Yoon’s special outsider envoy appointments come with special diplomatic risks

Posted on : 2024-04-01 16:57 KST Modified on : 2024-04-01 16:57 KST
The special appointee system has had diplomatic ramifications under Yoon, as individuals have been appointed for domestic political reasons or because of their closeness to those in power
President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with US Sen. Roger Marshall during the latter’s visit to the Korean presidential office on March 29, 2024. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with US Sen. Roger Marshall during the latter’s visit to the Korean presidential office on March 29, 2024. (courtesy of the presidential office)

South Korea’s “runaway ambassador” debacle came to an end on Friday after President Yoon Suk-yeol accepted the resignation of his envoy to Australia, Lee Jong-sup.

However, there are concerns that diplomatic relations between South Korea and Australia have been marred by the appointment of a controversial figure as ambassador and his prompt resignation, which came less than a month after his appointment.
 
In addition, the news that South Korea’s ambassador to China, Chung Jae-ho, a former professor at Seoul National University, has been reported for abuse of power has led to criticisms about the diplomatic risks that specially appointed diplomats pose.

Korea’s special appointment system for heads of overseas missions allows individuals who are not career diplomats to head foreign missions if their qualifications and abilities are deemed adequate. It was this system that allowed for the former minister of defense to be tapped as ambassador to Australia. 

Lee Jong-sup, South Korea’s ambassador to Australia at the time, takes part in a meeting of heads of mission for defense industry cooperation held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul on March 28, 2024. (Yonhap)
Lee Jong-sup, South Korea’s ambassador to Australia at the time, takes part in a meeting of heads of mission for defense industry cooperation held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul on March 28, 2024. (Yonhap)

The system was originally introduced to bring in outside experts to overcome the “pure breeding” culture of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs consisting of people who had all taken the foreign service examination. But it has ended up causing ongoing controversy as the people appointed to head foreign missions have shown some disconnect from those aims.

Under the Yoon administration, the outside appointee system has had a diplomatic impact as individuals have been appointed for domestic political reasons or because of their closeness to those in power.

One immediate consequence of Lee’s resignation as ambassador is that it appears certain to cause setbacks in preparations for a bilateral “2+2” foreign and defense ministers’ meeting scheduled to take place with Australia next month.

The situation with South Korea’s ambassador to China has also been disruptive.

In early March, a resident officer working at the Korean Embassy in Beijing reported Chung to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry for “abusive” behavior. According to sources, Chung summoned the officer in question to his room during working hours for a conversation, during which he used insulting language.

Faced with the responsibility of explaining the situation, Chung abruptly canceled a monthly briefing of local South Korean correspondents in China, which was scheduled to take place Monday.

Chung is reportedly an old friend of Yoon’s who attended Choongam High School with him and has long maintained personal ties.

Ambassador Chung Jae-ho, who represents South Korea in China. (Embassy of South Korea in Beijing website)
Ambassador Chung Jae-ho, who represents South Korea in China. (Embassy of South Korea in Beijing website)

With relations between Seoul and Beijing already strained, many are voicing growing fears over the conflict at the embassy, which is tasked with providing a local foundation for diplomacy in China.

While a trilateral meeting of ministers was held last year to discuss holding a South Korea-China-Japan summit, no schedule had been finalized by the time 2024 began. China also clearly showed its displeasure with South Korea- and US-led sanctions against North Korea when it abstained from a March 28 vote on a resolution extending the term of the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea’s panel of experts.

Diplomatic insiders stressed that to honor the aims of the special appointment system, appointments should be based on careful consideration of which individuals possess expertise in a given region and field.

“The head of mission is a position that oversees all areas of security, diplomacy, and political, economic, trade-related, and consular affairs,” a former diplomat told the Hankyoreh.

“It’s the kind of thing where even more than two decades of specialized diplomatic training may not be enough,” they stressed.

“I think it’s a pretty big issue if they’re appointing someone completely unprepared to such a position simply because they spent five to six months working in the election camp,” they added.

By Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

 

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