The Leaderboard: Sung Kim


Who is he?

Ambassador Sung Kim most recently served as special representative for North Korea policy and deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to that appointment in November 2014, he was the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Earlier, he served as the special envoy for the six-party talks with the rank of ambassador, and headed the Office of Korean Affairs at the Department of State from August 2006 to July 2008. A career member of the Foreign Service, he previously served in Seoul, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong.

Ambassador Sung Kim. Source: FishinWater's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Ambassador Sung Kim. Source: FishinWater’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Why is he in the news?

President Barack Obama on May 19 nominated Kim to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines, replacing Ambassador Philip Goldberg. If confirmed by the Senate, Kim will head to the Philippines during a critical period. The Philippines welcomes a new administration under President-elect Rodrigo Duterte on June 30, and is currently awaiting a ruling on its case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

What can we expect from him?

Current ambassador Goldberg drew the wrath of President-elect Duterte back in April, after criticizing Duterte’s joking remarks on the rape and murder of an Australian missionary in the Philippines in 1989. In response, Duterte dared the United States to sever diplomatic ties with the Philippines.

Kim will look to avoid such confrontations in order to continue the U.S.-Philippines relationship under Duterte. The U.S.-Philippines alliance enjoyed a renaissance under outgoing president Benigno Aquino, but Duterte views the United States with suspicion and has said his country “will not be dependent on Washington.” Kim will have to demonstrate U.S. value and commitment to the Philippines, and must continue negotiating future developments under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two sides, including potential new base locations.

Regardless of whether the Permanent Court of Arbitration issues its decision on the Philippines-China case before or after Kim is confirmed, he will have to deal with its lasting repercussions. Kim’s time as special envoy for the six-party talks has made him an experienced negotiator on sensitive issues, and he has worked extensively with China. This background should help him to better manage tensions resulting from the tribunal ruling.


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