Lei Jun of handset maker Xiaomi turned 46 yesterday. Here are 10 fun facts

Chinese sometimes refer to Lei Jun as the “Steve Jobs of China,” because of his dynamic personal leadership style and, perhaps oddly, his fashion sense. But like Apple, Xiaomi has a cult fan following and intense brand loyalty in China.
Lei Jun, founder and Chief Executive Officer of China's mobile company Xiaomi, shows Mi Notes at its launch in Beijing January 15, 2015. China's Xiaomi Inc staked its claim to Apple Inc's crown on Thursday as the world's third-biggest smartphone maker and most valuable tech start-up unveiled the flagship Mi Note, its challenger to Apple's iPhone 6 Plus. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS) - RTR4LHWQ
Lei Jun, founder and Chief Executive Officer of China’s mobile company Xiaomi, shows Mi Notes at its launch in Beijing January 15, 2015. China’s Xiaomi Inc staked its claim to Apple Inc’s crown on Thursday as the world’s third-biggest smartphone maker and most valuable tech start-up unveiled the flagship Mi Note, its challenger to Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus.

Lei Jun celebrated his birthday on Dec. 16. He turned 46.

Lei Jun and De Liu created Xiaomi in April 2010, but in just five years their little startup has transformed into a $46 billion smartphone and electronics appliance juggernaut.

Xiaomi is vying for supremacy in its home turf with compatriots Huawei and Lenovo, not to mention global super players Samsung Electronics and Apple. In China it is the second largest smartphone maker after Huawei and, on the world stage, it is ranked No. 5 after Samsung and Apple, and then Huawei and Lenovo, depending on how you parse market share.

Chinese sometimes refer to Lei Jun as the “Steve Jobs of China,” because of his dynamic personal leadership style and, perhaps oddly, his fashion sense. But like Apple, Xiaomi has a cult fan following and intense brand loyalty in China. Here are 9 fun facts about one of China’s tech super-heroes:

  1. Jun founded his first business in 2000, Joyo.com, an online bookstore, which he sold to Amazon.com for over $75 million in 2004. He’s got the Midas touch!
  2. Jun graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Wuhan University in 1987. But Steve Jobs never graduated from college.
  3. Before Xiaomi, he was CEO of King Soft, now China’s largest office suite developer, for 10 years. He is still chair of King Soft. Busy bee!
  4. While China is not well known for customer service, it is said that Jun took it so seriously that he studied Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao and famed US retailer Wal-mart.
  5. Since Xiaomi is reknown for its savvy marketing, it is no wonder that Jun is said to believe social networking, mobile and e-commerse are the future. That sounds like Steve Jobs, too!
  6. Jun famously accepted investor Yuri Milner’s ALS ice bucket challenge. But Jun then one upped Milner by calling out Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, Foxconn Chairman Terry Gau and Baidu founder Robin Li. What a nice guy!
  7. Jun could very well be one of the most prolific angel investors in China. He has invested in over 20 startups, including Yu Jin Hui’s cosmetic venture group. Cunning business smarts.
  8. Big shot Jun is ranked at No. 4 on China’s Rich People’s list and No. 16 on a list of the richest people in tech, according to a Forbes ranking of Chinese business notables.
  9. Jun has been valued at a personal net worth of over $13 billion. That’s a lot.
  10. Brainy Lei Jun’s childhood hobby was building home radios. What a nerd!

 

 

 

 

Samsung underscores austerity in promotions, taps 1st female VP in battery division

Reporters check out Samsung TVs at a trade show.
South Korean tech giant Samsung Electronics does annual corporate reshuffles of its high-level executives in December.
Samsung Group highlighted the promotions of women executives and foreign nationals on Friday as it round off its annual reshuffle but, most of all, underscored austerity with just 294 executive promotions total the fewest in seven years.

The lower number of the promotions ― down from 353 in last year’s reshuffle and the lowest since 2009 ― signals the drive of Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman and scion of the Samsung founding Lee family, to streamline the conglomerate’s myriad businesses and cull its top-heavy corporate structure in order to refocus on troubled electronics businesses.

