U.S. ambassador reaches out to S. Korean civic society

Posted on : 2009-03-07 10:09 KST Modified on : 2009-03-07 10:09 KST
Diverse range of activities helping ambassador to understand S. Korea and its people
 a private think tank
a private think tank

U.S. Ambassador to Korea Shim Eun-gyeong paid a visit to the Hope Institute in Seoul’s Jongno-gu Thursday evening. “Shim Eun-gyeong” is the Korean name adopted by Ambassador Kathleen Stephens when she was a Peace Corps volunteer working as an English teacher at Yesan Middle School in Chungcheongnam-do in the 1970s.

At the Hope Institute on Thursday, Stephens spoke with an audience of over 100 people for two hours on the topic of “The Obama Administration and America’s Prospects for Change.” An official at the Embassy of the United States in Seoul said, “This is probably the first time a U.S. Ambassador to Korea has given a talk at the invitation of a civic group.”

In her talk, Ambassador Stephens mentioned how recent developments in transportation and communication have enabled foreign ministers for South Korea and the United States to call and visit each other frequently, but stressed that the reason she assumed her office in South Korea was to sense the situation in the country and to know what the thoughts of the South Korean people are. This means that her visit to the Hope Institute and her talk were part of this effort.

Contacting areas of South Korean civic society is nothing new for Ambassador Stephens. Since she took office in September of last year, she has been meeting with representatives from all areas of culture, religion, local society and sports. She appeared on KBS’ “Discovering Declamation” and read from the poetry of Kim Sowol and Baekbeom Ilji, the autobiography of Kim Koo, and she attended a performance by celebrated pansori singer Ahn Sook-sun, the B-boy gala show “Last for One” and the film Old Partner. She did the opening ball throw in a pro basketball all-star game, and she attended a temple stay at Haein Temple. She also chatted with Internet users for more than an hour and a half Friday at “Cafe USA,” an Internet community for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul established on the portal site Daum.

She also does not shy away from sensitive areas where “divisions in understanding” surrounding modern history are particularly severe. In January, she became the first U.S. Ambassador to Korea to visit the Kim Koo Museum & Library, and in November of last year she visited the May 18 Cemetery in Gwangju, where she wrote in the visitors’ book, in Korean, “I express my respect for those who sacrificed themselves for democracy.”

In response to a comment by an audience member at her talk Thursday, who said that there were often cases of young people being critical of the United States recently, Stephens recalled, “When I was in South Korea in the 1970s, I subscribed to the current events weekly Time, but there were many parts in critical articles about South Korea that were blacked out so that I couldn’t read them.” She also said, “Democracy is always noisy, and South Korea is a democratic nation. They have freedom, so they are criticizing American policy as well.”

Ambassador Stephens has posted 24 writings on her life in South Korea in Korean and English on “Shim Eun-gyeong’s South Korea Story,” a weblog connected with the Cafe USA site.

She was also appointed a Hangeul Goodwill Ambassador by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, an honor to which she modestly responded, “They have a saying, ‘A dog who lives outside a village school can recite poetry after three years.’ I’ve been studying Korean for 33 years and I don’t know why I can’t speak it as well as I’d like to.”

Hope Institute Executive Director Park Won-soon said, “The Ambassador must have a lot of important business, but the most important is communication with the citizens of the nation in which she is stationed.” Park added, “I think Shim Eun-gyeong is executing the office of Ambassador the most admirably of all U.S. Ambassadors in Seoul to date.”

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]