

The stories of the two ambassadors show that South Korea has false prejudices or short-sightedness concerning diplomats and ambassadors, which is one of the grave causes of preventing effective diplomacy. The most severe prejudice is that anyone could do the job of ambassador. That is wildly off the mark. Only qualified individuals should take such a job. What are its qualifications? An ambassador's primary duty is to gather information about the host country. So they must become masters at networking and attending all kinds of meetings. An ambassador is also the negotiator-in-chief. Therefore, they must have a high level of negotiation skills. To produce good results in negotiations, they must possess knowledge, dialogue skills, patience, humility, patriotism and consideration in various fields. A high level of leadership is necessary since the embassy has officials from diverse ministries.

Second, many believe that an ambassador can be changed whenever the president wants. That is a big mistake. The right to appoint and dismiss an ambassador indeed lies with the president. However, an ambassador is a person who represents the nation and the people of that nation. That is why the host country usually does its best to welcome the ambassador. However, if such a precious guest who was expected to stay for three years resigns after just 25 days, the host nation will inevitably feel frustrated.

Third, many still perceive ambassadors as a powerful elite free from media scrutiny. They perceive that it is okay for the ambassador not to communicate with the media or that they should be capable of controlling the media. These beliefs are shocking misunderstandings, because diplomacy aims to maximize national interests abroad, and national interests should be recognized and supported by the people. The media plays a massive role in winning the public‘s sympathy. So the ambassador should regularly or irregularly communicate with journalists. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that Chung was known for being too passive in communicating with the media. Ambassador Lee Jong-sup also seems to run away without telling the media about his schedule -- such as his appointment to Australia or return to Korea -- due to ignoring the basic principle of promoting diplomacy based on public consensus.

The remarkable feature of these two stories is that they ignore the characteristics of the modern era of public diplomacy. Unlike in the past, when a small number of elites carried out diplomacy exclusively, a large number of people are involved in diplomacy today, interacting directly with people overseas and trying to improve the national image. It is simply natural nowadays. A proper measure would be to send someone out as an ambassador who understands that diplomacy should be carried out as openly as possible, seeks help from the media and recognizes that ordinary people are players of diplomacy.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.