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The Koreas



Seoul's unusual choice of envoys

STRATFOR.COM's
Global Intelligence Update
May 25, 2000


Summary

South Korea has chosen new ambassadors to the United States and China. The names of the candidates were greeted with some surprise, as the new ambassador to Washington will be a former professor with little political and no diplomatic experience. At the same time, Seoul is sending a former foreign minister to Beijing. The new postings offer insight into the path that President Kim Dae-jung's foreign policy will take over the remaining years of his term.

Analysis

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has chosen new ambassadors to the United States and China, according to reports in several South Korean newspapers on May 25. Yang Sung-chul, a one-term parliamentarian, former professor and expert on North Korean issues, has been tapped for the Washington posting. Hong Soong-young, a career diplomat and minister of foreign affairs and trade from 1998 until January will lead the legation in Beijing.

The decisions are surprising as Yang takes a position normally reserved for high level officials, and Hong will become the first former foreign minister to take the position in Beijing, according to government sources cited by Chosun Ilbo. The appointments, which follow the February replacement of the ambassadors to Russia and Japan, reflect a foreign policy out of Seoul that is increasingly fixated on North Korea and the growing importance of China.

Yang Sung-chul served a single term in the National Assembly, from 1996 to 2000, as a representative for the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), which recently became the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Prior to this brief stint, Yang was a professor in the United States and South Korea. Despite his lack of direct political experience, Yang is considered an expert on North Korea and has stood as a staunch supporter of President Kim's Sunshine Policy.

Yang's posting in Washington underscores Seoul's insistence on taking the leadership role in setting and implementing a multi- national policy toward North Korea. In a 1999 interview with The Korea Times, shortly after visiting the US Congress to advocate the Sunshine Policy, Yang emphasized the growing role Seoul was playing in setting an international agenda for dealing with Pyongyang. Yang said that, rather than seeking advice from other nations, Seoul is ''now persuading them with [its] firm position'', the newspaper reported.

Yang's appointment to Washington appears to be intended to ensure that Seoul is in charge of the unified policy toward Pyongyang. Yang's position will allow him to battle US reluctance at the quick pace toward reconciliation. Yang has called for a watchful eye on the United States and Japan, which are jointly developing a missile defense system ostensibly in response to a North Korean threat. Yang has urged those involved to consider the interests of Russia and China, whose governments view the system as a potential threat to their own strategic forces.

Hong's appointment to Beijing demonstrates the growing importance of China to South Korea. China has played an integral role in bringing Pyongyang to the table with Seoul. As the first former foreign minister to serve as ambassador to China, Hong's appointment marks a new level in the relationship between Seoul and Beijing.

Hong Soon-young joined South Korea's foreign service in 1962, holding overseas posts in Hong Kong, Lagos, New York, Santiago and Washington before becoming secretary to the president for political affairs in 1983. Hong has also served as ambassador to Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan and Russia. In 1998, amid a spy scandal between Seoul and Moscow, Hong became minister of foreign affairs and trade, a position he held until January.

In addition to being a key element in President Kim's international promotion of the Sunshine Policy, Hong has also advocated the formation of an East Asian Community, which brings together China, Japan, Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Hong has also defended South Korea's right to develop longer-range missiles and cited China as a key influence in keeping North Korea from continuing its long-range missile program.

While the announcements of Yang and Hong will not be made official until after the June inter-Korean summit, the message being sent to both Washington and Beijing is clear. The top priority for Seoul is continuing, with speed and direction, toward reconciliation with the North. To maintain momentum, four key ambassadorial positions are being adjusted accordingly: first, the representatives to secondary players such as Russia and Japan in February, and now the emissaries in the key sponsors of the Koreas, the United States and China.

There is a finer message buried in these appointments. To Washington, Seoul sends Yang, inexperienced but known for his knowledge of North Korea. To Beijing, it sends Hong, a high ranking and experienced diplomat, with knowledge of trade. In these actions, Seoul demonstrates greater independence from the United States while drawing closer to China. By doing so, Kim is hoping to keep China's support for his policy of engagement.

(c) 2000, WNI, Inc.
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