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Seoul steps up diplomatic efforts with Washington

Sept 21,2019
Seoul is systemically stepping up its diplomacy toward Washington after tapping Lee Soo-hyuck as the new Korean ambassador to the United States.

It also plans to appoint a new political minister to the Korean Embassy in Washington and elevate the position to a vice minister-level one, according to multiple diplomatic sources familiar with the matter Tuesday. The embassy’s political minister position is usually filled by a director-general-level official at the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However, one source said that the Foreign Ministry is “reviewing positively” the appointment of a vice minister-level official to the post soon.

The position of the political minister is considered the right-hand man to the Korean ambassador to the United States. The political minister can fill in for the ambassador when the top diplomat to Washington is not available and plays a crucial role communicating between the Korean Foreign Ministry and the Blue House and the U.S. administration, Congress and think tanks. Past experience shows that the abilities of the political minister can impact the quality and quantity of information relayed to Seoul from Washington.

However, the position has been vacant over the past four months following the leak by the former political minister at the U.S. Embassy of a phone conversation between the South Korean and U.S. presidents in May.

This has left a hole in the front line of diplomacy with Washington at a crucial period amid ongoing North Korea denuclearization negotiations and deteriorating relations with Japan which could impact South Korea-U.S. alliance matters.

Appointing a vice minister-level official to the political minister position could help expand the horizons for diplomacy in Washington and also send a message about the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

Sources say that Moon Seung-hyun, the Korean ambassador to the Czech Republic, is a leading candidate for the political minister position at the embassy in Washington, along with Yeo Seung-bae, the Korean ambassador to New Zealand. Both candidates are considered U.S. experts having served as director-generals of the North American Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry.

Korea this week tapped Ko Yun-ju, a former deputy secretary at the Blue House National Security Office, as the new director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau.

Lee Soo-hyuck, a former ruling Democratic Party lawmaker and career diplomat, was named as new ambassador to the United States amid President Moon Jae-in’s shake up of his Cabinet last month.

Lee served as Korea’s first chief negotiator to the now defunct six-party talks to denuclearize Pyongyang, involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. He also previously served as a deputy director of the National Intelligence Service under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

BY YOO JEE-HYE, LEE YU-JUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]