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(Yonhap Feature) For new U.S. ambassador, a mixed reception for a native son

By Kim Hyeh-won
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- Expectations are high for Sung Y. Kim, the first Korean-American to be appointed U.S. ambassador in his native country, ahead of his arrival in Seoul.

   Kim, 51, is a Korea expert in the U.S. State Department, who served in the Office of Korean Affairs and on the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear issues.

   As a diplomat, he worked as chief of political-military affairs at the U.S. embassy in Seoul. In 2008, he was a member of the U.S. delegation that flew to North Korea to see the demolition of a cooling tower at the North's main nuclear complex.

   The South Korean people, as well as their government, welcomed the appointment.

   "Kim is expected to better communicate with Koreans because of his understanding of Korean people and culture," said Kim Seong-ho, 30, a student at Seoul's Korea University.

   Amb. Kim, a Korean-American who immigrated to the United States at 13, speaks the Korean language fluently.

Amb. Sung Y. Kim at his confirmation hearing in July (Yonhap file photo)

But others think that his deep ties to Korea and his ethnicity could also pose challenges.

   "A lot of Koreans will receive him as a returning son," said a former Korean diplomat who asked to remain unnamed. "But such a sentiment of Koreans can work negatively on Kim's ambassadorial performance."

   He said the incoming ambassador, like other Americans, is expected to pursue American values and interests in his post, which may disappoint Koreans. Moreover, he said, Koreans tend to be kinder to foreigners than to those with an ethnically Korean background.

   "I am afraid that Koreans may not pay due respect to Amb. Kim," said the former diplomat, who served in a top post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

   Kim Seong-ho, the Korea University student, also warned of Koreans' excessive expectations for the Korean-American ambassador.

   "If we ask (of) him something beyond the basic framework of Korea-U.S. relations because he is ethnically Korean, we may leave an undesirable precedent in the role of Korean-Americans in the U.S. government," he said.

   Sung Kim's case will likely serve as an important test for the future of other ethnic Koreans in the State Department, Kim said.

   An Min-ho, 35, a Ph.D. candidate at Korea University, expressed a similar view.

   "He may not be willing to make decisions in favor of Korea not to involve himself in unnecessary controversy related to his ethnicity," argued An. "I personally prefer, as U.S. ambassador, a 'native' American who loves Korea, like Amb. Kathleen Stephens," he said, referring to Kim's popular immediate predecessor.

   The debate is reminiscent of the case of Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American U.S. ambassador to Beijing.

   Locke's ethnicity sparked debate even before his arrival in Beijing in August. While promoting a belief that all people of Chinese heritage are linked regardless of nationality, Chinese media also questioned how Locke's shared heritage yet Western values would influence his approach to the post.

   In the months since then, however, the former U.S. commerce secretary has become a political star in Beijing by winning the public's heart with humble acts rarely seen among Chinese officials.

   "I think whether the first U.S. ambassador with an ethnically Korean background will successfully complete his term or not will depend on how Koreans receive him as much as how nicely he performs his duty," said the ex-diplomat.

   In deeply Confucian South Korea, where seniority counts, one typical complaint about Kim's appointment concerns his official rank.

   "A lot of Koreans remember him while he was working as the first secretary here only five or six years ago," observed the former diplomat, referring to Kim's stint at the U.S. embassy in Seoul from 2002-06.

   Kim earned the rank of ambassador only in 2008 when he was named to lead the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks. His appointment came as a surprise to some Koreans who had expected a senior diplomat or politician as the new U.S. envoy.

   Then there's the sticky issue of suspected family ties to a past scandal.

   Kim's father, Kim Ki-wan, is alleged to have been involved in the 1973 abduction and planned assassination of Kim Dae-jung, who was then an opposition leader and later became South Korea's president.

   Kim Dae-jung had been kidnapped from a Tokyo hotel, where Kim Ki-wan was serving as a minister representing the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) at the Korean Embassy. The KCIA was the government spy agency at the time.

   The assassination attempt was later thwarted.

   Soon after the incident, Kim Ki-wan and his family, including Sung Kim, immigrated to the United States. Kim Ki-wan died in the United States in 1994.

Sung Y. Kim arrives in Seoul on May 16, 2011, with Stephen Bosworth, then Washington's top envoy on North Korea, for talks with South Korean officials. (Yonhap file photo)

Because of this allegation, some Korean officials expected objections from liberal opposition groups.

   But Park Jie-won, an opposition leader who was a close aide to the late president, attempted to clear the air.

   "It was a matter related to his father, not to him," Park said, quoting Kim Dae-jung speaking about Sung Kim years ago.

   The former president's wife, Lee Hee-ho, reaffirmed her husband's view in a recent interview with a local daily.

   Yoo Jang-hee, 70, a renowned economist, offered a kinder view on the new ambassador. As he pointed out, Koreans highly appreciate and admire the personal achievements and success of Korean-Americans, as in the case of Harold Hongju Koh, legal adviser to the State Department, and many others.

   "I don't expect serious problems to arise from (Kim's) ethnicity. Moreover, the role of an ambassador is diminishing these days when summit diplomacy has emerged as the most important factor in foreign relations," said Yoo, who once served as vice president at Ewha Womans University, a top women's college in Seoul.

   Experts agree that the next few years will be extremely important for South Korea and the U.S. as they deal with increasingly intransigent North Korea. The communist country is preparing for another father-to-son power succession, while also pushing to become a "strong and prosperous" nation by 2012, the centennial of the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-sung.

   Officials expect Sung Kim, with his extensive experience and expertise in North Korean affairs, to skillfully manage security issues on the Korean Peninsula.

   How he will win over the Korean public, however, remains to be seen.