In February this year, Rep. Shim Jae-kwon, chairman of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee, authored three bills to add ambassadors appointed by the president to a list of senior administration officials whose nominations are required to go through parliamentary confirmation hearing.
The ruling party lawmaker wrote the bills in reaction to the revelation that Choi Soon-sil, the jailed confidante of ousted President Park Geun-hye, peddled influence in the appointment of a former corporate executive as ambassador to Myanmar in 2016.
It is ironic, but the latest ambassadorial appointments of President Moon Jae-in, whose election campaign definitely benefited from the Park-Choi scandal, raised the need for the National Assembly to move fast on the bills to subject nominees for ambassadors to parliamentary vetting process.
When presidents appoint envoys to foreign countries, they are supposed to consider -- among other things -- the candidates’ experience, expertise and personal connections in the host country. Of course, the candidates’ personal relationship with the president also plays a part.
But hearing the names Moon picked for ambassadorial posts in the US, China and Japan, one cannot help but think that the president considered only his relationship with them.
To be exact, all three nominees were selected because they had been major contributors to Moon’s presidential campaign. Both Cho Yoon-je, the nominee for ambassador to the US and Noh Young-min, the nominee for the top envoy to China, had played key roles in Moon’s campaign team. Lee Su-hoon, who was named to be ambassador to Japan, was a senior member of Moon’s transition team.
Moon has yet to name an ambassador to Russia, but reports point to the possibility that the post would also go to another Moon ally, Woo Yoon-keun, a former ruling party lawmaker who now serves as the secretary-general of the National Assembly.
Of them, both Cho, an economist, and Lee, an international relations professor, have ties back to the administration of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon’s former mentor and boss. Cho was a senior economic adviser to Roh and Lee headed a presidential commission on Northeast Asia.
So Moon will have given the US, China, Japan and Russia envoy posts -- which are so important to Korea that they are referred to as the “four surrounding superpowers” -- to people close and loyal to him. It is rare none of the four posts will go to a career foreign service officer.
Moon’s aides at Cheong Wa Dae insisted that the president may well pick people who share his “governing philosophy.” It is not entirely wrong, but there should be a prerequisite: candidates must have minimum qualifications.
Unfortunately, none of the appointees seem to meet the requirement. Cho, who headed a policy think tank that advised Moon during the campaign, taught economics at a university in Seoul. He served as the ambassador to the UK during the Roh administration and also was Moon’s special envoy to the EU and Germany shortly after Moon’s election victory.
The post of the ambassador to the US will require much more than those nominal experiences, especially at a time when the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations calls for foolproof coordination between the two countries.
The situation is similar with both Noh and Lee as they also lack experience, expertise and personal connections in their respective host countries. It is questionable that Noh, a former three-term lawmaker, will be able to help restore Korea-China relations that had been strained over the deployment of a US missile shield system in South Korea only because he is close to the president.
Lee has not held any government post except the chairmanship of the presidential panel on Northeast Asia. Nor does he have any experience in Japanese affairs.
Americans -- through Senate confirmation hearings -- have a chance to vet ambassadorial nominees. There is no reason why Koreans should not do the same.