Sunday, March 21, 2010

Trouble in Honduras' Korean Embassy

As we have been monitoring the process of setting the Lobo Sosa administration into place, we have been tracking political appointments, including those of ambassadors. As in the US, these diplomatic posts are places where you can see the strings connecting the elected government to the unelected one. Until now, while these have interested us, they have not been particularly newsworthy.

Well, that just changed. Joong Ang Daily, an English-language Korean paper, just published an article confirming what the Honduran press was reporting:
The Honduran government has withdrawn its request to the Korean government to approve Korean-born Kang Young-shin to be the next Honduran ambassador to Seoul.

Joong Ang Daily
attributes the change to a conflict with basic Honduran law:
A diplomatic source here said Honduras cited “issues with local law” as the main reason to withdraw the request....

Under Honduran law, a naturalized citizen isn’t allowed to represent Honduras in his or her native country.

Honduran media, however, identify the problem as South Korean law, which does not permit a Korean citizen to represent a foreign government. These reports imply that either South Korea did not recognize the assumption of Honduran citizenship by Kang, or that she maintained her Korean citizenship in parallel with Honduran citizenship.

But another article in yesterday's El Heraldo, while burying it deep in a story purportedly about US demonstrations asking for continuation of Temporary Protected Status for Hondurans, has a slightly different take on what happened, describing it as part of a pattern:
A little more than 50 days after the Porfirio Lobo Sosa government was installed, friendly countries have not approved the ambassadors named by the new administration. On the contrary, the responses that Lobo Sosa has obtained are negative. Such is the case of South Korea, which denied its blessing on the ambassador proposed by the government of Lobo Sosa, for being a citizen born in that country, although she has Honduran nationality.

When the appointment was announced, it was characterized by the The Korea Times as a "surprise":
Incumbent Honduran Ambassador to Korea Rene Francisco Umana Chinchilla told The Korea Times Sunday the news was unexpected.... Umana Chinchilla heard the news over the weekend through a Korean media outlet, raising suspicions over a lack of communication between the embassy in Seoul and the new government in Tegucigalpa, the country's capital.

So why was this appointment ever floated? Joong Ang Daily quotes Kang as saying
“President Lobo is very knowledgeable about Korea, appreciates Koreans’ work ethic and promptness, and probably named me [as the ambassador] to build stronger ties with Korea” ...“When I told him over the phone I’d take the job, he said, ‘I trust you.’”

Another report from The Korea Times gives the widely-repeated personal background on the appointment:
Kang graduated from a teachers' university in Seoul and worked as an elementary school teacher before moving to Honduras in 1977 when her husband took a position as a professor at its military academy. She became naturalized as a Honduran citizen in 1987....Kang had previously run a private Taekwondo Institute with her husband, now deceased. Kang was asked by Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was once her Taekwondo student, to represent Honduras to Korea.

Beyond the enlightenment this attempted appointment yields on the colorful background of Lobo Sosa, what does this tell us about Honduras today?

The Korea Times wrote that the designation of Kang "was an expression of friendship to Korea by the Honduran President, diplomats say, while it was also taken as a well-received surprise in Korea as a success story of a Korean immigrant overseas."

South Korea is an important economic partner for Honduras. In the latest year for which data are available on South Korean government websites, 2006, Korean imports from Honduras totaled $23 million and its exports to Honduras reached $139 million. At the time, the South Korean government estimated that about 470 Koreans lived in Honduras.

According to the South Korean Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and Trade website, from 1991 to 2007 South Korea provided more than $11 million in aid to Honduras, $6 million in the form of loans, with another $5 million in loans then pending disbursement.

The $6 million loan reported as completed was for a major power grid expansion project, the kind of infrastructure work that has been subject to cronyism and corruption in other cases, and that even if handled entirely legally, tends to enrich the owners of Honduran construction companies and major businesses.

Approved for funding by South Korea in 1998, the project for which this loan was intended was the subject of Decreto 15-2001 published in La Gaceta on April 17, 2001, ratifying the original congressional resolution 14-99 of 1999. As is common with such loans, the contract required Honduras to purchase the necessary goods and services from South Korea (allowing up to 20% of the funds to be used for purchases from other countries). In addition, materials for the project were exempted from import duties and taxes.

The full publication of the loan agreement on August 30 of 2001 (Decreto 112-2001) includes an Annex specifying that the project would support building 611.4 km of primary and secondary electrical wiring to provide electrical service to 177 rural communities in 12 of the 18 Departments of Honduras, with work to be carried out by ENEE, the national energy company.

So there is much more at stake in diplomatic relations with South Korea than simply recognition of an immigration success story. And the most telling sentence in all the news coverage of this now canceled appointment is Kang's quotation of Lobo Sosa:
'I trust you.’

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