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.

[The Diplomat] Political class debates nuclear option for South Korea

This article first appeared in The Diplomat on Aug. 14, 2014.

Nuclear tensions are again ratcheting up on the Korean Peninsula, with Pyongyang threatening a fourth nuclear weapons test in what one U.S. analyst described as its new “allergic reaction” to routine military exercises by South Korea and United States scheduled to start on August 18.

A fourth nuclear test could further influence the debate in Seoul and Washington over whether South Korea should consider the “nuclear option.” Such a decision – if South Korea were to seriously consider it – could upturn the 60-year South Korean-U.S. alliance, global nonproliferation efforts, not to mention dozens of international obligations that tie one of Asia’s wealthiest nations to the global economy.

Even talk of “going nuclear” has some in South Korea’s political class worrying out loud that the debate has already moved from the political fringe to occupy center stage.

And there is cause for concern. The North’s third nuclear test in February 2013 shifted public opinion in South Korea over whether it should start its own nuclear weapons program.

In September 2013, in a Chosun Ilbo column, conservative commentator and political analyst Kim Dae-jung argued that it should. It is a sentiment echoed by two-thirds of the public surveyed by the Asan Institute for Policy Analysis the same month.

Conservative politician Chung Mong-joon and former lawmaker Song Young-sun, as well as columnists such as Cho Gab-je, Kim Dae-jung and Yi Chun-geun, have long called for South Korea to respond in kind to North Korean nuclear threats with a “South Korea bomb.”

They have allies in American political circles. Elbridge Colby, writing for the conservative foreign policy journal,National Interest, proposed in February that the U.S. put “geopolitics over nonproliferation” if Japan and South Korea choose to develop nuclear weapons.  And last year, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee demanded that the Obama administration examine the “feasibility” of re-deploying tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.

All this talk has pushed one former senior South Korean foreign policy advisor to weigh in on the question of the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and the development of a South Korean bomb. Yonsei University professor Moon Chung-in was a former senior foreign policy advisor to South Korean government agencies such as the National Security Council of the Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of National Defense, and the Ministry of Unification.

Dr. Moon attended the 2000 and 2007 North-South Korean summits as a special delegate. He was also appointed as a member of then president-elect Roh Moo-hyun’s high-level delegation to the U.S. in 2003. He was also chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Northeast Asian Cooperation Initiative, a cabinet-level post.

Moon, along with Dr. Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute, penned an article published this month by East Asia Foundation’s Policy Debates No. 7, answering the question: “Should South Korea Go Nuclear?” Philip Iglauer spoke with Moon recently.

The South Korean government has been clear that it has no plan to develop a nuclear weapons program. Why did you decide to come out with this article now?

The reason why Peter and I wrote this piece is, our citizens – sometimes 60, sometimes 70 percent of them – continue to support the nuclear weapons idea. We thought that that has something to do with education. If they had a proper non-proliferation education, then they would not come to that kind of conclusion. We thought we need to make a piece that can tell people that having nuclear weapons is more harmful than not having them.

Another reason we wrote this article is that there has been widespread speculation that North Korea could conduct another nuclear test and, if that happens, that could trigger opinions in favor of developing a nuclear weapons program or the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

By having this kind of article we can show the South Korean people that even if that happens it is not wise for us to pursue our own nuclear option.

So, in your assessment, what are the drawbacks of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons program to match the one already developed by North Korea?

Far from reinforcing South Korea’s already overwhelming conventional military capabilities – including in almost every dimension where North Korea has developed offsetting “asymmetric” capabilities – South Korean nuclear weapons would undermine deterrence based on conventional forces, and even reduce South Korea’s ability to use its conventional forces in response to a North Korean attack.

Plus, no U.S. Commander-in-Chief is going to put American forces in harm’s way in a Korean conflict, if South Korea wields nuclear weapons outside of U.S. political and military command-and-control. Independent South Korean nuclear weapons would complicate for U.N. Command and Combined Forces Command.

In addition, South Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons could instantly trigger a nuclear domino effect in the region. If that happens, there is no way to prevent Japan from going nuclear.

What about the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. Could such U.S. weapons be a viable alternative to a South Korean program?

It is not necessary because of U.S. extended deterrence and its subsequent nuclear umbrella. The U.S. has nuclear submarines; they have long-range bombers; they have intercontinental ballistic missiles on the U.S. mainland. They can use them easily. There is no reason for the U.S. to deploy tactical nuclear weapons here on THE PENINSULA.

As (Lt. Gen. John) Cushman once pointed out in the 1980s, it could be a headache for American forces here. They have to spend a lot of money and human resources to guard against any terrorist infiltration, stealing and all this kind of stuff. That was one of the main reasons why they withdrew the tactical nuclear weapons from Kunsan in 1991.

What is your response to those in the U.S. House of Representatives who have suggested that the redeployment of such missiles could serve to ward off an increasingly aggressive China or re-assertive Russia in the region?

That means, what? Those tactical nuclear facilities will simply become a target for Russia and China. Why should we (South Korea) increase our vulnerability through the deployment of those weapons? It is not really feasible from an American policy point of view, too. Obama made it clear that the tactical nuclear weapons card, or theater nuclear weapons, have become obsolete and that he wants to get rid of them as part of his “nuclear weapons free world” campaign.

What is their utility, if the U.S. has intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, and long range bombers? Practically speaking, the U.S. can hit targets anywhere, any time. Why would it deploy tactical nuclear weapons that require an additional cost to guard and protect.

Anyway, if that does happen, then it could justify the North Korean having nuclear weapons. We would not have any moral ground. And North Korea would be targeting those tactical nuclear facilities, which would then increase our vulnerability.

What are some of the implications of a South Korean nuclear weapons program on the country’s international obligations?

South Korea would face very high costs were it to move in this direction, because it is deeply embedded in multilateral and bilateral treaty commitments and nuclear energy supply trading networks. The development of a nuclear weapons program would violate its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It would certainly end South Korea’s reactor exports and likely also the supply of uranium, enrichment services, and other materials. It would also end the dual-use technology needed for South Korea’s nuclear fuel cycle from the Nuclear Supply Group, such as the United States, Australia, Russia and France. Washington would likely reject not only Seoul’s request to reprocess or pyro-process spent nuclear fuel, but also its desire to enrich uranium, even for research. This would adversely impact our negotiations with Washington in renewing the ROK-US Atomic Energy Cooperation Agreement.

Some conservatives in South Korea have suggested South Korea could use serious consideration of such a program as leverage in current negotiations with the U.S. over renewing the ROK-U.S. Atomic Energy Cooperation Agreement.

I think it is a stupid strategy. They think they can use this as a bargaining chip, but they do not understand the overall sentiment in Washington, D.C. with regard to nonproliferation.

The only way President Park Geun-hye could persuade Washington is this: “Even if we go through reprocessing of spent fuel or uranium enrichment, there is no way for us to go further toward nuclear weapons. The whole episode in the 1970s by Park Chung-hee is a thing of the past. Don’t worry about it. There is not even a single iota of a possibility that we will do something like that.”

Moreover, the conservatives approach would severely undercut President Park’s position. It would have the opposite effect in Washington. That is what Robert Einhorn has been arguing. Compromising nonproliferation is tantamount to opening a Pandora’s Box, regardless of whether (South Korean negotiators) are talking to Democrats or Republicans. If the nuclear genie is let out of the bottle, then it would critically undermine U.S. hegemony in this part of the world. No matter how worrisome China’s rise or the posture of Moscow in the Russian Far East.

[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.