Like the changing seasons, the practice of diplomacy moves with a measured tempo. Protocol, ritual and tradition are sometimes what drive diplomacy more than anything else. Never more so is that the case than in one of its most prestigious positions: the deanship of the diplomatic corps.
South Korea’s foreign diplomatic community recently saw a new ambassador assume the role of dean.
When the previous dean, former Uzbek Ambassador to South Korea Vitali Fen, returned home in August, he passed the honor to Bruneian Ambassador to South Korea Dato Haji Harun Ismail.
|Bruneian Ambassador to South Korea Dato Haji Harun Ismail greets President Park Geun-hye during a meeting with envoys from Southeast Asia at Cheong Wa Dae in January. (The Korea Herald file photo)|
“I am thankful to my predecessor, who was also the former ambassador of Uzbekistan. He gave a lot of trust and confidence in appointing me as dean. Since I am still new to this position, the roles that come with it are more ‘learning by doing,’ especially when it comes to executing my responsibilities,” Ismail said in an email interview.
Ismail had served as Brunei’s top diplomat here since Jan. 13, 2006.
The deanship is usually given to the ambassador serving the longest in the country. In traditionally Catholic countries, however, like in most Latin American countries, the role of dean of diplomatic corps is assumed by the ambassador of the Pope, the Apostolic Nuncio, following the custom established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
After Fen left, the next-longest-serving envoy was actually Christophe Ndambo Ngwey, the ambassador of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to South Korea. He is not residing in South Korea, however, so the baton was handed to Ismail.
Whether the longest serving envoy in country or the apostolic nuncio, what does a dean of the diplomatic corps do anyway?
The short answer is: It depends. Since the formal role of the dean is not spelled out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, the international treaty that lays out the definition, duties and protections of a foreign diplomat, the dean’s role is a matter of custom and practice, one that can be traced as far back as the 16th century in Europe to the very origins of modern diplomacy.
With hundreds of years of tradition, custom and protocol weighing on his shoulders, Ismail is taking the job very seriously.
Ismail is not a career foreign service officer. This South Korea posting is his first foray into diplomacy.
Shortly after becoming dean in August, one of the first things that Ismail did was sit down with Choi Jong-hyun, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Office.
“As the dean of the diplomatic corps, I represent various functions but my main role is to work closely with the Foreign Minister of South Korea through the chief of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and foster close collaboration among the ambassadors here in Seoul,” Ismail said.
He also organized a council of the diplomatic corps. In diplomatic communities of other countries, deans sometimes organize a board or a council to help fulfill the deanship duties.
The council that Ismail organized is the first such body to advise the dean of the diplomatic corps here in more than a decade. The council met for the first time on Thursday.
The council includes Paraguayan Ambassador Ceferino Valdez as vice dean and Indian Ambassador Vishnu Prakash as secretary general. At least eight ambassadors will sit on the council to assist the new dean, including Nigerian Ambassador Desmond Akawor and Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho.
Ismail will be expected to represent the diplomatic community at ceremonial functions and receptions, but the dean’s role really comes into play when something of concern to the diplomatic community as a whole crops up.
The role of dean was of particular importance in the autumn of 2011, when the wife of former Thai Ambassador Chaiyong Satjipanon died while in the care of Soonchunhyang University Hospital. Medical malpractice was suspected.
Thitinart Satjipanon died on Sept. 19, 2011, after being admitted to the hospital complaining of abdominal pain. In his capacity as the dean of the diplomatic community, Fen submitted a letter in November 2011 addressed to the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs, condemning Soonchunhyang University Hospital.
The incident caused alarm among the foreign diplomatic community, the letter said. “(The incident) has put into doubt the medical facilities provided at the hospitals in your country.”
The hospital was frequented by many foreign diplomats by virtue of its location, a short walking distance from more than two dozen diplomatic missions in Hannam-dong, Seoul.
Though Ismail has a lot on his plate as the new dean of the diplomatic corps, he is also his nation’s top diplomatic representative here.
“The bilateral relations have not only increased in the past, but in the next 10 years we can expect them to be strengthened through a new era of cooperation. So far, I am happy to acknowledge the ever-increasing and promising Brunei-ROK collaborations through education, trade and economy, security, agriculture, tourism and many others,” he said.
Brunei and South Korea established diplomatic ties in 1984. While the core of bilateral ties center squarely on South Korean economy’s apetite for Bruneian oil and natural gas ― some $1.5 billion worth of energy resources was exported to South Korean in 2012 alone ― relations are expanding into the areas of technology, tourism and fisheries.
Bilateral ties will get a boost with President Park Geun-hye’s state visit to the Bruneian capital of Bandar Seri Begawan from Oct. 8, as part of a 10-day trip to attend the 16th ASEAN Summit, the ASEAN Plus Three Summit, and the eighth East Asia Summit.
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com)