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Steady nerves augur well for wobbly PH-US ties

Meet US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, who has been described as the George Clooney of the Foreign Service
Sung Kim

JOAN BONDOC/INQUIRER

Sometimes described as the George Clooney of Foreign Service for his cool demeanor and impeccable manner of dressing, United States Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim is also known “for stead(y) nerves when faced with a difficult situation,” as US Secretary of State John Kerry put it.

Kerry added: “It has been said of Sung: ‘I don’t know how he does it. He goes into difficult meeting after difficult meeting, looking as if he had just gotten out of the lotus position.”

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The 56-year-old diplomat can certainly use such equanimity to stabilize what many consider as Philippine-US relations at its most volatile. On recent occasions, President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly censured US President Barack Obama and threatened to break away from the US, a longtime ally, in its pivot to China.

In an interview posted on Friday on the US Embassy on Manila’s Facebook page, Sung described his initial meeting with Mr. Duterte as a “terrific start.”

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“(He) was kind enough to give me a lot of time and we were able to cover a whole range of issues, important issues regarding the US-Philippines partnership. I think it was a terrific start and I’m very much looking forward to working with President Duterte and his team to strengthen our very special partnership,” the new ambassador said.

Most enduring

“I have always said that US-Philippines relationship is one of the most enduring because it’s a relationship that has enjoyed very strong support and strong commitment throughout the past several years of our lives,” Sung said, adding that it really did not matter whether the US was under a Republican or Democratic administration.  “I think there’s wide recognition in Washington that this is an important relationship that serves mutual interests,” he added.

“(T)here are many different dimensions to the relationship,” the ambassador said. “Of course we have our rock solid alliance, a very strong economic engagement, law enforcement cooperation, and so on. My hope and my plan and commitment is to make sure to strengthen and deepen all aspects of (this) relationship.”

Public service

Like President Duterte, the new US ambassador worked as a public prosecutor at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office before he joined the diplomatic corps.

“I had been interested in the idea of foreign relations and was attracted to the idea of representing the US overseas,” Sung said, adding that he had originally intended to return to the prosecutor’s office. “But 30 years later, I obviously have no regrets staying in diplomacy.”

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Credit that choice to Sung’s father, a South Korean diplomat and public servant whom he considers the biggest influence in his career choice. “He imparted the value of public service to me,” Sung said.

The new ambassador was 13 when his family migrated to the US, a move that later made his assignment to his country of birth the most memorable and special moment in his career.  Sung served as the first Korean-American ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014.

His assignment to the Philippines has similarly made him “super excited.” He had visited the country many years ago, he said, and was “quite struck by the energy and beauty of the Philippines … I’ve always wanted to come back. It’s taken me 25 years and I’m back.”

He added: “I can’t say enough nice things (about Filipinos and the Philippines). People are incredibly gracious in welcoming me. It reflects a deep bond between peoples of our two countries.”

Sung said he was personally looking forward to getting to know more of the Filipino culture, meeting people and seeing different sights in the country. So far, he’s tried chicken adobo and halo-halo and learned the Tagalog words mabuhay (long live) and maraming salamat (thank you very much).  He intends to learn more Filipino words through a tutor, he added.

Clooney comparison

As to being compared to Hollywood actor George Clooney, Sung laughed. “I wish I looked like George Clooney. He’s very attractive and a very talented actor. I am flattered and embarrassed to be compared in any way to someone like him,” he said of the teasing he got within the diplomats’ circle that former US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney revealed to the Inquirer.

Sung is married to Jae and has two daughters: Erica and Erin.

He was sworn in as US ambassador to the Philippines on Nov. 3 after he was nominated to the post for his outstanding managerial skills, open interpersonal style and ability to work well with different US agencies on sensitive and complex policy issues and priorities.

Sung served as special representative for North Korea Policy and deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs of the US State Department. He was also special envoy to the Six-Party Talks from 2008 to 2011.  The talks aimed to peacefully resolve security concerns over the North Korean nuclear weapons program involving South Korea, North Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia.

He was stationed as well as political officer in the US embassies in Tokyo, Japan and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and served as vice consul at the US consulate in Hong Kong.

Sung earned his BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, a Doctor of Jurisprudence from Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles and a Master’s of Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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TAGS: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Rodrigo Duterte, Sung Kim, US-PH relations, US-Philippines relations
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