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.”


[The Korea Herald] Uruguayan Ambassador Florio encourages young women to seek a career outside the home

This interview of a foreign envoy first appeared in The Korea Herald on March 9, 2014.

Uruguayan Ambassador to South Korea Alba Florio Legnani speaks with The Korea Herald during an interview in her office on Wednesday, days before International Women’s Day. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)
Uruguayan Ambassador to South Korea Alba Florio Legnani speaks with The Korea Herald during an interview in her office on Wednesday, days before International Women’s Day. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)

“Every woman has to fight. She has to fight for her future, and her future does not have to be to take care of the house,” said Uruguayan Ambassador to South Korea Alba Florio Legnani in an interview with The Korea Herald on Wednesday, days before International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world.

Florio is one of just seven female ambassadors out of the 100-plus heads of diplomatic missions here. She is also the senior envoy of an informal caucus of women ambassadors working in South Korea. She represented them during a meeting of the council of the diplomatic corps earlier the same day.

The six other high-level women envoys in South Korea represent Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Austria, Ireland, Belarus and Malaysia.

Their group was initiated by the Belarusian ambassador when she organized an informal luncheon about two years ago, Legnani said.

The United Nations officially recognized March 8 as International Women’s Day in 1975, but the appointment of a day to highlight women’s empowerment and rights goes back more than 100 years.

The first Women’s Day is thought to have been National Woman’s Day, observed in the United States on Feb. 28, 1908, when the Socialist Party of America sought to recognize female garment workers during a labor strike in New York City.

Legnani said the struggle for women’s rights can be summed up in a quippy Spanish play on words: “Tenemos que transformar los derechos en hechos,” which she explained means, “Let’s transform the rights into facts.”

That struggle is not likely to be easy for women here as over the past few years South Korea has slipped in world rankings of the social status of women.

South Korea ranked 111th out of 135 countries surveyed, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013. Worse, the reported noted, is the fact that the social status of women in South Korea has slipped every year since 2010.

Electing its first woman president in December 2012, though certainly laudable, could belie the fact that South Korea has a dearth of women at the highest levels of national leadership, according to another global survey.

South Korea ranked 88th out of 188 nations, with just 15.7 percent or 47 female representatives out of the 300 making up the National Assembly, according to the Women in National Parliaments report published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in December 2013.

The situation is worse still for South Korean women aspiring to rise to the ambassadorial level in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Just five of the 294 officials ranked director-general or higher at the Foreign Ministry are women, according to data compiled in November 2013.

That means that less than 2 percent of the nation’s high-level Foreign Service officers are female. Twenty of the approximately 280 deputy director-level officers, or 7 percent, are women. South Korea does not have a single woman leading one of its 118 foreign diplomatic missions.

Legnani said that in her country, as well as other countries, one way to increase the number of women at the highest levels of business or government is by empowering women and encouraging girls to aim high.

A woman can be as effective an ambassador as a man, she said. “There are no jobs meant for men or for women. One might be good or bad at a particular job, but this depends on the individual, not on one’s gender.”

Legnani is in fact not a career foreign service officer. She is a lawyer and spent some 15 years advising her government, in particular the transportation and the health and welfare ministries, and worked with the legislature. She began her work here in South Korea in October 2010.

“But it is something very personal. You have to fight for your position in society, for your education, for your position at the office. It means working hard and struggling for it,” she said.

Legnani said her case is perhaps not typical in her country of Uruguay, because she did not have the family pressures that many women face. She said she decided not to get married and has no children to look after. “So, maybe for me, it might have been easier.”

“In Uruguay, women have to take on domestic activities by themselves. If they have children, they have to take care of them on their own,” she said. “They have to cook and have to clean and have to take care of the parents, too, but those activities are generally not shared with the men. It is a woman’s responsibility.”

National governments have a role to play, too, by cultivating supportive working conditions for career-minded women, she said. As examples of possible policies, Legnani pointed out how flexible working arrangements on the job and easy access to child care could support working women by helping them balance career with family.

[The Korea Herald] Panama looks to remake history with iconic canal

This article originally appeared in The Korea Herald on Oct. 27, 2013.

When it was completed in 1914, the Panama Canal was heralded as an engineering marvel.

