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Inconvenient truth of applauses at U.S. Congress

Posted April. 30, 2013 06:17,   


“The U.S. is our close neighbor and friend. It is also our ally and partner. Let’s go together.”

The U.S. House of Representatives chamber was filled with applauds for the heartfelt speech of Korean President Lee Myung-bak. He was applauded for 45 times during his 45-minute speech. The 435 seats of the Congress were fully taken for his speech to a joint session of Congress, which took place to honor the historic signing of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. First lady Kim Yoon-ok smiled at the center of the visitors’ seats on the third floor and gave a standing ovation with Choi Ah-yeong, the wife of then-Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Han Deok-soo. The occasion was made possible by Han who tried every means available to convince U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

As a Washington correspondent, I was at the president’s speech at the press box overlooking the main hall of the House on Oct. 13, 2011. Ambassador Han who successfully arranged the president’s state visit to the U.S. and the speech at the Congress got blisters on his lips. He went to the Congress every day and persuaded lawmakers to endorse the free trade agreement. He got up early in the morning in his official residence and checked replies to the emails that he sent to U.S. lawmakers and checked their movement. When there was a wrong article about the free trade agreement in the U.S. media, he sent an email to the corresponding reporter and persuaded him. He worked overnight for many days.

That day, however, could have been a disaster. The president’s speech scheduled at 4 p.m. was about to begin but the seats were largely empty in the House of Representatives chamber. Although it was a large event for a total of 535 U.S. lawmakers including 435 House of Representatives and 100 Senators, few were interested in it. The attendants were mostly the members of the Korea Caucus who fought during the Korean War and the members of House Committee on Foreign Affairs. A Korean president’s speech was not a matter of concern for both U.S. Senators and Congressmen. This reporter was concerned about the situation while sitting at the press box, but a group of people rushed into the hall 10 minutes before the speech. They were not apparently lawmakers. As seats were not filled, House secretariat employees brought capitol staffers. Some of them were young college interns. As if they were not enough, more people were brought to fill the spectators’ seat. Korean ministers who escorted the president and staff of the Korean Embassy to the U.S. were seated on the parliamentary seats. Former Congressman Kim Chang-joon appeared on the front center of the chamber.

The secretariat of the House of Representatives made a fuss about filling seats. It had a program of pages who were 12th graders running errands, which was eliminated to save budget. Instead of pages, it arranged capitol staffers and interns for applauses. They were great contributors to the 45 times of applauses. Back then, the event at the Congress seemed to show the reality of Korean diplomacy.

The Korean Embassy to the U.S. paid 18,500 dollars to West Wing Writers, a U.S. lobbying company, for the president’s speech. It paid 3,500 dollars for key messages, 6,000 dollars for drafting, 3,500 dollars for strategies for the speech, and 5,500 dollars for the final review of the speech drafted by the Korean government. The Embassy said, “It is important to deliver a message tailored to Americans. It is not a big amount given the effect.” This reporter did not feel right, however.

President Park Geun-hye is scheduled to visit the U.S. this coming Sunday. She will address before a joint session of Congress, which is quite unusual given that she is making a working visit, a level lower than a state visit. But President Park is Korea’s first female president and even the U.S. has never had one. Hopefully, diplomats and the speech writer at the presidential office could deal with the president’s speech this time without paying money to a lobbyist. She does not need to be obsessed about applauses in the hall. I still vividly remember the embarrassing moment two and a half years ago.