January 10, 2019 13:30
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday in a show of brotherly harmony. Kim needs China's backing ahead of another summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and stands to gain crucial leverage in overcoming sanctions if China simply opens its backdoor to trade. At a time like this, South Korea, which suffers the greatest threat from North Korea's nuclear weapons program, should have concentrated all its diplomatic resources on keeping up with what Kim and Xi are up to. But the South Korean ambassador to China made an unceremonious exit on Tuesday just as Kim was arriving in Beijing because he has a new job as President Moon Jae-in's chief of staff, and now the post is vacant.
Noh Young-min (66) claimed he "wrapped things up" before vacating his post, but it remains a mystery what he is talking about. Noh also suffered a barrage of criticism in June last year when he went on holiday just as Kim was on his third visit to China. The communist Chinese government is a stickler for rank, and it is extremely difficult for diplomats of even major countries to meet high-ranking Chinese officials. They will certainly not want to talk to some acting chargé d'affaires, so the embassy will have to content itself with reading the tea leaves.
China does not exactly support a nuclear-armed North Korea, but it is more interested in increasing its dominance in Asia, weakening the Seoul-Washington alliance and decreasing or ending U.S. troop presence in the South. China has shown it is willing to pull out all the stops to tame South Korea, snubbing Moon by putting his special envoy in low-ranking seats twice, to say nothing of its devastating boycott of South Korean goods and services over the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery from the U.S. here. South Korea has never protested.
Trump has already pledged to pull American troops out of South Korea. During his first summit with Kim, he promised to end annual joint military exercises with South Korea without even consulting Seoul. The reason for both is saving U.S. taxpayers' money. Now Trump is calling on South Korea to shoulder a much bigger share of the cost of keeping U.S. troops here. Based on his track record, Trump could drop another bombshell about their presence during his impending second summit with Kim. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is no longer in office, so there is now nobody who can keep Trump from making rash military decisions. And yet again the Moon administration is making no serious efforts to protect the country's security.
Diplomatic relations with Japan are in even worse shape. A spat over a South Korean destroyer allegedly pointing its fire radar at a Japanese spy plane is only one of many recent crises and has immediately been replaced by protests over a Korean court's decision to seize the assets of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal on behalf of forced labor victims. Yet most of South Korea's old diplomatic hands in Tokyo were phased out because they are thought to be part of the old establishment that Moon has ostensibly set out to sweep away. The ambassador cannot even speak the language and is widely thought to be incompetent.
South Korea's ambassador to Russia, meanwhile, was recalled recently after corruption allegations surfaced and had to rush through the airport covering his face. South Korea's diplomacy is a shambles. The country is surrounded by bigger powers, "a shrimp among whales" as the old saying goes. Diplomacy is key to its survival, and survival must take precedence over ethics. Only recently National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang said, "We need to stop the practice of appointing political allies to key posts as rewards. We need to assign experts." It is high time that rule was applied to senior diplomatic posts.
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