Samsung’s has faced trouble over the last two years in its mobile division. Even though the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 were well received by critics, the handsets failed to beat back a resurgent Apple and increasing competition from rising Chinese makers of low-end smartphones such as Huawei and Xiaomi.

Samsung Group highlighted the role of women and foreign nationals in this year’s annual executive promotions, according to a press release. “Many women executives at several divisions distinguished their outstanding capabilities and strengths. They will be role models for younger women.”

 

Kim You-mee, executive vice-president of Samsung SDI
Kim You-mee, executive vice-president of Samsung SDI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nine women were promoted to senior executive positions, including one to vice-president. The global tech giant has made it policy for the past several years to diversifying its top brass to include foreign nationals and women. That’s down from 14 in 20125 and 15 in 2014.

“Samsung promoted executives who had achieved great performance, and tried to keep the growth momentum by promoting executives in a wider range of fields to include women and foreign nationals,” the conglomerate said in the press release.

The promotion of Kim You-mee as executive vice-president injects fresh blood into the Samsung’s battery affiliate. The 57-year-old Kim is one of just five executive VPs and the first female to join the exclusive top echelon of the Samsung affiliate. She joined Samsung SDI in 1996.

She previously headed development of small-sized and EV batteries, and will serve as one of CEO Cho Nam-seong’s key lieutenants in growing the affiliate as a global battery supplier.

Of the 294, a total of 29 executives were made executive vice presidents, 68 became senior vice presidents, and 197 vice presidents. The number of promotions has been steadily declining since a high of 501 in 2011.

South Korea office suite developer Hancom deepens ties with China’s King Soft

 

Lee Hong-koo, right, CEO of Hancom poses with China's King Soft CEO Lei Jun, who is also CEO of handset maker Xiaomi.
Lee Hong-koo, right, CEO of Hancom poses with China’s King Soft CEO Lei Jun, who is also CEO of handset maker Xiaomi.
South Korean office suite developer of Korean language programs Hancom inked another MOU with Chiense software behemoth Kingsoft to futher develop cloud computing based office software for the CHinese market on Dec. 17.

The two companies agreed to do more software exchanges and cooperation for advanced work processing programs for PC, tablets and smartphones.

This came on top of an MOU in August in Beijing to cooperate on building a web-based office solution and to explore other overseas markets, markets besides Korea and China (perhaps Japan and Southeast Asia??).

It signifies business cooperation between the two leading office software companies, which will certainly affect the global markets. Hancom is Korea’s largest office suite developer and KingSoft is China’s.

Xiaomi CEO and chairman Lei Jun doubles as chairman of KingSoft, and the company reportedly plans various joint projects with Hancom and to launch joint software solutions, as well as R&D, strategic overseas investment and M&As.

 

Hancom also recently bought a Belgium-based software company that specializes in enterprise PDF word programs. iText Group NV’s software allow companies to change their data on servers and web browsers into PDF files. It has been distributing open-source PDF technology and earning a profit by licensing these. It has supplied its solution to HP and GE Healthcare, who are among 3,000 of its enterprise clients.

Hancom says it wants to use iText’s brand value and clientele to expand globally. It will create new products using the PDF solution while approaching iText’s clients with its own.

Naver to challenge YouTube dominance in South Korea

 

naver 2
Founded in 1999, Naver Corp has grown rapidly over the past 16 years. Today, the internet company has a market cap of more than $19 billion.

The internet company laid out its future global strategy at Connect 2015 in Seoul last Tuesday — its second annual conference organised to discuss its vision and strategy for the mobile industry.

In tech savvy South Korea, YouTube currently reigns supreme, but Naver Corporation, the sprawling conglomerate behind the country’s largest search portal and chat app Line in Japan, vowed to challenge YouTube’s video streaming dominance in 2016.

Naver executives took the stage at the Naver Connect 2015 conference last Tuesday to deliver a message best summed up by two keywords: “live” and “mobile”. They said their strategy will make it possible to challenge video content giants Netflix, Facebook and YouTube owner Google — at least in South Korea.

