Minister Kang

When I was a speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, from 2004 to 2008, Kang Kyung-hwa — Moon Jae-in’s appointee for Foreign Minister — impressed me before I was even hired.

I was interviewed for the job by a panel of five diplomats. At first I was asked the usual stuff: my background, how I heard about the job. Then the questions turned political, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me but did. “What do you think,” one of the men asked me, “about the United States response to 9/11 and the War on Terror?”

I gave what I thought was a diplomatic answer, saying that I appreciated South Korea’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing, and also that I had differences with the Bush administration, but that I didn’t want to criticize my government too strongly.

That’s when Kang Kyung-hwa spoke up. “But isn’t that the beauty of America?” she asked, smiling. “That you can criticize your government?”

The question cut through my bullshit. Somehow she invited criticism of the United States by praising it, and she made it clear that my evasions weren’t good enough. I responded, after maybe a bit more hedging, with something much closer to the truth.

I came to admire Kang for her strength, intelligence, and ability to cut through people’s preset defenses to get to what matters. During my years at the Mission, she had a significant role in the rapid passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, transformative global legislation that Koreans should be proud to have played a part in. Since then, she’s done human rights work at the United Nations.

Human Rights, in diplomacy terms, is considered a soft issue, along with social and cultural affairs. When I was at the Korean Mission, it was always women who had the soft-issue portfolios, while the men handled the so-called hard issues: defense,  security. Foreign ministers usually come from the hard-issue side. In choosing Kang, Moon Jae-in is doing more than just selecting a woman. First, he’s selecting an extraordinary woman; second, he’s signalling that issues of human rights and culture will play a central role in his administration’s domestic and foreign affairs.

When I worked with her, Kang Kyung-hwa’s title was Minister. I hope that she’s confirmed quickly, taking on that title again in a much higher-ranking role.

Better Vacationing

Van Long Reserve, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Today it was announced that South Korea will host a new sustainable tourism-eliminating poverty (ST-EP) body of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, with forty member states to begin with.

Such an organization is sorely needed. As I travel around Southeast Asia, I see every sort of tourism, from well managed World Heritage sites like Hoi An, to chaotic free-for-alls like Bagan and Vang Vieng, and everything in between. Today I went on a ride in a cement-lined rowboat — seriously — pushed along by a woman who’s lucky if she gets a passenger once every three weeks, because there are too many rowers and not enough tourists at the Van Long Reserve, and because the government hasn’t provided these rowers with the lighter, more durable, more expensive metal boats that they gave to the women down in the more popular Trang An. (In Trang An, though, there are a thousand boats, so the rowers wait just about as long for a turn at some business.) In theory, these rowing jobs are an improvement over the rice farming everyone used to do before the land got turned into tourist reserves, but I’m not sure it quite works out that way.

A new UN body will not fix all of the problems of unsustainable tourism, from overdevelopment to displacement to environmental degradation. But a UN body can set norms, make recommendations, track progress, set benchmarks. It can give sustainable, poverty-eliminating tourism a focal point and become a clearinghouse of information for travelers and governments and developers. It’s a good step (sorry) in the right direction.


Ayutthaya, Thailand

I’ve arrived at Tony’s Place Bed and Breakfast in Ayutthaya, charming guesthouse in a sprawling house full of teakwood touches and Thai decor. I suppose it might have been trickier to get here had not one of my new Thai friends messaged me this morning to ask if I needed a ride to Victory Monument, where the vans for Ayutthaya depart, and then decided as we were driving that we might as well go all the way to Ayutthaya together and have dinner. I’d originally booked just two nights here, but it took me all of an hour to decide to add two more. Already I feel worlds away from the jittery madness of Bangkok and Sukhumvit. This feels like a vacation.

UN connections

In other news, I had lunch today with Heike Alefsen, Senior Regional Human Rights Adviser, United Nations Development Group Asia-Pacific Secretariat, whom I met at the Halloween party at my hotel in Bangkok. It turns out Heike once worked under Kang Kyung-wha, an extraordinary woman who stood out as one of the most impressive and formidable of the many excellent diplomats I worked with at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. I love these kinds of surprising convergences! Lunch was a delight, and I learned a great deal about Thailand and the region.

(We ate at a fancy buffet in Sukhumvit called Crave. There was dragonfruit.)

[korea? i hardly know ya!]

Last week was a hectic one here at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the UN. A quiet lull, during which most of our staff seemed to be out at JFK to meet Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, gave way to an unusual burst of activity, as I spent the better part of a week going back and forth with the Minister’s team as we revised and refined his statement to the General Assembly, as well as his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. At one point, I was even invited to a breakfast meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Whether all this work resulted in anything worthwhile, I leave it for you to judge (PDF/webcast), but I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of it.

Now that the Foreign Minister has gone home, things have settled down considerably, though there’s still plenty of work to be done. Tonight, though, we’ll have our annual reception in honor of Dangun, the legendary founder of the Korean people, whose heroic act is mysteriously commemorated according to the Gregorian calendar. What this means for me is free hors d’oeuvres tonight, as well as an opportunity to check out a bunch of ladies in hanbok, and then the day off tomorrow for what is officially termed National Foundation Day.

[arguing with fools]

United Abominations (YouTube) by Megadeth (United Abominations)

Is it worth arguing with fools? I don’t mean people who are genuinely stupid, but those who are wedded to some wrongheaded ideology or who have been led astray by some sort of faulty reasoning?

Obviously it depends on the situation, but there’s something to be said for countering even the most obviously specious arguments of those who advocate dangerous politics from any sort of public platform.

