With silver hair and a cheery smile, she stood out amid a torrent of camera flashes. As she delivered her inauguration address, younger diplomats gazed in awe, letting out whoops when she touched on better work-family balance. The number of followers of the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account surpassed 100,000 following her appointment, with photos of her making her maiden appearance at her office Sunday garnering more than 4,600 retweets.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha formally took office Monday, vowing to restore public trust eroded by strained ties with key neighbors, boost communication with the people on pressing policy issues and reform an agency where deep-rooted elitism and nepotism have held sway.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha delivers her inauguration speech in Seoul on June 19, 2017. (Yonhap)
Despite her high popularity and anticipation for the country’s first female, non-career diplomat foreign minister, the 62-year-old Kang faces the task of untangling a web of knotty challenges.
Topping the list is a summit between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, set for June 29-30 in Washington. The trip is meant to be a chance to foster personal rapport, facilitate policy coordination on North Korea and ease concerns over potential friction between Moon’s pursuit for a thaw with Pyongyang and Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy.
But the outlook appears to be dim, as Seoul decided to pause the deployment of the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense launchers here early this month. Adding to the Trump administration’s discomfort, presidential foreign policy adviser Moon Chung-in said at a seminar in Washington on Friday that if North Korea halts its nuclear and missile activities, the South could seek to scale back the stationing of US strategic assets and joint military drills here.
Kang refrained from directly addressing the controversy, staying in line with Cheong Wa Dae’s earlier briefing that the adviser was presenting his “personal view” without consultation with the presidential office.
“Various issues may arise during the preparations for the summit. ... But there is consensus between the two countries that it will offer an opportunity to strengthen the alliance and build a sense of fellowship and intimacy,” the minister told reporters after her inauguration, adding she is arranging a phone call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a visit to Washington.
“Our fundamental stance is that we will employ sanctions, pressure, dialogue and all other means to resolve North Korea’s nuclear program. Talks would be possible under certain conditions that they have a clear resolve for denuclearization.”
Among the striking features at her recent confirmation hearing was a button attached to her jacket, symbolizing the victims of the Japanese military’s sexual enslavement during World War II. She said it was given to her during her June 2 visit to the House of Sharing, a shelter for the euphemistically labeled “comfort women” victims in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province.
Kang’s visit to the shelter had served as a source of debate, with critics calling it inappropriate for a nominee for the top diplomat position poised to steer negotiations with Tokyo. A day after she was grilled by opposition lawmakers, three sex slavery victims held an impromptu news conference, declaring their support for Kang and demanding Japan’s written apology and a return of the 1 billion yen ($9 million) received under a December 2015 settlement.
The minister has criticized the funds’ “opaque nature” and the clause that the deal was “final and irreversible,” but stopped short of promising a renegotiation.
“I see it as expectations rather than a burden,” Kang said, referring to the victims’ move. “The two countries’ relations are multifaceted, and historical legacy and the comfort women issues are among the facets. I have my pledge as a human rights expert, but also have a position as the foreign minister who manages overall Japan relations.”
On North Korea’s human rights, the longtime former UN diplomat said Seoul should continue to uphold its support for the UN Human Rights Council’s annual resolutions. The issue put Moon Jae-in on the hot seat on the campaign trail after former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon argued in his memoir that Moon, then the presidential chief of staff, instructed intelligence officials to seek Pyongyang’s opinion before abstaining from a 2007 UNHRC vote on a resolution.
“Given my expertise in human rights, and as the minister who’s taking office well aware of the international community’s expectations on South Korea, I would say we should maintain the supportive stance toward North Korean human rights as we have done since 2008.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org