“The keywords ‘live’ and ‘mobile’ encapsulate our corporate strategy for next year,” said Naver CEO Kim Sang-hun in a keynote speech. “We will focus our attention on providing for our partners mobile-based, live-streaming content, which we believe will be the key to survival in the fast-changing global IT environment against competitors such as Google, Facebook, and even Twitter.”

Kim emphasised keeping an “organic connection” between services and content consumers in order to detect what they want and give them it when they want it.

“In order to protect the domestic movie market, we must shake things up, and provide differentiated technology and content,” said Jang Joon-ki, director of video strategy, adding that Naver will have a two pronged video strategy — one in differentiated services, and another in content.

“Since YouTube entered the domestic market, it started a ‘warring states period’ in the domestic South Korean market. Naver TV Cast can compete fiercely with Facebook and YouTube in video content and in services,” Jang said.

Naver TV produced 290,000 video clips of content a month in the first 10 months of this year — more than double the 140,000 video clips a month the company created during the 12 months of 2014.

This was the result of Naver TV Cast having inked a deal with Smart Media Rep (SMR) for a revenue share of 90 percent for the broadcasters and 10 percent for Naver TV Cast. SMR originally looked for a similar deal with YouTube, but Google insisted on a 45 percent slice of advertising revenue.

SMR consists of seven big media outlets in South Korea — MBC, SBS, CJ E&M, JTBC, TV Chosun, Channel A, and MBN — and launched in the second half of 2014.

SMR, an ad agency for streaming services, provides smart Over-the-Top (OTT) service providers with video advertising proceeds generated from mobile, PC, and smart TV viewership. The seven TV companies of Smart Media Reps make up more than half of all terrestrial and cable TV viewership in South Korea. OTT refers to a telecommunications operator delivering services across IP networks, usually the internet.

In addition to video streaming content, Naver has Line Corp, founded in Tokyo in 2000. Over the past 15 years, it has amassed over 200 million monthly active users in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and, recently, Pakistan.

Naver said it will also gear up other mobile-based services, such as Naver Webtoon, group chat app Naver Band, and V app, a social video streaming service initially focused on marketing Korean pop music in East Asia to ratchet up market share, which has proved a late-blooming success. Naver reported that more than 50 percent of V app viewers come from outside South Korea.

North Korea and Thailand are warming diplomatic ties

Warming diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea could mean a lot more investment into the country by one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.

North Korea is always looking for ways to break out from international sanctions and US-led diplomatic isolation.

But now a Thai military leader, a man who also leads the country’s foreign ministry, is encouraging his country to invest in North Korea.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in August 2015 (about two weeks ago) said he wants Thai businesses and individuals to invest in North Korea, and suggested Thailand could be a bridge between the hermit country and the international community.

(FYI, Thailand military overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra. She was elected in August 2011 and was overthrown by a military junta in May 2014.)

Thailand is working to upgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea, and has already said it will soon open an embassy in Pyongyang “soon.”

“To open an embassy in any country is a good sign, but all related processes must be carefully considered, including staff and budgets,” General Tanasak said.

Gen. Tanasak discussed a number of bilateral issues with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Su-yong, including a “trade cooperation deal.”

If a deal does get worked out, it would facilitate Thai investment in North Korea’s special economic zone, among other things. But actually, Thailand has a history of investing in North Korea.

Thai-based corporation Loxley Pacific invested massively in North Korea’s IT infrastructure and, in particular, the country’s internet, namely in the Star Joint Venture Company.

The Star JV is a joint venture between Loxley, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, and North Korea’s Post and Telecommunications Corporation, and Star JV took control of North Korea’s Internet address allocation system on Dec. 21, 2009, the country’s single Internet Service Provider.

Loxley company

Loxley Pacific Thailand

Gen. Tanasak said the two ministers talk a lot about IT, as well as other issues like health, education and regional issues.

