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Special Features | World

No stranger to less-than-friendly leaders: Next US ambassador to PH was special envoy on N. Korea

US diplomat Sung Y. Kim, in file photo. He has remarkable experience in engaging North Korean leaders.
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA - The incoming United States ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Y. Kim, faces a huge challenge given the hostile rhetoric of President Duterte toward America, but his entry into the picture could help cool the temperature and ease anxieties over the feared fallout from those remarks, Sen. Richard Gordon said Friday.

And, if the credentials of the American diplomat of Korean descent were the basis for assessing how he will fare in Duterte country, there's much to commend Sung Y. Kim in terms of knowledge, crisis management and diplomatic patience and savvy in thriving in difficult climes.

Kim was serving as Special Representative for North Korea Policy and concurrent Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea when he was nominated in May this year to be ambassador to Manila, to replace Philip Goldberg who was ending his tour of duty.

If confirmed, Kim will be the first diplomat of Asian heritage to serve as American ambassador to Manila, the US' ex-colony, former host of its largest bases outside the mainland, and partner in a 65-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty.

Sung Kim was once ambassador to South Korea and, in his job as special envoy on North Korean policy, has acquired experience in engaging the legendary colorful leaders at Pyongyang and their grim adventures in threatening the West and their neighbors.

Senator Gordon, who was the first chairman of the post-bases management of the sprawling Subic naval base, lamented how "the communication lines, the trust, appear to have been broken" going into the last few months of outgoing Ambassador Goldberg, who had presided over a robust period in US-Philippine relations – during which Washington provided quick logistical help after super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), and a UN court ruled in Manila's favor in its case against Beijing in the South China Sea.

Such robust ties took a backseat, it appears, after Goldberg became target of Duterte's ire when the Davao City mayor was campaigning for the May 9 presidential elections.

Goldberg was quoted among those who reacted after a video went viral showing Duterte in one caucus talking about his standoff with Davao prison inmates who held hostage an Australian missionary. Duterte explained later he meant no disrespect to women or the missionary, but was bashed by critics for his remarks. He later lashed out at Goldberg for commenting on what he considered a "malicious spin" by rival camps, even though the US diplomat's remarks were also just couched in general terms about the need to respect women.

"So now, we have a new ambassador; let's hope he won't get into a diplomatic mess," Gordon said in a telephone interview with InterAksyon.

Gordon was earlier reported as having advised some US embassy officials to weigh more carefully – and be sensitive to the unspoken words – the comments of Duterte in Beijing, where he signalled a pivot toward China and a veering away from traditional ally America.

'Fresh start'

Senator Gordon expressed hope that incoming ambassador Sung Y. Kim could signal a "fresh start" as he begins his tour of duty in Manila. Goldberg ends his tour next week.

In an interview in 2013 with The, Sung Kim was asked what he deemed the greatest challenges of working in the Foreign Service.

His reply: "While some issues and bilateral relationships may be easier than others, there's no such thing as drive-through diplomacy. Negotiations, in particular, can be protracted, even painful processes.

"Often there seems to be a correlation between the level of difficulty and the importance of any issue. For instance, the way forward on the North Korean nuclear issue may one of our greatest diplomatic challenges, but it is vital that we continue our efforts given what is at stake.  The importance of ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Asia-Pacific region cannot be overstated."

The Politic also asked him: "Over the past few months, the Korean peninsula has been in headlines all around the world. Could you distil some of the discrepancies between international perceptions of conflict in Korea, and what is actually happening on the ground?"

Sung Kim's reply: "During the period of heightened North Korean rhetoric and provocative behavior this past spring, the world was watching to see what Pyongyang would say or do next and so were we. The United States takes all threats against our homeland and our allies seriously and we were coordinating very closely with our South Korean partners and other key countries in the region as we took appropriate action and closely monitored all developments on the Peninsula. And we of course continue to remain vigilant and maintain very effective combined deterrent capability on the Peninsula.

"However, our experience with North Korea teaches us that what we saw last spring follows a familiar pattern of bellicose rhetoric and threats coming out of Pyongyang. Having lived with the North Korean threat for decades, South Koreans are intimately aware of this pattern and throughout the country people continued to live their lives and conduct business in a normal fashion even during the period of extremely harsh rhetoric out of Pyongyang. In fact, the stock market wasn't affected at all during the tense spring.

"So I think this combination of strong deterrent capability and familiarity with the security situation meant that perceptions and attitudes on the ground were different from those outside the Peninsula."

Despite the sanctions' failure in the short term to change the behavior of Pyongyang's intractable leaders, Sung Kim was earlier reported saying in a Voice of America interview that these were effective in curbing North Korea's access to foreign currency, something it needs for its weapons program.

"I think it's important to remember that pressure and sanctions need time. It requires sustained concerted effort, systematic effort to really have the kind of effect we desire," Sung Kim was quoted saying.

In August 2016, the Korea Times ran a story on Sung Kim, as nominee-US ambassador to Manila, remarking on the South China Sea tensions: "The nominee to be US ambassador to the Philippines said Wednesday that he will work closely with Manila."

Asked at his Senate confirmation hearing about the United Nations international tribunal ruling that rejected China's territorial claims to most of the South China Sea, which was considered a victory for the Philippines and other countries locked in maritime disputes with Beijing, he responded: "If confirmed, I will work with Philippine President (Rodrigo) Duterte and his new administration to ensure our security cooperation remains strong and effective. This includes supporting Philippine efforts to peacefully reduce tensions in the South China Sea and help the Philippine Armed Forces better monitor the seas off their shores."

Kim also said the US commitment to defend the Philippines is "ironclad and unwavering," according to the Yonhap dispatch that ran in Korea Times.

Seasoned diplomat

Sung Y. Kim was nominated on May 19, 2016, to be the US ambassador to the Philippines.

Kim's father, Kim Ki-wan (a.k.a. Kim Jae-kwon) was a member of the Korean CIA and was posted as a diplomat to Japan.

Born in 1960, Sung Y. Kim was 13 years old when his father moved his family to Los Angeles. This, after Kim's father was kidnapped and held for 20 days by North Korea.

Kim received his US citizenship in 1980, said a backgrounder on him at the US State Department.

He earned his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and received a J.D. from Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles in 1985 and an LL.M. from the London School of Economics.

Before joining the Foreign Service, Kim worked as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

Kim's early assignments included postings to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. He also took a year off from the State Department to help nurse his father, who died in 1993.