Alas, this category includes Dave Mustaine, the leader of Megadeth, who is now 46 years old and should know better. Granted, Mustaine was never exactly a genius. He made the politics of a young James Hetfield look positively insightful. Still, what is charmingly antisocial stupidity at 25 is just depressing at 46. Mustaine is no longer angry youth; now he’s your drunken uncle, ranting at someone’s birthday about the Trilateral Commission and JFK.

Mustaine’s latest album (Megadeth has always been a solo project) is entitled United Abominations, and the cover depicts the UN Headquarters under military attack. The title track is an anti-UN screed that seems to blame the organization for all that’s wrong in the world. It seems too stupid to take seriously, but I guess it’s good that UN Dispatch, a blog on the UN, has posted a point-by-point takedown of this very silly song. If you’re concerned to know exactly how and why Mustaine is being a schmuck, well, now you can. (Thanks, Daniel!)


Kurt Waldheim, former UN secretary-general, former president of Austria and former Nazi, is dead, and so it suddenly became my job to come up with a condolence statement in five minutes that our ambassador could inscribe in a memorial book for the departed.

Considering Waldheim’s unrepentant Nazism and the bland record of his years as SG (granted, during a period when the UN was still sidelined by the Cold War), there was not much to say. But we said it nicely. Diplomacy is all about finding a way to communicate on amicable terms with the folks you don’t necessarily like.

[language troubles]

As many of you know, when I first started working at the Korean Mission to the UN, there was another speechwriter her, whom I’ll call C. C had started just a couple of weeks before me, and he was not particularly happy here. With his master’s degree in international affairs, he wanted to be doing something more concrete and more noble. Eventually he had a mental breakdown and stopped coming to work, leading over many months to his firing and replacement by Allen, an altogether more stable guy.

Sometime during his tenure, there was a bit of an office switch: I moved from a shared space with Young to C’s old office, and C moved upstairs to a similar office on the 10th floor. I don’t think the increased isolation did him much good.

Anyway, today I found a very old Post-It note wedged between the radiator and the wall. In a man’s handwriting, it says:

Work to use more:

  • Moreover
  • Commend, concur, is evidenced, emphasize, we note with concern, nevertheless
  • We are of the view
  • In this regard

Knowing how frustrated C was by the formal, repetitive nature of our job, I find this note incredibly sad. Poor guy.

[sudden thought on security council reform]

Okay, so they’re at it again, arguing in circles about Security Council reform. The big countries — Germany, Japan, Brazil, and to a lesser extent Nigeria, India and South Africa — want permanent seats for themselves. The middle powers — Italy, Pakistan, South Korea, Argentina — want some formula that will give them more opportunities to sit on the Council. The poorer and smaller states want to make sure their views are represented and that their sovereignty isn’t trampled every time a little genocide breaks out in their territory.

Various formulas have been proposed and rejected, but how about this: just give each regional group one new seat, in perpetuity, to do whatever they want with. They can choose their own rotation systems, term lengths, voting rules, etc. Presumably you’d need to build in some way for the existing permanent members to veto any potential SC member they really disliked and to kick out any uncooperative members after a set period, but other than that, it’d be up to the regional groups.

Does this devolve the problem enough that it could work, politically and functionally? I don’t know, but at least it’s an idea I don’t think I’ve already heard.

Update: It appears my idea is not far off the Uniting for Consensus proposal put forward in 2005, although that proposal kept the terms at two years while making them renewable, and one could haggle over the specific allotment of seats per regional group. This proposal went nowhere, stymied by supporters of the so-called G4, consisting of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil, who want permanent seats.

[un to nepal]

After UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour culminated a tour of Nepal by calling for war crimes trials, the New York Times reports that the UN Security Council has decided to send a political mission to Nepal to oversee the ceasefire.

This is the first time since my arrival in UNistan that the organization has begun a serious involvement with a country I actually know something about. I’m certainly not a Nepal expert, but I’ve been there twice and followed its story over the years. And I’m not at all certain that the fragile new order needs outside interference.

Like Thailand, another tourist favorite, Nepal was never colonized. Certainly it has deep-seated problems, but they are not the problems of post-colonial societies. The thought of Western good intentions going awry in Nepal fills me with dread; I imagine Nepal’s warm hospitality — which, let us not forget, is its only really viable product for foreign trade — curdling into the bitterness and resentment of the colonized.

On the other hand, my concept of Nepal’s internal sensibilities comes from visits to the Kathmandu Valley, one particularly tourist-favored stretch of the Himalayas, and one small town on the edge of a lowlands national park. The angry part of Nepal is down there, in the area known as the Terai, where the draining of malarial swamps has opened up new land for farming, but where the zamindar system of landlordism keeps most people impoverished and powerless, just as it does in some neighboring Indian states. Or so I have read. Maybe these sections of the country feel just as colonized as anyone else ruled by people who speak another language and see them as less than fully human.

In any case, it’s a test for the UN and for Ban Ki-moon, and one in which I feel a personal sense of anxiety over its outcome.

[banwatch: sweating the small stuff]

New Yorkers love to complain, and the Daily News is already bitching about how new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after advising diplomats to do “as Mayor Bloomberg does” and take public transit to work, decided to be driven the eight blocks from his hotel to a breakfast meeting, then left his driver idling in a no-standing zone.

Gestures are important, but I think the Daily News is jumping the gun on this one. Yeah, Ban’s driver should obey the law, and yeah, it’d be nice if Ban followed his own advice and took the subway everywhere. On the other hand, driving really is a lot faster much of the time, and Ban isn’t mayor of Subwayland. His work really is important — more important than impressing New Yorkers or fellow diplomats with his individual devotion to combating gridlock. Also, unlike a lot of the diplomats, Ban is actually busy.

Via Gothamist.