North and South Korea are still at war. While most of the EU countries (with the odd exception of France, who despite not refusing business deals still has no diplomatic relation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) host both countries’ Embassies, it is very uncommon to see both Korean Ambassadors attending the same event. This sort of miracle happened a few days ago, at the end of May, when Kim Chun Guk, DPRK Ambassador to Italy and his colleague Kim Young-Seok, Ambassador of South Korea stood side by side to pay their respects and together mourn a man of wisdom and peace, Ambassador Guido Martini.
A diplomat wishing to ensure himself a safe and smooth career is usually content to follow, rather than lead. To “go with the flow”, rather than try to change, or at least influence, the course of events. Maybe this is the reason why Guido Martini, a former Ambassador of Italy to South Korea, whose death on May 28th at age 76 went almost unnoticed in Rome, enjoyed a relatively “average” which is to say “slow” pace of advancement in his career. In fact, despite almost 40 years of untainted and flawless service at the Foreign Ministry he was “promoted” to fullfledged “ambassador” only after his retirement, in 2004.
Not that he cared too much: the last time I met him, in January, he was openly joking about having his pretty much honorific title engraved on his tombstone. He said to me “Actually I don’t like the idea of being forever associated with a category of people who often do not deserve the life of privilege they enjoy”. And he went on, as usual, without mincing words and names, criticizing recent politicians and quite a few collegues he didn’t get along with, including, and it would be difficult not to agree on this one, Italy’s former Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi, a career diplomat, younger than him, who bears a significant part of the responsability for the outrageous management of the “Marò” case. The “Marò” case involves two Italian marines who are under arrest and being tried in India for shooting and killing 2 local fishermen whom they thought were “pirates”.
Being in Japan, and not having had the chance of attending his private – but, according to a few acquaintances who attended, very moving funeral – I don’t know what his family decided, eventually, about the matter of the engraving his title, but I do hope they did after all use the word “Ambassador”. Few diplomats deserved this title more than he did.
Born in Rome on September 20th, 1937, as a son of blue collar (worker), Guido Martini demonstrated from his earliest years a very strong character, along with a deep interest in classical studies and social issues. A “leftist” by belief and nature, he entered the Socialist Party while still a college student, soon becoming one of the youngest members of the Central Committee. After entering the diplomatic service, which he joined relatively late (he was already 30 years old) he never hid nor abandoned his progressive, unconventional attitude, and always supported, when indeed he did not himself initiate, all of the major reform movements inside the Foreign Ministry, such as “Farnesina Democratica” (back in the ‘70s), “Pace e Guerra” and “Diplomazia ‘80”. He was also one of the few, and very active, diplomats belonging to CGIL, the Socialist/Communist National Union which represents most of the Ministry civil servants, though very few of the diplomats. Maybe this is the reason, already alluded to, for his relatively “slow” advancement in such an oustanding career (Belgrad, Paris, Marseille, before serving as Ambassador in Colombo, Seoul, Rabat and ending as Director of the Asia, Pacific and Oceania Department at the Foreign Ministry). But it was also the reason why he was so respected and dear to most of his collegues, especially the younger ones who saw in him not only a wise and experienced senior diplomat but also an affectionate, devoted and always friendly colleague ready to help and committed to social issues. He was a true reformer, committed to his country, but also willing to engage in the much needed overhaul of a rather “sclerotic” – to use his own words – apparatus: the Foreign Ministry. This was an unfillfilled dream he shared for years with quite a few fellow diplomats, both senior and junior, with whom – judging from the intense e-mail exchange on the subject that a common friend shared with me – he had eventually admitted defeat. While still able to impress with his always up to date jokes, and always ready to actively engage in heated discussions over top priority international issues, especially those related to his beloved Korea – Guido Martini did not hide, in his last months, his profound regrets that Italy’s foreign policy was not, to put it generously, “at its best”. “I wonder” – he told me last January – “if we will ever be able to play again, not just a major role in events, but any role at all”.
Ambassador Guido Martini had another manifest and honorable dream: the reunification of the Korean peninsula and nation. He committed himself to that purpose since assuming his post as Italian Ambassador in Seoul, back in 1994, when he eagerly promoted, ahead of many others, the idea of a constructive dialogue and “positive engagement” with the North, somehow anticipating the so called “sunshine policy” of late South Korea President Kim Dae Jung. Ambassador Marini has been on the closest and friendliest terms with President Kim over the years. Even from Morocco, where he last served as Ambassador, he assiduously followed the difficult and repeatedly interrupted inter-Korean dialogue. People who were close to him remember him meticulously following the live broadcast of the inter-Korean summit in June 2000, when Kim Dae Jung went to Pyong Yang to meet then leader Kim Jong Il. Since then, and especially after January 2002, when he was promoted to head of the Asia, Pacific and Oceania Department at the Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Martini devoted himself to the North-South dialogue, passionately convinced that Italy, the first G7 country to establish fullfledged diplomatic relations with the DPRK, could and should have played a prominent role. And it was certainly not by chance than in 2003, Ambassador Martini, at the head of an European delegation, had the opportunity to be the first European to cross the 38th parallel in Panmunjom, one of the most heavily militarized places in the world, in many decades. This was a highly symbolic act performed only once before (by former US Secretary of State Madleine Allbright) and never since except for Ambassador Martini. I am sure that even in these days of renewed tension in the peninsula, Ambassador Martini would have insisted on dialogue and could have elicited from among so many negative signs, those opportunities truly capable of leading the Korean peninsula and its people to a long overdue peace. May his dream, which is also the dream of all Korean people and of all peace-minded world citizens, come true at lasts. It would be by far the best way to honour this brilliant diplomat, faithful civil servant and, most important of all, profoundly good man.