DIPLOMATIC ECONOMY

Exclusive: S. Korea Removes Science & Tech Attaché, Risks US R&D Ties

President of ROK
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The Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which has committed to significantly expanding South Korea’s global research and development (R&D) budget and enhancing international cooperation, has paradoxically eliminated the position of the science and technology attaché dispatched to the United States, a key partner.

Experts in science and technology argue that the absence of a science and technology attaché at the Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., complicates effective collaboration with the US and urges the swift reinstatement of the role, argue LEE JONG-HYUN, LEE BYUNG-CHUL and YEOM HYUN-A.

Science and technology specialists, along with the Ministry of Science and ICT (MIST), reported on Jan. 30 that the science and technology attaché’s role, previously filled by MIST in Washington, D.C., was discontinued last year. Until 2022, MIST had assigned three envoys to the US, including two in Washington, D.C., and one in San Francisco, covering areas of science and technology as well as information and broadcasting.

MIST is organized into two main divisions: the first Vice Minister’s office, responsible for R&D policy, and the second Vice Minister’s office, overseeing ICT policy, each represented by an ambassador in Washington, DC. The most recent science and technology attaché in D.C. was Lee Kyoung-lim, the Americas and Asia Cooperation Division director. Lee returned to MIST’s headquarters in September of the previous year, and the position was left vacant as no successor had been appointed.

Science and technology specialists, along with the Ministry of Science and ICT (MIST), reported on Jan. 30 that the science and technology attaché arguing the redundancy of having officers from the same ministry in one city.

Critics contend that this decision needs to recognize the specialized nature and significance of science and technology policy. “The science and technology attaché in Washington, D.C., serves as a crucial conduit for dialogue with the US government,” stated a high-ranking official in science and technology. “It is illogical to expect enhanced cooperation in science and technology with the US while dispensing with this vital role.”

Despite facing significant budget reductions, Yoon’s administration has substantially increased its global R&D investment. Designating 2024 as the “Year of Global R&D,” the administration boosted the inter-ministerial global R&D budget from US$375 million (50 billion won) the previous year to US$1.36 billion (1.82 trillion won) this year. The government is also initiating various frameworks, including the Global R&D Strategy Map, the Global R&D Strategy Center, and the Global R&D Special Committee, focusing on forging stronger technological partnerships with the United States.

The absence of a science and technology attaché in Washington, D.C., crucial for liaising with US government agencies and leading research institutions, is metaphorically linked to navigating a ship without an engineer. During MIST’s First Vice Minister Cho Seong-kyung’s recent visit to the US, the lack of a science and technology attaché necessitated Lee’s accompaniment.

MIST acknowledges the importance of reinstating the science and technology attaché position in D.C. “We are in ongoing discussions with relevant departments to restore the role,” a representative from MIST stated.

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