Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Our Woman in Seoul

U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens (left) is sworn in at the U.S State Department on Monday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as her son James look on. Courtesy of Yonhap

An unnamed candidate is doing the rounds at the U.N. trying to gain foreign policy gravitas through osmosis (if one has semi permeable membrane, it might work; otherwise, don't bet on it). It is probably wise to note that in osmosis, if you are put in a solution which is more concentrated than you are, then you shrivel up, and if you are put in a solution less concentrated than you are, you expand and burst! Either way, not a very pretty sight. I would caution osmotic shock between now and whenever the party leaves New York, but this warning is probably a tad too late. Still, I wanted to be helpful.

In the meantime, in the real world .... here is one woman of substance worth talking about.

Three months after a couple of senators put a hold on her nomination (PDF file) for U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens was finally sworn into office at the State Department. Her swearing in ceremony was reportedly attended by Republican Senator John Warner, the only Korean War veteran in the U.S. Senate and Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea.

And yesterday, Ambassador Stephens finally made it (returned, that is, given her history with the place) to South Korea. The local papers were abuzz over our woman in Seoul who marks many firsts in the "Land of the Morning Calm."

One editorial says: "New United States Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens (Shim Eun-kyung is her Korean name) represents several firsts. To begin with, she is the first woman among the 21 American ambassadors to Seoul and she is the first to speak fluent Korean. She worked at a middle school in South Chungcheong Province as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-seventies. She married a Korean and had a child here, so she knows how Koreans live and feel better than most. This is why there is so much interest and high expectation regarding her arrival."

Upon arrival at the airport, she went right to work by stressing our two countries' solid bilateral alliance, citing a Korean proverb, ``Even the rivers and mountains change in 10 years'' South Korea remains a key ally of the United States and a main player in the region, she told reporters. She took note of the fact that South Korea has changed a lot in the economic and political landscape over the past 30 years. She underlined that close ties between the two countries are necessary to solve major pending issues such as a free trade agreement, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the visa-waiver program.

Here is a personal narrative that no press release could even quite compare. Just the fact that she has lived among them and is fluent in their language is enough to generate good vibes and goodwill. On the other hand, to know its language is to learn the country's soul; the kind of knowing that's needed to make one an effective interlocutor in a region brimming with peril and promise.

To have the ability to think like the other and anticipate the other's moves within a cultural reality is needed whether one is playing to win or negotiating a draw. We need that kind of ability in all our diplomats as we march into the more complex world of the 21st century. But Congress has taken a nap.

No comments: