A Part-Time Envoy for a Full-Time Task

  • By Lee Ha-won, the Chosun Ilbo's correspondent in Washington

    February 27, 2009 11:01

    Lee Ha-won

    Suppose two of three doctors of similar capability newly employed at a general hospital work full time and one part-time. Who would you trust more, especially if the part-timer lives nine hours from the hospital by car and only occasionally examines and treats patients?

    This is a metaphor for the three special envoys the Barack Obama administration has appointed in an effort to resolve urgent diplomatic and security issues. George Mitchell, special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, both named soon after the Obama administration took office, are fully engaged in their tasks. Having already returned home from their tours of their respective regions, both are now preparing reports to be submitted to President Obama.

    In comparison, Stephen Bosworth, the former American ambassador in Seoul who has just been named special envoy to North Korea, is given a part-time job. He retains his deanery at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Boston and works as special envoy to the North by visiting the State Department in Washington D.C. whenever necessary.

    Few in the United States doubt Bosworth's capability. He earned recognition as a competent diplomat while serving as executive director of the now defunct Korea Peninsula Energy Development Organization and ambassador to the Philippines and South Korea. Some U.S. diplomats who have served in Seoul rate him as the best ambassador they have had here. He also has a lot of guts, to the extent of openly dismissing as "premature" in December 1999 president Kim Dae-jung's idea of institutionalizing a tripartite South Korea, China and Japan summit.

    But quite a few eyebrows were raised when he was given the new task as a part-time job. The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is substantially more dangerous than it was at the end of the Clinton administration, on whose model the Obama administration has appointed the special envoy. Reports have it that North Korea has turned the entire 40 kg of plutonium into nuclear warheads and it is expected to test-fire a Taepodong-2 missile over the Pacific. It is only natural that people have doubts about letting the special envoy tackle his mission whenever he has a moment to spare when the task demands a full-time attention. Contrast this with George Mitchell's resignation from Queen's University Belfast immediately after he was named special envoy to the Middle East.

    That is perhaps why Bosworth's appointment seems to have made no waves. "Letting Bosworth fulfill his special envoy mission while retaining his post as dean suggests the Obama administration is looking to manage the North Korean issue rather than resolving it," said a diplomatic source in Washington. Speculation is rife even after his appointment whether he will head the U.S. delegation at the six-party talks and how his role will be shared with U.S. special envoy on North Korean affairs Sung Kim.

    Our government must guard against this. The North Korean nuclear issue may be so low in the U.S. order of priorities as to warrant appointing only a part-time special envoy, but our position must be different. It's extremely dangerous to allow the present situation to entrench itself down and a feeling to take hold that the North's nuclear weapons are no big deal.

    The government must either pray that a part-time special envoy will perform better than a full-time one or offer a positive solution.

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