The general also said that Thailand “offered to facilitate talks between North Korea and any country it had conflict with,” according to reports coming from Thai media outlets.

Thai kidnap victim

Mr Ri reportedly told General Tanasak that authorities would follow up the case of Anocha Panjoy, a Thai national who was abducted from Macau by North Korean agents back in 1978.

Former US serviceman Charles Jenkins and his wife told the media they said they saw Ms Anocha alive and well in North Korea.

Before the meeting of the foreign ministers, Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch’s deputy director for the Asia division, pressured Gen. Tanasak to press North Korea for the return of Anocha. There are other human rights issues  stunting diplomatic ties from warming up.

Thailand is one of the countries used by North Korean defectors as a transit point to resettle in South Korea. The number of North Koreans who traveling into Thailand has decreased from around 2,000 in 2011 to under 500 in 2015, according to a Thai media report.

The powwow between the two foreign ministers was filled with many niceties, however. North Korea’s Ri Su-yong passed on good wishes from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit on her 83rd birthday.

He invited Gen Tanasak to visit North Korea as part of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two East Asian countries.

An exchange of diplomatic visits began in May 2015 when deputy foreign minister Don Pramudwinai visited Pyongyang. Ri Su-yong is the first high-level North Korean diplomat to visit Thailand in a decade, when its then foreign minister Paek Nam-sun visited in 2005.

During his trip in Thailand, Ri Su-yong visited Thai royal family’s pet projects and agricultural pilot programs. Two weeks ago, the North Korean official was on an Southeast Asian diplomatic mission that included trips to Brunei  and meetings with ASEAN officials.

The Basmati Rice Issue

Earlier this year, the North Korean ambassador to Thailand, Mun Song-mo, asked the government to set up a diplomatic compound in Pyongyang. However, a government source said this would not happen in the near future.

Five of 10 ASEAN countries — Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam — have diplomatic missions in the North Korean capital.

Diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea were quite smooth, especially as Thailand had played a key role in bringing North Korea to the ASEAN Regional Forum back in 2000, when Thailand held the ASEAN chairmanship.

Two sticky Thai-North Korea issues include not only the kidnapping of Thai national Anocha back in the 1970s, but also North Korea’s outstanding rice debt payment. The Thai foreign minister said the issue of rice debt payment was not touched upon but would be discussed in later talks.

North Korea owes Thailand about $300 million after Thailand exported 750,000 tons of rice to North Korea from 1993 to 2002 when the country suffered devastating famine and floods.

Bilateral trade between North Korea and Thailand $42 million in the first half of this year, nearly of that in the form of  exports from Thailand ($39 million). Two-way trade was $126 million in 2014 and in 2013 it was $114 million. Thai exports to North Korea including rubber, chemicals and plastics, and Thai imports comprising mainly chemicals, iron and steel, and electrical machinery.

 

 

 

Envoy says South Korea must end rice quotas to see real Thai food in Seoul restaurants

Thai Ambassador to South Korea Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open the South Korean rice market, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country. I interviewed him at his office in Hannam-dong, in Seoul, on Sept. 16, 2013.
Thai Ambassador to South Korea Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open the South Korean rice market, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country. I interviewed him at his office in Hannam-dong, in Seoul, on Sept. 16, 2013.

[This article was written originally for The Korea Herald in September 2013.]

Ever eat out at an authentic Thai restaurant here in Seoul, South Korea? It is doubtful that you have, according to the Thai Embassy in South Korea.

There is a dearth of restaurants in South Korea serving real Thai cuisine made from real Thai ingredients at the moment, according to the Thai Ambassador to South Korea. But he is keen to change that.

Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open markets here, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country.

The embassy is determined to upgrade Thai restaurants and the popularity of Thai cuisine here with a number of promotional campaigns, such as one this week: “Thai Restaurant Week” from Sept. 23-29.

“When we launched a promotional campaign earlier this year at a restaurant at Lotte Hotel, we found it extremely difficult to even buy domestically-sold Thai rice,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Sept. 16.

Thailand exported 90 tons of kitchen table rice to South Korea in 2012, a fraction of a percentage point of the 30,000 tons of rice exported from here to Thailand. The vast majority of Thai rice exported to South Korea is low-grade brown rice destined for industrial uses, such as in the manufacture of store-bought makgeolli, Korean fermented rice wine.

Put simply, Thai restaurants cannot make the grade if chefs cannot get their hands on quality agricultural products from Thailand, according to Kittiphong.

Of the 172 restaurants that the embassy determined serve Thai cuisine, 71 were selected to participate in this week’s promotional campaign.

The problem, according to Kittiphong, rests with South Korean import quotas. The permitted amount of Thai rice, poultry, fruit and other agricultural shipments ― which made up about 20 percent of its total exports of 13.6 billion won ($12.5 million) in 2012 ― is limited. Kittiphong wants the quota lifted.

South Korea and Thailand agreed to seek preliminary discussions and a joint study on forging a comprehensive economic partnership agreement when former President Lee Myung-bak met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok in November 2012.

The two nations also agreed to seek to increase bilateral trade to $30 billion by 2016. Such an enormous increase in trade ― a doubling over the next three years ― could only be met by lifting South Korea’s import quotas on Thai rice, poultry and such Thai fruits as longan and pomelo, the ambassador said.

Thailand currently has a huge rice surplus stockpiled by the government as a result of a recent price support scheme, meant to help out small farmers.

If sold at current market prices, however, the stored rice would result in profit losses and government deficits. Thailand is aggressively searching for untapped markets.

The Thai government’s new intervention began with the landslide electoral victory of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party in 2011. In the subsequent two years, it has allocated $18.7 billion to buy rice and shore up support for farmers. The government currently has 10 million tons of rice in storage. This month, the government extended the policy, which could lead to an additional 10 million tons after the 2013-14 harvest due to start in October.

A career diplomat, the mild-mannered Kittiphong expressed frustration at the pace of Thailand-South Korea talks on lifting restrictions on imports, saying that the preliminary FTA talks and a joint feasibility study should take place in tandem with lifting the Thai rice quota.

“When we raised the issue last year, they said that it was a bad time because it was the end of the previous government, that we had to wait for the new government to settle into place,” he said. “But when the new government came in, they said it is the restructuring the ministry, that trade is being separated from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The issue of rice, chicken and fruits has been on the table for years, so we should be able to resolve that issue separately,” he said.

Why certain imported food items are not available on grocery store shelves in South Korea is debatable. According to proponents of the current restrictions, it is a matter of weak demand for Thai agricultural products.

Critics of the restrictions point to stiff non-tariff barriers here, such as sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures that they say are unfairly leveraged by the government to limit imports.

Discussions on lifting the quota on Thai rice appear slow. So, the embassy is focused on stimulating demand for Thai kitchen table food items through promotion drives such as its current effort.

In “Thai Restaurant Week,” diners are entered into a lucky draw with every minimum purchase of 50,000 won or more on a single receipt. The embassy will announce the winners in mid-October. Four grand-prize winners will receive round-trip flight tickets to Thailand.

Six restaurants are participating in the Thai Select program: Golden Thai in Songpa, Sala Thai’s Jamsil branch, Sala Thai’s Bundang branch, Siam at Seoul Station, Thai Orchid in Itaewon, and Wang Thai, also in Itaewon.

Madam President a real possibility in South Korea’s ‘year of woman’

Former envoy to Russia describes how she became the nation’s first female ambassador

 

Lee In-ho, former ambassador to Russia and current chair of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, gestures during an interview with The Korea Times at her office in downtown Seoul.
Lee In-ho, former South Korean ambassador to Russia and current chair of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, gestures during an interview with The Korea Times at her office in downtown Seoul.

[This story was written originally for The Korea Times in February 2012, after Park Geun-hye took the helm of the conservative Saenuri Party and Han Myeong-sook was leader of the more progressive Democratic United Party.]

This could very well be a year of firsts for women in South Korea, as the East Asian nation has seen women take the helm of its two major political parties for the first time in its history.

