Former ambassador to Russia Lee Kyu-hyung has been appointed as the next ambassador to China, replacing Yoo Wu-ik. Lee is already the third ambassador to China since the Lee Myung-bak administration was launched in 2008.
Yoo served as Seoul’s envoy for just a year and four months, while his predecessor Shin Jung-seung served for a year and eight months. For a diplomat, a year can pass simply with presenting credentials and going through the rounds shaking hands with key political, economic, social and cultural figures of the host country.
Of course advances in communications technology mean governments can contact their foreign counterparts directly without the delays their ambassadors in those countries suffer, and times have changed since ambassadors had to make crucial decisions on their own due to difficulties in contacting their own governments speedily. Nonetheless, these envoys continue to play an important symbolic role and their activities and decisions remain crucial in foreign policy.
As a result, ambassadors to major countries are usually carefully chosen and steps are taken to ensure their tenure runs smoothly. From that perspective, the frequent changes in ambassadors to China go against all basic principles.
Korea's diplomatic ties with China are as vital as its ties with the U.S. in terms of security and business. Rumor has it that the Lee administration’s first ambassador to China was not even able to present his credentials on time due to his weak diplomatic track record. Lee therefore dispatched a chief presidential secretary and key aide to the post. But that official showed little interest in the job, going to the U.S. to attend an academic forum at the height of the crisis surrounding the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, when Seoul-Beijing relations were being put to a serious test. This is one reason the government has been unable to gauge China's reactions to North Korea's provocations last year and ended up making the wrong moves.
When the U.S. considered relations with Japan of top importance, it dispatched Mike Mansfield, a Democratic Party heavyweight, as ambassador to Japan and made him stay in the post from 1977 to 1988. Due to the importance of U.S.-Soviet ties, the U.S.S.R. made Anatoly Dobrynin serve as ambassador to the U.S. from 1962 to 1986, seeing six American presidents come and go.
The Korean government, too, must realize the key role ambassadors to China have to play and change the way it appoints them.