Its construction ― a 50-mile cut through mountainous and malarial terrain ― was a decade-long project, but the gravity-fed water locks that could lift freighters and ocean liners 85 feet up from sea level and across the isthmus were a technological feat the likes of which the world had never seen.

But that was then. Now, this historic achievement is not what it used to be, according to Panamanian Ambassador to South Korea Aram B. Cisneros Naylor.

“For years, the smart people in Panama have been saying we have to go to the next level. They were ignored for a long time, but now people are listening,” he said.

Cisneros said that as Panama’s top diplomat here he must eat, drink and dream all things maritime affairs.

“We have to transform Panama from being a simple transit point into a 21st-century international hub, a place that adds value to the goods and services that come to Panama.”

“We are at the threshold of upgrading our service economy, from an economy that does not simply charge a toll for utilizing the country’s transit point,” Cisneros said.

A transformation none too soon, because developments have combined to threatened Panama’s geo-strategic relevance.

Wang Jing, an intensely private 40-year-old Chinese telecoms tycoon, has promised to complete a 170-mile, $40-billion waterway through Nicaragua from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

What is more, climate change threatens to open the once-fabled Northwest Passage. As more of the northern ice cap melts, it’s becoming possible for ships to pass through the Arctic from Asia to the Americas. That could make the Panama Canal far less important.

Cisneros, who took up his posting here in March 2012, has a lot on his diplomatic plate. He has got to manage the Herculean task of ensuring his nation’s canal remains as important in the next 100 years as it was in the 20th century.

Panama plans the launch of a massive new expansion of the Panama Canal as early as April 2015. In a national referendum in 2006, Panamanians voted overwhelmingly for the financing of a new building project. The $5.25 billion-project will widen and deepen the existing channel and create two new locks, one on the Atlantic side and one on the Pacific’s.

Perhaps most importantly, the refurbished canal’s new locks can accommodate mega, so-called post-Panamax vessels ― vessels the size of small cities and with cargo hulls to match.

That means more and more cargo is passing through the canal. Panama facilitated just half a million TEUs (Ten-foot-Equivalent Units) in 1997. In 2012, the canal saw 9 million TEUs pass through.

As expansive as the capacity of the canal is, the tiny Central American country already has plans for further upgrades.

“To put it in perspective, Singapore processed 15 million last year,” Cisneros said. “That is our aim in the next few years.”

Jorge Quijano, chief executive of the Panama Canal Authority, visited South Korea in May to flesh out interest in investing in the expansion by some of the largest users of the canal.

South Korea is a major player in global shipping.

More than 1,200 vessels out of a total of 9,000 registered in Panama are South Korean. SK Shipping, Hyundai Merchant Marine and Hanjin Logistics are three of the country’s largest transporters of goods.

Panama is also the dominate registration location. As of 2009, Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands were the world’s three largest registries in terms of deadweight tonnage, with more than 39 percent of the world’s ship-borne carrying capacity. Panama dominates the scene, its 9,000 ships accounting for almost 23 percent of the world’s DWT.

Now Panama plans to build bunker terminals, LNG terminals, ship building and repair facilities, and roll-on roll-off terminals, specialized container terminals for cars and trucks. The projects together could be worth billions of dollars, but an exact figure has yet to be finalized.

The final studies are being completed and an estimate of investment requirements will be announced in January, Cisneros said.

As part of its efforts to promote investment in the canal here, the Panamanian Embassy will host a seminar ahead of a reception celebrating the nation’s Independence Day in Seoul on Nov. 14.

Experts from Morgan & Morgan, one of the world’s largest legal, fiduciary, and financial services firms, will hold a seminar entitled “Panama, Connecting the World” before the Independence Day reception.

Jazmina Rovi, a partner at Morgan & Morgan, will discuss “Panama Flag Fleet: New Developments” and Juan David Morgan Jr. will discuss “Ship Arrest & Defenses in Panama.”

Morgan & Morgan Group launched MMG Trust in Panama in 1998 as the headquarters of the fiduciary activities of the group. Today, MMG Trust Panama is one of the leading trust companies in Central America, with one of the largest portfolios of assets in the region.