Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) lifted a longstanding secret hold on Sung Kim, the nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, only minutes before the South Korean president was set to speak to a joint session of Congress. The Senate confirmed Kim just now.
"Jon Kyl is holding up Sung Kim and he won't budge," Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) told The Cable only two hours ago, over a drink just before President Lee Myung-bak was honored in a lunch with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden.
Several administration officials at the lunch told The Cable that after weeks of frustration, Kyl's office had finally agreed to receive a briefing on North Korea policy from State Department officials, which took place yesterday on Capitol Hill. Officials were working hard to convince Kyl's staff to allow the Kim nomination to go through in conjunction with Lee's visit and as part of this week's celebration of the U.S.-South Korean relationship.
There were various accounts of what exactly Kyl wanted from the administration in exchange for lifting the hold on Kim. Some administration officials said Kyl was requesting a series of letters that defined the administration's engagement with North Korea and made pledges to limit that engagement.
One official said that Kyl's demands seemed to change over time, but centered around assurances that the United States would not continue to meet with the North Koreans. A second U.S.-North Korea meeting is expected to be announced soon and would probably take place in a third country, such as Sweden.
Regardless, before Kyl lifted his hold, administration officials expressed frustration and embarrassment that they had not been able to push through Kim's confirmation. "It's a disgrace," one official at the lunch told The Cable.
"Koreans take this kind of thing very seriously," said another U.S. official, who happened to be of Korean descent.
The lunch itself was an elegant affair in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room on the State Department's 8th floor.
The appetizer was a roasted tomato, avocado, quinoa tower with pistachio mint pesto, fennel, caper dressing. For the entrée we had lemongrass sesame chicken with ginger-tamarind sauce, carrot-ginger puree, broccolini, and pearl onions. Dessert was a warm chocolate tart with milk chocolate mousse and malted milk ice cream.
Clinton's opening remarks praised the passage of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement last night and said the pact will "spur economic growth, bringing our nations even closer together," and is "another clear example of the United States' commitment to the Asia Pacific region."
"We are a resident military, diplomatic and economic power and we are in Asia to stay," she said, reprising the themes in her Foreign Policy article to applause.
Biden spoke next and talked about how Lee's nickname was "the bulldozer," which he earned early in his career when he dismantled a bulldozer to learn how to build one and make it work better
"I wondered how in the Lord's name you got that nickname," Biden said, noting that Lee doesn't look like an NFL linebacker. But, Biden said, "his persistence exceeds any linebacker who ever hit me."
Lee began his remarks by pointing out that that the bulldozer he took apart was made by Caterpillar, a not-so-subtle gesture to the crowd, which included dozens of U.S. and South Korean business executives.
Administration officials in attendance included Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Undersecretary Wendy Sherman, Counselor Harold Koh, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, CIA Director David Petraeus, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer, NSC Senior Director Gary Samore, DNI's Joe DeTrani, and Sung Kim himself.
Other notables at the lunch included Lugar, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), former NSC Senior Director Jeff Bader, former NSC Director Victor Cha, former North Korea Special Envoy Jack Pritchard, and former NSC Director Chuck Jones.
Your humble Cable guy rode the elevator with actor Ken Jeong, who flew in for the event from Los Angeles with his father. Jeong told us there is a third installment of the movie The Hangover in the works, but claimed he didn't have any plot details.
Obama and Lee had a private dinner Wednesday evening at Woo Lae Oak, a Korean restaurant in Tyson's Corner, VA. Tomorrow, they will travel to Detroit to visit a General Motors plant.
Read President Lee's speech to Congress here.