Lee Byung-kee is the new Republic of Korea (ROK) ambassador to Japan, and assumed his post on June 4, 2013. Previously, he served as a political adviser at the think tank of the ruling Saenuri Party. Lee’s past experience as a diplomat included a stint at the Permanent Mission of the ROK to the UN Secretariat and International Organizations in Geneva. He turned to politics in 1985 as an aide and chief ceremonial secretary to former President Roh Tae-woo, then head of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Lee also worked for the Kim Young-sam administration that followed as a deputy director at the Agency for National Security Planning (now the National Intelligence Service).
Mr. Lee established his bona fides as a heavy weight political insider having served as special aide to presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang in 2002, and chairman of strategic planning in the election polling committee of the Grand National Party (GNP) in 2004, before then party leader Park Geun-hye appointed him to a position at the conservative party’s think-tank.
Why has he been in the news?
Lee was nominated by President Park to be the ambassador to Japan on March 31. During an interview with Chosun Ilbo, Lee said he feels a heavy responsibility to be appointed to the position during one of the worst periods in the ROK-Japan relationship. Recognized for his careful and accurate analysis, Lee, now 66, has been a political mentor for President Park since the GNP presidential election in 2004. He successfully supported Park during her presidential campaign in 2012 as an advisor for public communication based on his prior campaign experiences.
What can we expect from him?
The ROK and Japan are facing sensitive issues such as the territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima island, Japanese history textbook controversies, and the comfort woman issue. Relations between South Korea and Japan are deteriorating in part due to waves made by the conservative Abe administration in Japan on legacy issues. Yet, concurrently, the two governments are cooperating on economic issues, including the China-Japan-ROK FTA, and on Northeast Asia’s many security issues. Given these two tracks of the current relationship, strong stances on sensitive issues and cooperative approach on economic and security issues, Ambassador Lee will need to walk a tightrope to stabilize the two countries’ relationship as well to conduct future-oriented diplomacy.
Lee has accumulated various experiences in government, diplomacy, political party and think tank, which will serve him well in his new post. With his consistent contributions to President Park’s diplomatic and security policies, he is believed to be the right person for understanding President Park’s political philosophy and actualizing it. Lee’s appointment signifies President Park’s willingness to improve the ROK-Japan relationship, and coupled with Kwon Young-se taking the ambassadorial post in China, shows Madame Park’s focus in Northeast Asia.