India’s North Korea envoy: experience preferred, but not essential

June 13, 2012

Asking someone to represent India in North Korea is a little like belling the cat. Everybody knows they need to pick someone, but no Foreign Service officer wants to go to “godforsaken” Pyongyang.

Finding someone to take the job must have been hard, but was it so hard that they finally had to settle for a stenographer? India’s ministry of external affairs might be wondering the same thing. It is reviewing the appointment of Ajay K. Sharma after some officials raised questions about his qualifications to represent India in the isolated country.

Media reports say Sharma, a principal staff officer in the stenographer cadre, joined the ministry 31 years ago as a personal assistant, and had some limited experience in Suva as a counsellor handling pay and allowances.

Officers of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), selected through rigorous civil services examinations, usually represent India in consulates and embassies worldwide. India and North Korea established diplomatic relations in 1973 and maintain embassies in each other’s capital cities.

But Pyongyang is not viewed as a plum posting and officers have no illusions about the joys of diplomatic life there. According to most reports, it’s somewhat of a spartan existence. In fact, Sharma’s appointment has been questioned not by IFS officers, but by the secretarial cadre that ranks below IFS officers.

They say if “a judge’s steno cannot become a judge, nor a doctor’s compounder become a doctor,” then an ambassador’s steno cannot be designated as an ambassador.

The problem is North Korea is not a nation that India can afford to ignore, given its history as a nuclear renegade and as a key geopolitical location. If Pyongyang’s failed launch of a long-range rocket in April is any indication, North Korea hasn’t given up on its nuclear ambitions.

So … if not a stenographer, then who?

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