"Can you see how much detail President Barack Obama considered to promote U.S.-China relations?" a senior foreign diplomat said after the appointment of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke early this month to next ambassador to China. Mindful of strained Washington-Beijing relations, Obama had chosen a heavyweight in his administration and someone who would be welcomed by Beijing. It is extremely rare for a minister-level official to be appointed ambassador.
Locke, whose grandparents were born in China, is an old hand who has set several records in U.S. politics, becoming the first Chinese-American governor of a U.S. state (Washington) and also the first Chinese-American commerce secretary. Also considered in his appointment as ambassador to China was that his wife is the great-granddaughter of Sun Yatsen, who is revered as the father of modern China.
The U.S. has always appointed political heavyweights as ambassadors to China to maintain a direct pipeline with the White House. Clark Randt, who served from 2001 to 2009, was a fellow student at Yale of President George W. Bush. Incumbent ambassador Jon Huntsman, who served as governor of Utah, is believed to seek the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential election.
The U.S. government also goes to some lengths to appoint ambassadors to Japan. Former vice president Walter Mondale, former House speaker Thomas Foley and former White House chief of staff Howard Baker are among former ambassadors to the island country. Incumbent U.S. ambassador to Japan John Roos was responsible for raising huge amounts of political donations for Obama in a tight race against Hillary Clinton ahead of the presidential election. Although not widely known, Roos discusses matters closely with Obama.
Will a diplomat of equal caliber be appointed as U.S. ambassador to Korea? The Obama administration is in the process of finding a successor to Kathleen Stephens. Until early this year, John Donovan, the deputy assistant secretary for East Asia at the State Department, was being considered, but the selection has apparently gone back to square one.
In June 2009, presidents Obama and Lee Myung-bak announced they would boost bilateral relations based on what they called a "Future Alliance Vision," and at every opportunity Obama has stressed the need to maintain close ties with Seoul and the importance of the Korea-U.S. alliance. The time has come for the U.S. to break the age-old practice of sending career diplomats as ambassadors to Seoul. These have been competent professionals, but there was no hotline to the White House.
The next U.S. ambassador needs a direct link to the White House considering the growing possibility of sudden changes in North Korea and reunification of the Korean Peninsula. To deal effectively with the situation, the ambassador must be able to discuss issues directly with the U.S. president. Obama should pay the same amount of attention in selecting his next envoy to Korea as he did in choosing his ambassadors to China and Japan.
By Lee Ha-won from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk