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.”

Children storm the DMZ

[This story was written originally in March 2013 reporting from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)  for The Korea Herald and later re-published by The Nation in Thailand.]

Children in DMZ
I took this photo at the amusement park near Paju when the kids were gathering up for the buses to take them back to Seoul after a day-long outing inside the heavily militarized Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea in March 2013.

A handful of tour buses carrying foreign diplomats, Korean reporters and children slowly lumbered across Unification Bridge into the demilitarised zone, carefully negotiating barricades assembled halfway along the bridge’s length.

The schoolchildren were fidgety and chattering excitedly, jumping out of their seats to peer out of the bus windows at sights they scarcely could have seen before – armoured vehicles, heavily armed checkpoints and nests of razor-wire, the legacy of a three-year civil war and 60 years of national division.

The schoolchildren, a dozen foreign envoys, and their entourage were part of March 21’s “International Children’s Peace Day”, a day-long tour of various tourist sites in and around Paju, a sleepy rural town north of Seoul. It was organised by International Cooperation of Environmental Youth, a US-based group led by organiser Lee Kyoung-tae and wife Melissa Lee.

The couple has made headlines over the years on peace and environmental issues, including a movement to build what the couple described as a “children’s peace forest” inside the DMZ.

“It is a great idea because peace is one of the most expensive ideas there is, and children can market the idea better than anyone else,” said Charitha Yattogoda, a diplomat from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul.

“We also know how expensive peace can be in Sri Lanka. We had a civil conflict for 30 years and only recently achieved peace,” he said during the day-long event.

“We know how important it is, and we at the embassy immediately thought of joining this event to lend our support as best as we can.”

The DMZ can be a culture shock for any visitor. Barbed wire fences and security checkpoints abound, guarded by soldiers lugging machine guns.

The soldiers are not lonely, however, as busloads of tourists show up daily to gawk at the world’s most heavily fortified border, even as North Korea threatens to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”.

“It’s a good experience for the children. This is not an easy place to organize a visit, so we appreciate the effort the organisers made for the children. Normally kids under 12 years of age are not allowed inside the DMZ,” said Wang Kai, wife of Austrian Ambassador Josef Muellner. Wang delivered welcome remarks at Imjinggak Pavilion at the start of the tour.

Imjinggak Pavilion was built “to remind Koreans of their painful past and their commitment to unification”, says the Gyeonggi provincial government.

The pavilion’s amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills that have included Cold War-style B-52 flyovers.

Sensing potential controversy, some foreign diplomats shied away from lending any insights about the divided Korea, the demilitarised zone or the North.

Most of them, however, realized the crucial role that today’s children must eventually take if peace and unification is to return to their country.

“War and peace is a game for politicians to play, but I think these young people will grow up to change the way the game is played,” said Sameer Alwahedy, an attache at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul. “In Jordan, we believe in peace, everyone in the world has the right to live in peace. A children’s event like this could be a great help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well.”

It is easy to cynically dismiss the conflict-zone tourist industry that has slowly grown in the area, including the Dora Observatory, where one wave to soldiers and look at North Korea through binoculars for 500 won (Bt13), and the amusement park at the Imjinggak Pavilion, the start and end point for the day-long tour.

But the mix of tourist kitsch Cold War humor shows Paju’s residents are making the best of a bad situation, and it could offer hope.

“This event symbolizes to me the promotion of peace because, obviously, youth are the future. We have to make a commitment to conflict resolution and this is a conscious effort to promote peace,” said SU Ahmed, deputy head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy.

“Children are the ones who suffer the most in a conflict situation. That is why it is important to let them participate in being part of the solution in events like this one,” said Adamu A Musa, minister at the Nigerian Embassy in Seoul.

In addition to the amusement park, which is complete with rides and carnival booths, there are a number of other touristy things to do and see: take the bicycle tour; bang the Bell of Peace for 10,000 won; stroll on the Bridge of Freedom, which comes to an abrupt and symbolic dead end; and peer at the rusting steam engine stuck in situ since the end of the Korean War, riddled with bullet holes.

Musa, Ahmed and their wives returned to Seoul with souvenir DMZ baseball caps.

South Korea takes another step to ActiveX liberation

[This story was written originally for ZDNet on October 15, 2015 reporting from Seoul, South Korea.]

The Korea Trade Network’s development of an ActiveX-free authentication certification program may be the most concrete sign yet of South Korea finally dislodging itself from Internet Explorer.

South Korea suffers 110,000 cyberattacks in five years

​South Korea was the target of over 110,000 cyberattacks in the past five years, according to a report submitted to the country’s National Assembly.

cyberattacks
It’s perhaps important to emphasized how nearly impossible it is to locate the country of origin for these many cyber attacks. While that doesn’t point the finger at North Korea, it should not remove the country as a suspected country of origin.
[This story was written originally for ZDNet on Sep. 21, 2015]

North-South tension causes internet censorship in Korea: Is it justified?

South Korea can boast one of the world’s fastest average internet connection speeds, but the country also rates highly in censorship stakes.

Korea Security Standards in Telecommunications Commission
Korea Communications Standards Commission is located in Mokdong in Seoul, not far from the immigration office (which many foreigners residing in South Korea might be familiar with).
[This story was written originally for ZDNet in August 2015.]

South Korea has the world’s fastest internet with connectivity clocked at 25.3MBps by Akamai Technologies last year. That’s over two times better than the 11.5MBps measured in the United States. Such a wired environment, coupled with wide internet use, seem optimal grounds to foster free, creative discussions among peers in a democracy.

But it is another matter as far as internet freedom goes. The country’s internet censorship body, which watches over the comings and goings of South Koreans’ online activities, recently ordered 13 pieces of content on websites to be scrubbed that it determined were “misleading”.

The main cause was the recently ratcheted up tension between North Korea; the hermit state accused of planting mines in the borders that injured two South Korean soldiers. South Korea responded by playing loudspeaker propaganda, and the two Koreas exchanged fire last week. It ended when the two sides reached a deal to diffuse the tension.

“The deleted websites were neither ‘pro-North Korean’ websites nor included ‘pro-North Korean’ messages. They included misleading content on the North’s recent provocations — land mine blasts, firing of a shell into Yeoncheon — falsely accusing the South of fabricating provocations,” said a spokesperson from the Korea Communications Standards Commission.

The KCSC refused to identify by name the websites affected by its decision or say what it censored specifically.

“Deleted or blocked URLs are not open to [the] public by law,” said the spokesperson, but the censorship body did forward general descriptions of the “false accusations” and “misleading contents” in question.

Many South Koreans took to the internet to raise questions on some of the allegations that South Koreans made against the North.

They covered a handful of topics, including that “North Korean soldiers did not plant the land mines and it was the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS)”. Another “misleading” piece of content claimed that the NIS and the country’s main conservative party are trying to divert attention away from a domestic hacking scandal.

The KCSC deletes or blocks online content concerning North Korea regularly. Criticism of government infringement on internet freedom in South Korea is not new either. Freedom House last year ranked the country’s internet as “partly free” for shuttering websites through IP blocking and forcing ISPs to scrub content.

In 2013, 22,986 webpages were deleted, and another 62,658 were blocked at the request of KCSC, according to a US-based non-profit.

South Korea’s censors believe they are protecting against threats to national security, and comments they see as praising North Korea, and denouncing the U.S. and/or the South Korean government raise red flags.

The KCSC also censors pornography and gambling, which are illegal in South Korea, as well as content deemed as harmful to minors. Online games are odious, too. South Koreans have to enter national identity numbers to play online games and, until last year, minors 16 years old or younger were banned from midnight to 6:00 am. The so-called “shutdown” law was amended last year with a parental consent clause.

Nearly 85 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2013, and a significant number of young people get their news exclusively from online sources.

As a result of considerable interference by the government into people’s online lives, many use VPNs. According to Global Web Index’s 4Q 2014 report, 10 percent of South Koreans aged between 16 to 64 years old use a VPN to access content online, meaning 3.3 million people use the internet with a VPN.

All this raises the perennial question — especially when North Korea is the issue — of what comes first: Freedom of speech or national security? Outside of South Korea, the best example is the Snowden leaks.

This seems a question that the global community will continue to debate going forward.

Ethnic Koreans in Ukraine major issue for Ukraine’s top resident envoy

[This story was written originally for The Korea Times on Feb. 22, 2012.]

Ukraine’s new envoy in Korea said his country considers the status of ethnic Koreans a major bilateral issue and his country is working to “further legalize their status.”

“Ukrainian Government has established a Special Committee on ethnic Koreans. Seven meetings of the Committee have taken place since its establishment in early 2007,” said incoming Ukrainian Ambassador to Korea Vasyl Marmazov.

Marmazov arrived in Korea on Oct. 25 and presented his Letter of Credence to President Lee Myung-bak in a ceremony at Chong Wa Dae, Nov. 25.

Viktor Tsoi is easily the most recognizable goryo-saram in Ukraine. He was a pioneer in rock in the 1970s and 1980s when Ukraine was a part of the USSR. He fronted the band Kino. Even today he is regarded as a Russian rock legend and has many devoted fans across East Europe and the CIS countries.

“A pilot project aimed at surveying ethnic Koreans living in southern regions of Ukraine has been conducted in order to further legalize their stay in Ukraine, he said.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Ukraine. Both governments are celebrating the milestone year with cultural events.

“As it is known, at present more than 30,000 of ethnic Koreans live in Ukraine. Governments of both countries entered into constructive cooperation on solving the current issues of their residence.”

The majority of ethnic Koreans, so-called “goryo saram,” are not citizens of Korea and many are not documented descendants lacking legal status required to become citizens of Ukraine.

Ethnic Koreans in Ukraine were part of a large group that had fled the former Soviet Union, many from central Asia, at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, and entered newborn states. They were forcibly re-located to central Asia from the Russian Far East during Stalin’s reign in the 1930s.

The Korean government maintains the treatment of ethnic Koreans in former Soviet Union states as top agenda item when high-level Korean and Ukrainian officials meet for political consultations.

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-Sik did so when he visited Ukraine in September 2011.
“He met with representatives of Korean diaspora living in Ukraine and positively assessed the efforts of the Ukrainian authorities in this sphere. Ukraine will continue to support ethnic Koreans living in Ukraine,” Marmazov said.

Ukraine has taken steps to legalize their status, but some in Ukraine there oppose the move, calling it an amnesty, obstructing government policy from moving forward quickly.