The official, in Seoul, says the State Department put its imprimatur on her appointment after the Korean foreign ministry named her to the position in August. Ms. Kelley caught the eye of the former South Korean ambassador to the US, Han Duk-soo, who recommended her after returning to Seoul earlier this year.
“The process of appointing an honorary consul calls first of all for the recommendation of our embassy in Washington,” says the official, who said he was not the official foreign ministry spokesman and therefore requested that his name not be used. “Then the ministry will consider that proposal, and we will discuss the issue with the State Department.”
The official portrays Kelley as fitting the ideal for an honorary consul. “She’s a very social person, very active in the social scene.”
Korean officials indicate that approval by the State Department is basically a formality. State Department officials say they’re still looking into the technicalities of approval of anyone proposed by a foreign government to serve as an honorary consul.
The South Korean media emblazoned pictures of her outside her Tampa home as word spread that she had contacted the FBI about e-mails traced to Paula Broadwell, whose affair with General Petraeus forced him to resign as CIA director.
The role of Kelley, a 37-year-old mother of three married to a Tampa surgeon, raises questions about how she managed to cloak herself in diplomatic respectability.
As an aggressive hostess with high-level military contacts, she reportedly made an indelible impression on Mr. Han before he returned to Seoul early this year to become president of the powerful Korea International Trade Association. He saw her as an influential go-between as Korea and the US expanded economic ties after approval of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.
Korean officials in Seoul and Washington emphasize, however, that the position of honorary consul is voluntary, that the consul is unpaid and has no formal diplomatic status but is seen as a valued link to influential figures. In the case of Kelley, one of 15 honorary Korean consuls in the US, she provided lines of communication to senior officers at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, headquarters of CENTCOM, the US Central Command.
Daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Kelley formed bonds with commanders to whom Korean officials badly wanted access. Her inner circle included Petraeus, former US commander in Afghanistan, his wife, Holly, and Marine Gen. John Allen, chief of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan.
Kelley, who reportedly sent thousands of e-mails to General Allen and his wife, until two days ago had a pass that enabled her to enter MacDill Air Force Base unescorted. She was reportedly a member of the unofficial “Friends of MacDill” group and bestowed the title of “honorary ambassador” by CENTCOM.
Anxious for close ties to US commanders, Korean officials “recognized Ms. Kelley as someone connected with both the civilian and official community,” says Han Sung-joo, former South Korean foreign minister.
Mr. Han, who also served as ambassador to the US, notes that Korea closed its consulate in Miami around the time that he was foreign minister in the 1990s but found a need to raise its profile with US commanders responsible for leading US troops in wars in the Middle East. Korea has sent small contingents of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
He compares Korea’s desire for ties to CENTCOM with its long established relations with the US Pacific Command in Honolulu. With a full-time consulate in Honolulu, he says, “Much of the work of the consul in Honolulu is with the Pacific Command,” responsible for US forces throughout East Asia, including Korea.
The honorary consul, says Mr. Han, “in many cases can hold dinners or lunches with commanders” – something that Kelley and her husband, Scott, did often.
Han doubts, however, if there was anything amiss in Jill Kelley’s activities on behalf of Korea. “Ms. Kelley is not really implicated,” he says. “She’s just a pretty woman of Lebanese descent who happens to be in the news.”
With the Korean media highlighting the Korean angle, Koreans seem to appreciate the saga of Petraeus and his relationship with Ms. Broadwell, coauthor of a flattering biography of him, mostly for its entertainment value.
“Everybody does it,” says Seoul shopkeeper Lee Kwang-hoon, “but here somehow they would have fixed it before it was revealed.”
“It’s a funny case,” says housewife Kim So-yoon, who is also from Seoul. “Too bad he was caught.”