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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 20)

All News 07:04 January 20, 2016

Lippert gaffe
-Envoy's lobbying for foreign lawyers undiplomatic-

Diplomacy is as much about protocols as about substance. By breaking this unspoken rule of diplomatic conduct, U.S. Ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert's effort to derail his host country's legislative process on the opening of its legal services market, leaves much to be desired.

In a sense, it is deplorable to see Lippert, very much endeared to the Korean people, act as if he is a fierce lobbyist popping right out of K Street. The concern is that his rapport could be used for a better, more important purpose.

At issue is the Foreign Legal Consultant Act, now on hold before heading for the National Assembly Committee for Legislation and Judiciary Affairs.

Lippert paid a visit to committee Chairman Rep. Lee Sang-min of the main opposition Democratic Party, Jan. 8, when the related bill was tabled for full committee deliberations after being passed by the committee's panel. On the same day, the bill was put on hold indefinitely, leaving impressions that Lee and, by extension, the National Assembly, yielded to U.S. pressure.

Unless Ambassador Lippert wanted a dramatic end to the whole affair, he could have visited Lee earlier or made himself less conspicuous for the same result.

From the perspective of his government and U.S. lawyers, Lippert's daring and "successful" move to interfere with an allied nation's legislative procedure may be laudable but it can carry a hidden, long-term cost to the tricky ROK-U.S. alliance.

Lippert made sure no doubt was left by making another visit to Lee, Monday, to press for changes. He made two announced visits in 10 days. He also sent a protest letter to the Ministry of Justice and Cheong Wa Dae, parts of which were made public.

The ambassador's act eclipses the real issue he wanted to raise and its legitimate justifications, as well. It includes a 49-percent ceiling for a foreign partner's stake in a joint-venture law firm and a requirement for a partner Korean law firm to be in business for at least three years.

Lippert claims that these restrictions should be taken out of the bill, saying that it runs against the spirit of the two countries' free trade agreement (FTA). The government countered that the ceiling and requirements have been made within the framework of the FTA.

When these assertions are put under greater scrutiny, it is a clash of national interest. The U.S. wants to use the strong competitiveness of its legal services and yank Korea's closed market open, while Korea is trying to delay a full opening as long as possible because of the examples of Germany and other countries where U.S. and British law firms have virtually taken over as those nations' main legal services providers, according to market watchers. As a matter of fact, Japan opened its legal market on a gradual basis, while Singapore maintains rules in favor of its indigenous lawyers.

It can be argued that rejecting the U.S. argument is tantamount to Korea admitting that it is trying to selectively apply their FTA where it is advantageous and trying to ruin the spirit of the open market. A counterargument, that the FTA, as any deal does, allows the two parties leeway to make a reality-based compromise, should be given equal merit.

A diplomat's job is to promote his national interest without hurting the overall relationship with the host country. Lippert has so far done an excellent job and we hope he will continue to do so.

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