Former envoy to Russia describes how she became the nation’s first female ambassador
[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.]
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.”