It was not since 1996 — some 16 years ago — that South Korea saw a similar first for women, when a woman for the first time was appointed as ambassador to a foreign posting.

It was then that Lee In-ho, a Russian expert with a long professional and academic pedigree, was tapped by former President Kim Young-sam as part of an election pledge running on the now-defunct conservative Democratic Liberal Party ticket to include more women at the highest levels of government.

Now women have taken charge of both major political parties. The Saenuri Party is led by Park Geun-hye and the Democratic United Party (DUP) by Han Myeong-sook.

Lee credits her appointment to “a triumph” of what she loosely described as a “women’s lobby” in the late 1990s, a zeitgeist or general buzz in the air that Korean society “in spite of its vaulted achievements in economic development had been neglecting women’s capabilities.”

That public opinion swept South Korea in the wake of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The world conference on women was a catalyst in building pressure on the South Korean government to include women, and utilize the talent of women, Lee said.

“There was a pressure in the air that women were underutilized, and a growing women’s movement took hold of that feeling of the time to call for more women to be represented in government at the highest levels,” said Lee who now chairs the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think-tank on foreign affairs and economy.

She also actively serves on a slew of university boards and public commissions.

The DUP’s Han in a high profile meeting with the GNP’s Park declared this year “the year of women,” but whether this year can generate the general sentiment for women that the 1995 Beijing conference did remains anyone’s guess.

Lee was first sent abroad as Korea’s ambassador to Finland from 1996 to 1998, and then to Russia from 1998 to 2000 during the presidential administration of Kim Young-sam’s political rival, the late former President Kim Dae-jung.

How Lee ascended to the highest levels of South Korean diplomacy 16 years ago could be instructive in assessing the role of women on the national political stage today.

“It was a moment in our history when the society realized it had been neglecting women as human resources,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times on Feb.1. “There was still a lot of prejudice in the Korean diplomatic community.”

She said that her ambassadorial appointment to Russia resulted from the fortunate combination of two men who were free of prejudice against women because of their extraordinary wives: Lee Hee-ho, the wife of Kim Dae-jung, and Lee Beom-joon, the wife of the late former Foreign Minister Park Jeong-soo.

“There was unseen resistance at first to appointing a woman as a top diplomat,” Lee said. “The presence of these wives, the influence they had on their husbands, was exceptional. They had influence on their husbands.”

But since the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) sent its first woman ambassador abroad in 1996, only one other person has had an opportunity to serve a foreign posting. South Korean Ambassador to Paraguay Park Dong-won is the only female ambassador serving abroad among MOFAT’s more than 120 foreign diplomatic missions.

[I added this youtube vid clip from a 2006 lecture organized by the Royal Asiatic Society. In it, Lee In-ho discusses Korean history from the late nineteenth century to the present. She claims “leftist historians” (her words) are trying to re-write Korean history from their point of view, one in which the U.S. is to blame for Korea’s post-liberation trials.]


Diplomatic service

There was real resistance from the “old boy’s network” at MOFAT to appointing a woman as ambassador in the late 1990s, Lee said.

Overtures were made to many high-profile women, after Kim Young-sam’s election, including to Lee who was offered various government positions.

“Lee Hee-ho was one of the people who persuaded me to accept a post as ambassador to Finland,” she said.

Lee said Finland’s extensive Russian archive appealed to her academic interests. She received her Ph.D. in Russian history from Harvard University, and is fluent in Russian and English.

Actually Finland shares many similarities with Korea, she said. Now Finland is a model social democracy, but it also had a difficult history, sandwiched between two large nations, Russia and Sweden, which influenced Finland throughout its history. Finland suffered from a grinding poverty that is little appreciated now, but the country managed in pulling itself into affluence.

Lee said her experience as ambassador to Finland was good “because it afforded me an insight one gets only from experience and is impossible to get from books.”

When her posting came to an end in 1998, when Kim Young-sam’s political rival took office, she finessed a new appointment as ambassador to Russia.

