By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, June 25 (Yonhap) -- With the pick of Sung Kim, a Korea-born career diplomat, as his new ambassador to Seoul, U.S. President Barack Obama aims to handle the North Korean nuclear issue in a more professional way and step up public diplomacy with South Koreans, officials and experts here said.
Kim, 51, is on a path to become the first person of Korean origin to serve as U.S. ambassador to Seoul, a historic nomination comparable to Obama's naming of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke of Chinese descent as top envoy to Beijing.
Since the Senate confirmed Kim in 2009 for his current position, special envoy to the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear programs, his nomination is expected to get approval easily from Capitol Hill next month before Congress enters summer recess.
"(Kim) will be helpful to South Korea-U.S. relations in various aspects," a senior South Korean official said during his trip to Washington recently.
The most important issue in Washington's policy on the Korean Peninsula is North Korea's nuclear program, and few Americans know more about it than Kim, the official added on the condition of anonymity.
Kim, the State Department's top Korea expert, has attended the six-party talks several times and traveled to the North more than 10 times.
In one of his high-profile tours of the North, he flew into Pyongyang and walked across the inter-Korean land border in May 2008, carrying by hand boxes containing records on the North's main nuclear reactor.
The nominee's expertise on North Korea meets Obama's need for stable management of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, especially ahead of the politically and diplomatically crucial year of 2012.
North Korea plans to declare itself a "strong and prosperous" nation next year on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. Both the U.S. and South Korea have presidential elections set for that year.
"He could have been designated as ambassador to a country other than South Korea, but the Obama administration apparently has decided that his expertise on Korean issues makes him specially qualified to represent the United States in Seoul," said Larry Niksch, senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Many also say Kim's designation reflects Washington's efforts to reach out to ordinary South Koreans and enhance its image in a country often caught up in anti-American protests.
Kim spent his childhood in South Korea and later married a Korean woman. Fluent in Korean, he often uses the language in private conversations with South Koreans here.
Officials said Kim will play a key role in Washington's public diplomacy and also give hope to millions of Korean-American people working in various fields in the U.S.
The outgoing ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, has endeared herself to South Koreans by capitalizing on her service there as a Peace Corp volunteer decades ago. She even has a Korean name, Shim Eun-kyung.
Her predecessor, Alexander Vershbow, also tried to reach out to Koreans, playing the drums at upscale jazz clubs and performing with school bands.
"Perhaps the biggest positive impact comes from the local perception of 'prodigal son returns home in triumph' since Mr. Kim was born in Korea. His personal story and talents will cement the already strong bilateral relationship between the United States and Republic of Korea," Bruce Klingner, senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, said.
Richard Bush, senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, agreed.
"His nomination says something very special about the United States: that families can come here from abroad, be successful in a variety of fields including diplomacy, to the point that individuals like Sung Kim return to their country of origin to represent their country of citizenship," he said.
David Straub, associate director of the Korean Studies Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said, "With his knowledge of Korean language and culture, Mr. Kim will very effectively represent the United States' interests in the Republic of Korea, and provide Washington with clear insights into Korea."
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