Guess who is not coming to the South Korea state dinner?
October 11th, 2011
02:32 PM ET

Guess who is not coming to the South Korea state dinner?

By Sr. State Dept. Producer Elise Labott

State visits for foreign leaders are meant to signify the importance the U.S. president places on the relationship with a particular country.

Such is the case for South Korea, whose president, Lee Myung-bak, arrives in Washington later this week for a state visit. Lee's arrival comes on the heels of a free trade agreement with Seoul being sent last week to Congress for final approval.

In addition to an Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama Thursday, Lee will be feted at a State Department luncheon on Wednesday hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a state dinner Thursday at the White House.

But it looks as if Obama's choice to be his new ambassador to Seoul won't be part of the festivities, due to a nail-biting political standoff over his confirmation which former diplomats warn could affect U.S. relations with a major ally and trading partner.

The administration's nominee to be ambassador, Sung Kim, was announced this summer. The choice of Kim, who would be the first American of Korean descent to hold the post, was hailed by Seoul as an opportunity to for the two countries strengthen relations.

Kim, a career diplomat who has served in several Republican and Democratic administrations, was until recently the U.S. envoy to multilateral talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program. He was expected to be easily confirmed until Sen. John Kyl, R- Arizona, placed a hold on his confirmation, sources tell CNN.

Kyl's Senate office did not return a call for comment. Sources say Kyl's objection has nothing to do with Kim, but rather concerns over U.S. policy towards North Korea.

In a letter to Secretary Clinton dated September 13, 2011, Kyl expresses "serious concern" about reports the United States may consider restarting to stalled so-called Six-Party Talks, along with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia on the denuclearization of North Korea.

The letter, obtained by CNN, does not mention Kim's nomination. In it, Kyl is seeking guarantees from Clinton that the United States will not engage in any more bilateral talks with North Korea or extend food aid and asks for a written response explaining the administration's intentions toward Pyongyang.

Current and former officials who have read Kyl's letter say the senator lays out a vision for U.S.- North Korean relations that actually reflects the current administration approach toward Pyongyang. These officials say the administration has been principled about its policy toward North Korea and insists Pyongyang will not be rewarded, but rather will have to meet strict conditions before talks can begin.

According to State Department officials, a letter answering Kyl's concerns was sent last month, but efforts to schedule a briefing with Kyl's office to explain its policy in order to confirm Kim before Lee's visit have stalled.

Korea experts and former U.S. diplomats suggest the current political acrimony between the administration and Congress is at play and say the hold sends a poor message to a key ally with whom the United States is cooperating on a wide variety of diplomatic and political issues. Some sources who have been in touch with Korean leaders say Seoul has privately expressed the concern about the delay.

"This is apparently being done for partisan reasons, since there is no other public reason being offered," said Jeffrey Bader, a former special adviser to to President Obama and senior director for Asia of the National Security Council.

As of now, current U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens is expected to remain in her post until after the state visit.

Increased tensions between the Koreans over the past few years have prompted the United States and Seoul to delay until December 2015 the transfer of wartime operational control of troops on the Korean peninsula to South Korea. South Korea has seen the North launch artillery fire at Yeonpyeong island and sink one of its warships, at which time the United States stepped up joint military exercises with the South. A warming of relations between the Koreas has in effect been a U.S. condition of resuming nuclear talks with Pyongyang.

"This is a time of acute sensitivity in this important relationship," Bader said. "The idea that at such a time we would not have an ambassador in place is not in line with our national security interests."

In addition to coordinating responses to the shared threat of North Korea, Washington and Seoul are also working together on climate change, economic issues through the G20 and a nuclear summit scheduled for next year in Seoul.

"The U.S.-Korean relationship is one of the most important we have in the world," said Chris Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and top State Department official for Asia, under President George W. Bush. "There is a strong expectation on the Koreans' part that the U.S. should recognize that fact by having the new ambassador cleared and ready to begin his assignment in time for the Washington bilateral summit."

"It certainly doesn't look good when you have a state visit and the FTA going up and the Congress can't confirm our ambassador," added Victor Cha, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President Bush. "This is not some remote, unimportant country. This is a country that has a lot of importance. The U.S. has a lot of positive things going on with Seoul, plus we have an alliance against a very dangerous adversary. You need an ambassador to be a real-time channel."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn't be drawn into questions about the delay in Kim's confirmation, except to say the administration stands by all of its nominees and "we're engaging with key senators and their staffs to work through remaining issues."

soundoff (32 Responses)
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  6. Jake

    You don't have very much gun control in that state do you? Just a thought.

