Diplomats in the trenches: ‘Diplomacy isn’t about being nice to people’

KimYuri Kim never thought this would happen. It was a cold February day in 2008, and she was sitting in North Korea’s largest concert hall, listening to a performance by the New York Philharmonic — not far from where she was born in South Korea.

A political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, Kim had no apparent reason to be accompanying the renowned American orchestra to the world’s most isolated country, which would have been more suitable for a public diplomacy officer. But it was precisely her task on that unprecedented trip.

She was an aide to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, who was leading high-stakes talks with Pyongyang aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The concert tour was a “carrot,” which Washington hoped — though it didn’t admit publicly — would improve the North’s cooperation in the tough talks. Kim had actually negotiated the visit with the communist government, traveling to Pyongyang on two previous occasions with the philharmonic’s leadership.

“They didn’t want to send Chris, because that would have been too high level, so they sent me,” she said. “I helped develop the program and negotiate the terms of the visit…”

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What’s the real point of airline rankings?

There are so many travel-industry rankings at year’s end, it’s hard to keep track. It’s even harder to figure out which — if any — of them are credible and meaningful. Looking at some of the results, one has to wonder when some of the respondents last flew on the airlines and through the airports they assessed.

Rankings are usually administered by various magazines — one exception are the new Frequent Traveler Awards. In the last several years, I’ve made it a habit to look at the Global Traveler Magazine‘s so-called Tested Awards, most of which make sense. However, as I was reading this year’s results during a flight last week, I couldn’t help but gasp in astonishment at some of the results…

EU diplo corps gets messy before launch

If anyone had any doubts that putting together the European Union’s new diplomatic service would be an utterly messy task, that is now an undisputed fact. A high-profile ambassadorial list released this week provoked publicly aired quarrels rather uncharacteristic of diplomats, and it raised questions about the future effectiveness of the EU corps.

The long-anticipated list, unveiled by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels, was apparently based not on merit, but on what Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called “esoteric considerations.” What are those? A quick look at the list shows that the most important ambassadorships are going to diplomats from the oldest EU members in the West — China was given to the Germans, Japan to the Austrians and South Africa to the Dutch.

Clinton pulls off diplomatic rarity in Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week accomplished a diplomatic feat that her immediate predecessors tried but failed repeatedly to pull off: visiting South Korea, but skipping Japan and China on the same trip. It may sound immaterial, but defying protocol is a tricky thing in diplomacy, especially in Asia.

For years, I’ve been very amused when the State Department would send us in the traveling press corps a note about the secretary plans to visit just South Korea or just China or just Japan. Every time, I’d smirk and bet that he or she would end up going to all three countries — and I was right. That had become a tradition — the Japanese in particular considered it an affront to be ignored by their staunchest ally in favor of Seoul or Beijing.

Round-the-world fare mysteries revealed

Trying to figure out how airlines determine fares is utterly futile, but that doesn’t necessarily dampen my curiosity. On a recent visit to the Star Alliance headquarters in Frankfurt, I sought insights into how the global group sets its popular round-the-world fares.

I always enjoy dropping by the alliance’s modest office — not only because it’s an easy walk from the airport terminal, but also because just about everything it does is unique and pioneering in the industry. With 27 member-carriers, one would think it’s a grand operation, so I was surprised that fewer than 80 people work there…

Hotels steps away from airport gates

It’s puzzling why in the United States, one of the most lucrative travel markets in the world, the concept of airport transit hotels is so foreign. There are signs that may be changing, but current plans seem more like baby steps than bold decision-making.

A recent trip to Asia reminded me of the lack of entrepreneurial thinking exhibited by many U.S. airport operators. Readers of this column may remember my praise for terminals in Hong Kong and Singapore earlier this year. Beyond design, comfort and cleanliness, having such a time- and hassle-saving convenience as a hotel under the same roof as your departure gate…

U.S. flights likely to Tokyo Haneda

Here is some good news for those of you seeking an alternative to Tokyo’s vast and faraway Narita International Airport: The Japanese government will likely soon allow nonstop flights between the United States and the city’s much smaller and nearby Haneda Airport.

There is, of course, some not-so-good news. Unless U.S. negotiators manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat, those flights will arrive and depart only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. — which means that takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports may have to occur in the middle of the night, too. Access to Haneda is one of the issues being discussed between the United States and Japan as part of ongoing negotiations of an Open Skies Agreement…

Flu controls surprise travelers

How would you feel if you were detained for more than a week upon arrival in a foreign country for reasons that had nothing to do with you — and you missed your meeting or never even made it to your destination?

Thousands of passengers to Asia, where governments have implemented the most draconian measures to prevent the spread of swine flu, have been facing that prospect every day for two weeks. Unfortunately, in most cases, they were not given all the information they needed in advance so they could plan accordingly. Beginning April 28, dozens of planes arriving daily in Japan from North America have been held after landing until a team of health inspectors…

Candid Clinton off script overseas

BEIJING — So much for the “diplo-speak” U.S. officials usually offer on trips abroad. Newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton showed last week that she will not be constrained by diplomatic protocol or follow an official script and, so far, she seems to have the stature and celebrity to pull it off.

As she returns home Sunday from her first overseas trip since taking office, Mrs. Clinton leaves behind thousands of Asians thrilled to have met one of the world’s most famous and powerful women. At the same time, awaiting her in Washington are puzzled analysts, angry human rights activists and career diplomats not quite sure what to make of some of her comments.

In air with Clinton on first trip abroad

Have you ever wondered what it’s like traveling with the secretary of state around the world? Although I’ve been doing it for more than eight years, I’ve resisted frequent suggestions by friends and colleagues to write about it.

Now I’ve found an excuse. There is a new secretary — Hillary Rodham Clinton no less — and she has just completed her first overseas trip since taking office. So it’s time to step back from what has become a routine for us in the press corps and try to look at it through a fresh pair of eyes. The State Department usually gives us 13 seats on the secretary’s plane, but this time we got three more, to accommodate the bigger interest in Mrs. Clinton’s maiden voyage to Asia.