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The three dolls

May 30,2019
이미지뷰
Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

For a group of Korean lawmakers who visited Washington last week to discuss the denuclearization issue with U.S. officials, one of the most interesting remarks they heard came from Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea. A source with knowledge of the discussion said that Biegun likened himself to “a doll” when he met with the group on May 20. When the Korean lawmakers asked why, Biegun allegedly replied that he was a doll because he could not speak freely about his work and because he always had to smile even when things were going badly.

The expression seems to aptly reflect how Biegun is stuck between U.S. President Donald Trump — who speaks more highly of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un than former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and boasts that he does not care about the North’s test-firing of short-range ballistic missiles — and Washington’s hard-liners, who say the U.S. administration has to pressure the Kim regime more. And then there’s an unresponsive North Korea that ignores calls from the United States to talk.

Pyongyang also has a doll: Kim Yong-chol, the former chief North Korean negotiator for denuclearization talks. Here’s an untold anecdote from the first North-U.S. summit held last June in Singapore, which I heard from a source. Toward the summit’s end, North Korean leader Kim told Trump that he was willing to shut down a certain missile test site, while giving the name. Yet the name of that site was not translated at the time, leaving U.S. officials in a crazy guessing game over which site Kim referred to. After the summit, a U.S. official approached Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the North’s Workers’ Party Central Committee, to ask which site Kim Jong-un had mentioned. Kim Yong-chol was said to have fumed while shooting back, “How do you expect me to repeat the words of our leader?” He stormed out without giving an answer. The U.S. official then went to Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, and asked the same question. “Wait,” she replied, and returned with an answer from her brother. It appears Kim Jong-un was referring to the Sohae Satellite Launch Station, another name for the Tongchang-ri missile test site. That is a perfect illustration of Kim Yong-chol’s limitations as a negotiator — in other words, his status as North Korea’s “doll.”

What about South Korea? Early this year, Gong Ro-myung, a former foreign minister who serves as chairman of the East Asia Foundation, made headlines after he called Seoul’s current Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha someone “who has no presence, like a doll.” Gong made the remark as he was criticizing Kang’s kowtowing to the Blue House. No other ministry in Korea has as little presence — yet so many scandals — as the Foreign Ministry. It described three Baltic countries as “Balkan” in an English press release in March, displayed a wrinkled Korean flag during a bilateral meeting with Spain in April, had its ambassadors accused of mistreating local staff in foreign countries and now faces the case of a diplomat from the Korean Embassy in Washington leaking a telephone conversation between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on May 7 to an opposition lawmaker. I know from personal experience that the diplomat in question is upright and honest. Foreign Minister Kang apparently said the leak was intentional. Yet I think the diplomat was exploited by Rep. Khang Hyo-shang of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, who received excerpts of the Trump-Moon telephone conversation only to leak them to the local press to serve his own interests.

No matter what the truth is, a leak of confidential information cannot be justified under any circumstance. John Hay, a 19th century U.S. diplomat who served nearly seven years as secretary of state under two presidents — William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt — once said, “There are three species of creatures who when they seem coming are going, when they seem going they come: diplomats, women and crabs.” Diplomats are destined to act and speak with discretion, yet those in Korea’s foreign service are failing to live up to that principle.

What is crucial here is who takes responsibility. Foreign Minister Kang has yet to apologize for the leak. She has only said that she “feels responsibility” as foreign minister. That is different from taking responsibility. Kang passed the buck to the diplomat who admitted he leaked the conversation. Kang is telling her ministry to penalize him without mercy, yet spares herself from any form of punishment. There is no way the Foreign Ministry will tighten discipline under a doll-like leadership like hers.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 29, Page 30