Following the elimination of the department’s chief, 54 women who worked with John Thune tell their stories from behind the scenes
When US senators approved the nominee to be their next ambassador to South Korea, John Thune, he praised the Trump administration’s commitment to Asia.
Just hours before Thune sat down in Seoul, South Korea, to hear his new colleagues’ personal stories about gender inequality, demeaning jokes, prejudice and sexual harassment in the foreign service, the Foreign Service Association announced it was suspending all grant and research programs, leaving more than 500 Foreign Service members unsure of how they would receive compensation in the first months of their new positions.
Those worries are relevant to anyone who works in diplomatic circles: In their roles as mediators, advisers and foreign policy makers, US diplomats are often up close and personal with people they will be negotiating with, or living next to, for the next few years.
The South Korean state-run agency tasked with handing out visas for Thai workers, for example, is a place where even the most well-intentioned diplomats make casual and uncalled-for comments, according to documents shared with the Guardian by a former Seoul bureau chief, Jaime Castaneda.
The South Korean Foreign Service Association announced on Wednesday it would suspend its grant program, leaving more than 500 Foreign Service members unsure about how they would receive compensation in the first months of their new positions. Photograph: Reuters
If they had brought their complaints to the foreign service’s annual seminars in Washington and New York, they would have seen a host of other examples of what she calls a “competitive, humiliating culture”.
“All the things that I saw were fairly minuscule compared to the cruelty of having to say goodbye to your colleagues – you leave home with all these aspirations and with nothing to say on behalf of the whole family when the morning is over,” Castaneda, the bureau chief’s ex-wife, said.
The South Korean government established a visa-issuing center in 2011, hoping to expand the pool of professionals it employs, but it was plagued by delays and morale problems.
The South Korean state-run agency tasked with handing out visas for Thai workers: a place where even the most well-intentioned diplomats make casual and uncalled-for comments, according to documents shared with the Guardian by a former Seoul bureau chief, Jaime Castaneda. Photograph: Reuters
In a 2013 Guardian article, former bureau chief, Bridget Bowman, described how bureaucracy, unreasoning requests, and bizarre rules left her exhausted after just one month in Seoul. Within six months, Bowman said she found herself in an abusive relationship and separated from her husband.
A 2015 Guardian investigation discovered allegations of an environment of sexual abuse and pay discrimination in South Korea’s visa-issuing service. Among the documents Castaneda provided was an email with a list of “quick-hit complaints about the visa office”. One commenter mentioned an “insane level of hard-selling” and alleged, “there’s always a guy who brings out an entire pot of 5Cs [citizenship certificates], and the rest are fresh-cut dead leaves.”
Another commenter named a paper the applicant had to sign, called a tourism documentation, which included a scan of the applicant’s feet. “I have had two women in my own office force me to sign this just to stop them using it against me,” the commenter wrote.
“We never got to say farewell when it was all over – all that we got was a fairly incomprehensible form,” Castaneda said. “In the morning, we had to go through those forms again, over and over. What really drove me crazy was that after we got back, we didn’t get any notice that our jobs were over.”