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US Envoy to South Korea Lets Drumsticks Help with the Diplomacy


Sometimes culture can be the best form of diplomacy. Washington's Ambassador to South Korea takes that notion to heart - and never hesitates to stir up a crowd for the sake of improving relations.

Alexander Vershbow, the bespectacled U.S. ambassador to South Korea, could be mistaken for a librarian or a museum curator on first acquaintance.

But looks can be deceiving. Vershbow is the one providing the brassy percussion for a live performance of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." He says the beat has been in his blood for a long time. "I started drumming when I was 13-years-old. After banging a lot on tables with knitting needles and chopsticks, my parents broke down and bought me some drums," he says.

Vershbow, who has been in the post since last October, can be surprisingly candid, especially for a diplomat. He has angered some South Korean officials, who are attempting to engage in meaningful exchanges with North Korea, by openly criticizing the North - calling it, for example, a "criminal regime." Some South Koreans have said he should be recalled.

But when he is not banging the drum for a tougher approach to Pyongyang, Vershbow can be found putting his musical talents to good use. This week, he joined a performance in Seoul called "Parade of Nations," in which members of the diplomatic community showed off their talents in support of various South Korean charities.

Vershbow was backing up the MOFAT band, which stands for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has good things to say about the other band members, all of whom are full-time diplomats, incidentally, and not government bureaucrats. "Even though they're working on the free trade agreement and China policy by day, they rock and roll by night," he says.

Another of his strong points is working the crowd when he is on stage. "This song, one of my favorites, was at the direct suggestion of Vice President Dick Cheney," he says. After that name-dropping introduction, the band launched into the Beatles' classic "Back in the USSR" - with Vershbow on drums, and as lead vocal.

Vershbow knows what he is singing about. Before coming to South Korea, he was U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. He says it was there that he discovered the potential harmony of diplomacy and rock-and-roll. "I used it on one occasion to attract attention to the problem of HIV/AIDS by playing at a disco in the Russian city of Saratov,” he says. “It kind of dramatized the problem."

Here in South Korea, Vershbow says he and the MOFAT band are just getting started, even though the business of diplomacy may sometimes get in the way of their fun.

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