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41-year-old U.S. ambassador to South Korea

Posted May. 03, 2014 06:42,   


Donald Gregg, who was the U.S. ambassador to South Korea during the Roh Tae-woo administration, used to speak highly t a particular person as a potential next president and a person with superb abilities. At a time when the U.S. envoy bragged about being able to meet with the South Korean president any time he wanted to, he was actually very well informed about the country`s power elite. The behavior of the envoy, who contacted the local power elite so often as to be criticized for intervening in domestic politics, backfired sometimes. When anti-U.S. protesters stormed the U.S. ambassador`s residence, he humiliatingly hid under his bed. The person Gregg spoke highly of was one of the key confidants of the then South Korean President Roh Tae-woo.

A U.S. ambassador is still Seoul`s most important envoy but there have been many changes. It is not as easy as it used to be for a U.S. ambassador to meet with a South Korean president. Washington has also changed its practice of appointing soon-to-retire officials as an envoy to Seoul. While most U.S. ambassadors, including Gregg, retired from public office after serving in Seoul, former envoy Christopher Hill was appointed as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, just seven months after he was named ambassador to South Korea. He later served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Sung Kim, the incumbent U.S. ambassador to South Korea, is also expected to take an important post at the U.S. State Department when he returns to Washington.

Mark Lippert, the chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, also shows Washington`s new style of personnel appointments. Lippert, 41, would be the youngest among the U.S. ambassadors to South Korea. He is even younger than a director of the South Korean foreign ministry, the U.S. embassy`s counterpart. However, age does not matter in the world of diplomacy. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is 39 years old. U.S. President Barack Obama was 47 when he became president.

Lippert is an Asia expert who served as chief of staff of the National Security Council and assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security. According to Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, Lippert can call President Obama any time. Lim Kwan-bin, a former senior official at the South Korean defense ministry who met with Lippert several times, noted that Obama nominated a person with experiences in the National Security Council and the Defense Department given the Seoul-Washington relations in which security is the biggest issue. It would be up to Seoul to take advantage of the appointment of a U.S. ambassador who can contact the White House any time.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)