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Role of U.S. ambassador to Korea

Posted April. 09, 2001 13:01,   


The Dong-a Ilbo carried a story on the inauguration of the first United States Ambassador to Korea John Mucho`s on the front page of the paper dated Apr. 21, 1949. Under the headline, ``Korea-U.S. relations further strengthened; Amb. Mucho`s credentials presentation ceremony held at presidential office,`` the paper gave extensive coverage to the new U.S. ambassador`s presentation statement, president Lee Seung-Man`s congratulatory remarks, his credentials and personal history, and the names of U.S. embassy officials who attended the ceremony. This, in a sense, reflected the Korean people`s expectations on the role of the new American envoy.

A total of 17 U. S. ambassadors served in Korea from Mucho to the latest ambassador, Stephen Bosworth, who left here in February. There is no arguing that they exercised great influence on Korean politics. Their roles and influence have been always behind the ups and downs of Korea`s contemporary history in the course of the Korean War (1950-1953), the April Student Uprising in 1960, the May 16 military coup in 1961, the Revitalizing Reform constitutional amendment in the early 1970s, the assassination of president Park Chung-Hee in 1979, and the ensuing inauguration of the Chun Doo-Hwan regime in the early 1980s. These American envoys applied pressure on the dictatorial regimes and sparked diplomatic frictions between the two countries on the one hand, and propped up these regimes on the other.

Sometimes, the American ambassadors were free to visit with the presidential office. Their official ranks in the home government were equal to the levels of bureau directors or posts of one rank higher compared to Korean bureaucrats, but their influence on the Korean government was so great that the government leaders felt constraint in receiving them. Nonetheless, the relationship between Korea and the U.S. developed into a sort of equal partnership. Presently, their ``political`` roles have gotten smaller, with their main concerns being with economic and private matters.

Recent developments in South-North Korean relations and tripartite relations among the two Koreas and the U.S. raised the possibility of bringing a change to the role of the U.S. ambassador to Seoul. With inter-Korean rapprochement and the inauguration of President George W. Bush, a subtle change is in the offing in terms of the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula. Serious attention is needed to what effect the Bush administration`s diplomacy will bring about for Korea. Reports had it that Korean expert Thomas Hubbard, acting assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific affairs, was most hopeful of taking the ambassadorial post in Seoul. Whoever becomes the new envoy to Korea, he or she should have deep insight so as to rightly evaluate the past history of Korea-U.S. relations and accurately gauge the future of two-way ties.

Nam Chan-Soon chansoon@donga.com