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[Opinion] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Set up for Trouble

[Opinion] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Set up for Trouble

Posted November. 10, 2001 13:13,   


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), which embarrassed the nation with the scandal over the execution of a Korean citizen by the Chinese government, says that it will carry out a comprehensive reform of consular operations. Yet, is the root cause of the problem really consular operations? The MFAT making a huge misjudgment.

In terms of the conclusion, the problems confronting the MFAT will not be resolved by a public apology, censuring a couple of staff members, and adding several more consul generals. Without a major reform, scandals that shame the nation and damage the confidence of the people will continue.

The MFAT has problems in both its hardware and software. While others are jumping into foreign service with computers and high-tech equipment, we are crawling with outdated arsenal. As a result, we have been run over by problems around the Anti-Ballistic Missile Ban Treaty, fishery negotiations, and most recently the execution of a Korean national – a four way slap on our face from four major powers.

The case of the execution death symbolically reveals the current state of our foreign service. ``At first we could not locate the documents relevant to the case. After another search, however, we found one document out of two, but we only have the record of fax transmission for the second document, which declares the death sentence, but have not been able to confirm whether the document was successfully received.`` says the MFAT. This sounds like some line from a bad comedy. It is almost pathetic.

The U.S. and other Western nations store foreign affairs documents as digital data. Diplomats residing in appointed nations store the data in networks based in the home country in order to have access to it any time, anywhere. Regular orders on operation and reports are communicated by the embassy to its headquarters through coded computer communication systems. Foreign affairs paper documents have become antiquated, and communication by mail has almost disappeared.

In our case, the majority of government offices stationed abroad, similar to the Shenyang consulate office that caused all the trouble, do not have suitable computer systems. Paper documents have to be individually filed and stored, and each file has to be searched individually. That is why the consulate could say at first, `We never received any documents` from China, and hours later admit the shameful truth, `We made a mistake`.

If the high-tech facilities are not available, they need to make up for it by physical labor. But the offices are ridiculously understaffed. The total MFAT personnel numbered 1730 in 1991 and now, after ten years, the number has been reduced to 1524. The budget, which was 0.73 percent of the national budget in 1997 before the current administration`s term, has decreased by 0.6 percent this year. On the other hand, the amount of work in foreign affairs has increased exponentially. It was enough to manage foreign relations between Western powers and developing nations during the Cold War, but now our sphere of diplomatic activity includes the entire European Union. We have to address not only the essentials of politics, military, and security but participate in global issues that may not be directly relevant to our own interests. The nature, amount, and scope of foreign relations work is no longer comparable with that of the past.

This is the reason why recruiting the best of the best for foreign service is becoming such an urgent issue. What is it like in reality? Territorial attitudes and personal connections have become even more prominent in the foreign service sector since the administration came into power. In one case, there are rumors about how one employee was fired overnight for refusing a government minister`s special request for a passport. How, then, can the best qualified individuals fill the foreign service staff? Driven by self-protective interests, opportunism, and accommodating attitudes, the morale and cohesion in the foreign service sector is falling everyday.

The administration has the large portion of the blame for the current state of the MFAT. The singular focus on South-North relations led the administration to overlook the diplomatic reality in the global arena. It insisted on small government and used its knife only on reducing government offices. The U.S. has increased the number of diplomats by 2000 in the last ten years. Japan has increased the number of diplomats every year despite the work to reduce government and now has 5000 diplomats, three times more than us. Only the Korean foreign service has shrunk. Consequently, diplomatic capacity has greatly degenerated and the absence of diplomatic strategy has gone hand in hand with the lack of influence in the international arena.

Can a couple more consul generals solve the problem in a situation like this? A major operation that completely overhauls the software and hardware of the MFAT is needed.

Nam Chan-Soon (Editorial Staff Writer)