While serving in Korea, one suffered from a knife attack by a militant Korean activist. Another was dismissed within a year for his excessive alcoholism. Two helped to save the life of a future Korean president. Over the years, the US ambassador to Korea has played a pivotal role in guiding collaboration between the two countries on a number of issues, including trade, cultural exchange, and North Korea. Yet the men (and woman) that served in this position each brought unique life experiences and skills that, for better or for worse, shaped the contours of this Asia-Pacific relationship.
When the US first established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Joseon in 1882, the heads of the American legations were known as envoys, resident ministers, and consul-generals. Direct diplomatic engagement halted during the Japanese Occupation; from 1905-1945, the US sent no representatives to the country forcibly governed by Japan. Once two separate Korean states were established after WWII, the US government formally recognized South Korea and sent its first ambassador in early 1949.
Over the past 7 decades, US ambassadors to Korea have overwhelmingly been career diplomats (18 career to four political appointments), indicative of the high priority that the White House places on appointing an experienced leader to manage the strategic relationship. Edwin V. Morgan became the shortest-serving ambassador to Korea in 1905 when, after presenting his credentials in June 1905, he was forced to close the legation and leave the country six months later due to Japan’s take-over. Ambassador Richard Walker, who “transformed quiet diplomacy into a fine art,” served the longest term. Over his five years of service, he helped to secure the release of dissident and future Korean President Kim Dae-Jung from the dictatorial Park regime. And during Obama’s first term, Ambassador Sung Kim became the first Korean-American to serve in this position.
The three most recent diplomats to leave their mark on the position were Ambassadors Stephens, Kim, and Lippert.
As the first woman and first fluent Korean speaker to take the post, Ambassador Kathleen Stephens set many precedents during her term in Korea. She first connected with the Korean people while serving in the country as a peace corps volunteer in the 1970s; in the next 30 years, she toured Europe and Asia as a career diplomat, later serving as director for European Affairs in the National Security Council. For her contributions to strengthening US-Korea ties, she received the Presidential Meritorious Service Award, the Sejong Cultural Award, and the Korea-America Friendship Association Award. To add to her collection, she published a book, Reflections of an American Ambassador to Korea, based on her personal Korean blog.
When Ambassador Sung Kim was appointed ambassador to Korea, it was clear that his background and experience would allow him to cement bilateral ties. During his career in the Foreign Service, he gained significant Korea-specific experience as US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Special Envoy in the Six-Party Talks, and Director of the Office of Korean Affairs. His personal connection to both countries and his balanced approach on bilateral issues such as the Free Trade Agreement, the North Korean nuclear crisis, peninsular unification and human rights issues certainly ensured the continuing strength of the diplomatic relationship.
Ambassador Mark Lippert was rightly dubbed “the most popular US ambassador in the history of US-Korea relations.” This former NAVY seal served as a senior foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign; prior to his appointment as ambassador, he was a high-ranking member of the NSC and the Department of Defense under President Obama. As ambassador, Mr. Lippert achieved renown for his calm composure and communication immediately after being attacked by a radical Korean militant protesting against US-Korea military exercises. This attack did not affect his open and approachable persona; he continued to walk to work every morning and interact closely with Korean citizens. Ambassador Lippert is also credited for his work in advancing implementation of the KOR-US Free Trade Agreement and supporting Korean reunification and strong military collaboration with the US.