Again she faced stubborn opposition from career male diplomats jealous of a woman envoy. Rumors were constantly circulating against her, she said. “Women are outsiders” to what she described as the “all boys club of Korean career diplomats.”

But her impressive resume and expertise in Russian history and culture defied all the criticisms the MOFAT men could muster.

Korea and Russia established diplomatic relations in 1990. Lee became Korea’s fifth envoy from 1998-2000. In addition to being Korea’s first female ambassador to Russia she was also the first Korean envoy fluent in Russian.

Her fluency made her popular among Russian officials and Russian fluent European diplomats. “I understood and enjoyed the Russian language and culture, and that allowed me to be admitted into certain circles that a Korean envoy had never been admitted into before,” Lee said.

It made her an effective diplomat for Korea, too. She secured a presidential summit for Kim Dae-jung in spite of the tumult that characterized the Russia of Boris Yeltsen, especially in the late 1990s.

“I brought with me to the post a Korean understanding, as well as an American one, by virtue of my many years of studying and living in the United States,” she said.

The highlight of her posting was the presidential summit between Kim Dae-jung and Boris Yeltsen.

Yeltsen was sick from ill health and alcoholism and was constantly hospitalized at the time. “It was not at all certain the summit would happen,” Lee recalled about the Korea-Russia summit.

“Chinese President Jiang Zemin had only 10 minutes with Yeltsen in a meeting in his hospital room,” she said, and with less than a week before the Kim’s presidential visit, “the Dumas tried to impeach him.”

All the while, rumors and machinations against her persisted. Near the end of her term, she said rumors circulated that she “would either be kicked upstairs” this time, instead of being kicked out, or be put up as a National Assembly candidate.

After her four-year diplomatic service in Finland and Russia, she led the Asia Foundation for three years.

Early life, end note

Lee said that equality in the family and in the work place was the focus for women’s rights activists in the male-centered Korean society that Lee grew up in, one that simply preferred boys over girls.

Lee said she sees a lot of achievements for women, but also an unfinished project.

Lee grew up in a distinguished yet conventional 4-generation Confucian family in Myeongryoon-dong in Seoul.

Her father worked at a reputable bank (later it became Shinhan Bank), and she attended an experimental co-educational high school that was a part of Seoul National University (SNU) called, College of Education.

Lee was a junior high school student when she briefly experienced living under communist rule. That’s when in the summer of 1950 Korea North crossed the DMZ and seized control of Seoul. Seoul changed hands that autumn, and then in the winter of 1950, Lee and her family fled to Busan when control over Korea’s capital city was again seized by the communist North.

She was admitted into SNU’s history department in 1955, but then was afforded the opportunity to finish the remainder of undergraduate work at Wellesley College in the U.S. She went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Russian history at Harvard. She would not return to Korea until 1972.

“Because my name sounded like a man’s, however, people often read my articles thinking I was one,” she said. In addition to her male-sounding name of In-ho, her pedigree and American education gave her breathing room to pursue a career in academia without the moniker: “Her writing is good for a lady.”

From 1972-1979 she taught at Korea University, and from 1979-1996 at SNU.

Lee said more needs to be done to level the playing field for women in Korean society, but also insisted progress has been achieved, from obtaining the franchise with the founding of the republic to, in recent years, reforming family law.

However, the prospect of South Korea electing its first female president is mixed. Reforms could open doors for political office beyond the presidency.

The country’s two major political parties are led by women. Han of the DUP has called for 15 percent of the candidates that her party fields in the coming April general elections to be women, and the ruling Saenuri Party under Park’s leadership is mulling over a proposal of an even more robust 25-percent female candidate quota.

For now, women’s representation remains sparse. The number of women cabinet ministers can be counted on one hand. 2008’s National Assembly elections saw 41 of 299 seats, about 13 percent, go to women, some allotted by their party’s proportional representation system, others in direct elections.

“When I returned from my diplomatic service, the floodgate was opened at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for young women diplomats,” Lee said. “Now what is important is to fill that upper-middle section at the ministry.”