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Gov’t works to undo harm to diplomats done by Woo

Apr 08,2017
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is making changes to a series of appointments and demotions that were influenced by key associates of former President Park Geun-hye.

Woo Byung-woo, former senior civil affairs secretary under Park, and Choi Soon-sil, a close friend of the ousted president, were suspected of influencing the appointments of government officials during Park’s presidency. Park, who began her term in February 2013, was removed from office last month for allowing her secret inner circle to influence state affairs for private gain.

The Foreign Ministry announced Friday that Lee Myung-ryul, professor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, will be appointed as consul general to Yokohama, Japan. The ministry announced the appointments of 10 ambassadors and three consuls general and Lee was among them.

Lee was a known victim of Woo’s abuse of power. He entered the ministry in 1988 and served in various key diplomatic posts. Before moving to the academy, he served as the director of the Overseas Koreans and Consular Affairs Bureau.

His career was interrupted last year when the government introduced a visa fee exemption program to attract tourists from Asia. The Ministry of Justice made the proposal at the end of 2015 to scrap visa fees for group tourists, worth $15 each.

The Foreign Ministry, however, noted that the fees were used to fund salaries of local administrative staffers at diplomatic missions around the world to issue visas. With the exemption, keeping the local workers on the payroll became impossible.

The ministry’s Overseas Koreans and Consular Affairs Bureau explained the situation to the Justice Ministry in January 2016 and inquired as to what plan the ministry has to fund 2 billion won ($1.96 million) annually to pay the new workers. Copies of the inquiries were also sent to the Blue House’s economic and culture senior secretaries.

A meeting was held with officials of the Foreign, Justice and Finance ministries and the Blue House and a plan was made that the Foreign Ministry budget would be used temporarily to pay local workers. Of the 120 on the payrolls, 110 kept their jobs.

Woo, who was senior civil affairs secretary at the Blue House, was infuriated by the Overseas Koreans and Consular Affairs Bureau’s handling of the matter. He was upset that it sent copies of inquiry to the Blue House when consulting the Justice Ministry, saying that the Foreign Ministry was challenging a decision made at a meeting attended by then President Park.

All concerned officials were investigated by Woo’s office. Lee was interrogated twice, each time for 13 hours, and reportedly under duress.

Demotions followed. Lee, scheduled to be assigned to a post in Japan, was sent to the diplomatic academy. Scheduled promotions of his deputy director and consular service official were all canceled. At the time, Vice Minister Cho Tae-yul tried to persuade Woo in person, but failed.

After Park replaced Woo at the end of last year over his corruption scandal, the ministry began reviewing the matter. Lee’s appointment on Friday was the last step. “Not only those demoted, but many other members of the ministry were hurt,” a ministry official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It’s fortunate things are restored now.”

BY YOO JI-HYE, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]