    October 14, 2011 at 3:53 am | Reply
  7. Dixie AZ

    Another embarrassment to my state. McCain and now Kyl.

    October 13, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • DEAN

      I have to a agree with you. McCain and Jon Kyl. are both tipical politicians with nothing to offer the American people Just like Ted Kennedy, the country will be well ahead without their imput.

      October 14, 2011 at 12:28 am | Reply
  8. Rich

    Kyl is not seeking re election and the people of Arizona are happy. He has not done anything for this state or nation except to obstruct. He is not a true patriot of this nation. He and McCain will finally be leaving with a big pension and benefits and has done nothing to earn them.

    October 13, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
    • DEAN

      Amen

      October 14, 2011 at 12:29 am | Reply
  9. Ken

    The BLATANT obstructionism is ridiculous! Anyone with a slither of a clue should be able to see this is just an extension of Mitch McConnell's admitted plan...to defeat the President. I at least used to have respect for the republican party but that's completely out the window (as if they care). They are quite literally holding the this country hostage just for the destructive agenda of defeating this President. I was not quick to put race as a factor but I'm dumbfounded to come up with any other issue that would spurn so much vile and disrespect that would make a group of people act like this. Just imagine how much better shape this country could be in with just a little bit of cooperation from republicans. I hope America is aware of their stated goal (defeat the President at the cost of anything) come next November. This is despicable.

    October 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
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  10. Jane Fisherman

    Why aren't any of us interested enough, serious enough, committed enough, angry enough, to begin wide-scale recall initiatives? We love to say that THEY work for US, but really, how come we can't/don't fire them? Why are we waiting for them to all get honest and resign?

    October 12, 2011 at 2:58 am | Reply
  11. Jane Fisherman

    That's okay. We don't need him anyway. WE'VE GOT SARAH PALIN!

    October 12, 2011 at 2:41 am | Reply
  12. Tom H - Seattle

    What is with these cretins? There isn't a Rethuglican alive with any sense of patriotism or consideration for the national interest.

    October 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  13. Cooperate

    How is it possible that enough voters continue to send these idiot obstructionist to Washington. This is infuriating...

    October 11, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Reply
    • Jake

      Because you americans are STUPID, and like Ron White says....YOU CAN'T FIX STUPID!

      October 14, 2011 at 3:51 am | Reply
  14. Malcolm in St Louis

    let's punish South Korea because of the way we are as a country handling the North. Kyl your stupid beyond be;lief. You embarrass the President and America at every turn.

    October 11, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Reply
    • Jane Fisherman

      That's the frickin' mission. That's exactly their plan.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:50 am | Reply
  15. Ted from Calif.

    Kyl is just another republican racist obstructionist who cannot stand a black man in the White House.I guess Kyl is just another born-again christian hypocrite. God will damn them all!!

    October 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  16. stevetall

    Proving once again that some Republicans are self-centered douche bags who do not play well with others. Thanks for the fine work, Jon. Why don't you get a real job that you can handle?

    October 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  17. MTATL67

    "reports the United States may consider restarting to stalled so-called Six-Party Talks" So, like Bachman Sen. Kyl chooses to act upon rumor and conjecture. Don't not inspire trust in me for him.

    October 11, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  18. davec0121

    This, and the other gratuitous 'holds' that have been placed on key nominations to non-partisan positions, suggests that the Senate needs to look at reforming its procedures. I'm aware that the Senate is supposed to be collegial and deliberative, but these procedures make it much too easy, in the current hyper-partisan atmosphere, for one or a small group of senators to completely impede action. There is really no rationale in a supposedly representative democratic body for one senator to have the power to prevent a vote on a piece of business. It's in essence a one-person veto, and can be used to extract (extort) concessions in completely unrelated areas. One senator put holds on over 70 nominations to try to alter the competition for the new Air Force tanker contract. Similarly, the filibuster needs to be re-visited: as it stands now, the threat of filibuster is so easy that a super-majority is required to pass a bill. Not democracy in action.

    October 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  19. CAWinMD

    Typical Republican tactics - try and extort something that they can't win fair and square through the legislative process. That the American people can't see through these hacks is a testament to the lack of educational standards in America.

    October 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  20. dan in az

    jon kyl, you are a buffoon and an embarrassment to your country. do the honorable thing and resign immediately. jerks like you are what is wrong with this country. you ignorant moron.

    October 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply

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