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Ministry to toughen discipline on diplomats

Shanghai scandal sparks dispute over how to manage non-career envoys


South Korea’s foreign minister prompted his officials each to “feel heavier occupational and ethical responsibilities as a civil servant” this week, vowing continued reform efforts days after a sex scandal involving several Korean diplomats in Shanghai was made public.

Four officials, including former Consul General Kim Jeong-ki, are currently under government investigation over allegations they leaked confidential state information to a married Chinese woman while working in Shanghai.

Sepculation has it that at least 10 more Korean officials had inappropriate relationships with the woman Deng Xinming who is also under separate investigation by her government.

“I ask you for more alertness in preserving rules and principles of a public servant,” Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told his officials via an internal notice late Wednesday, according to ministry officials.

“The ministry will maintain efforts in reforming personnel management and work procedures,” Kim added. “Please don’t be shaken up by the recent incident and continue with your duties.”
Officials enter the office of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Thursday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Officials enter the office of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Thursday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

The latest scandal was unveiled only months after the Foreign Ministry announced a set of reform measures to overcome a nepotism scandal that led to the resignation of its minister last year.

Former Minister Yu Myung-hwan stepped down in September over confirmed suspicions his daughter had been granted special favors while being hired as a mid-level Foreign Ministry official.

Speculation surrounding the minister’s daughter as well as several other officials’ children came only days after three Cabinet member-designates, handpicked by the president, resigned over tax evasion and the illegal dual-citizenship of their children, highlighting the prevalence of ethical problems among top public servants.

The Foreign Ministry, often considered an organization of elites, faced harsher criticism and has been striving to recover its image by opening up high-ranking positions at overseas missions to non-career diplomats and officials from other ministries.

Ironically, most of the officials allegedly involved in this scandal were sent to the Shanghai mission from other ministries, sparking new disputes over how to discipline and control these non-career diplomats. Among the four under investigation, one belongs to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, while another is a Justice Ministry official.

“It is difficult for the Foreign Ministry to control these officials who were separately dispatched and under-experienced with diplomatic affairs,” an official at the Foreign Ministry said on the condition of anonymity. “Because their fate lies in the decision of their ministries, it is almost impossible for the Foreign Ministry to control them.”

About 270 high-ranking civil servants are currently dispatched to foreign missions, which is about one quarter of the 1,100 diplomats dispatched by the Foreign Ministry. Despite the relatively small number, most of the “inappropriate incidents” at overseas missions are related to officials from other ministries, the Foreign Ministry claims.

The ministry also announced this week guidelines for the security and ethics for Korean diplomats and embassy staff posted at foreign missions, but detailed measures seem necessary to control the growing number of non-career diplomats overseas, analysts say.

Korean officials at the Shanghai mission are suspected of having affairs with and passing classified government files to Deng, which were said to include contact information of some 200 high-ranking Korean officials and politicians as well as records related to their visa issuance.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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