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South Korean Ambassador addresses Grinnell

By Chris Lee

Those who were lucky enough to grab a seat in the packed JRC 101 this Wednesday night were treated to the rare opportunity to see a foreign diplomat in action. This week, Grinnell hosted Dr. Han Duk-soo, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States and former Prime Minister. To celebrate new ties between Grinnell College and the Republic of South Korea, there were a number of on-campus events that covered a diverse set of topics.
The first was a panel discussion, led by Grinnell students who had the opportunity to work in Korea during their time at the College. The second was a lecture, led by Dr. Choi Byung-il, an international visiting-fellow who is teaching a three-week program on international trade.
The finale of the week’s events was Ambassador Han Duk-soo’s talk. Standing before a packed hall, the ambassador was not above cracking a few dry jokes to much applause. Noting that his visit to Grinnell followed a recent trip to Des Moines, Han Duk-soo deadpanned.
“This is my second visit to Iowa this year, which has lead some to speculate that I might be considering running for president,” Han Duk-soo said.
The talk began with a brief overview of the economic and historical ties between the two nations, starting with a video emphasizing how surprisingly close America and Korea are. Korea’s high-end electronics and consumer goods are a well-known sight in America—but did you know that South Korea is the third largest importer of Iowan corn in the world? After the video came to a close, the real talk began.
Dr. Han Duk-soo has been involved in Korean/U.S. relations for many years. After obtaining his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1984, Han Duk-soo served in many facets of Korean government, including a brief term as Prime Minister. He explained that ties with the United States have been key in the processes of rebuilding Korea during the painful reconstruction in the wake of the devastating Japanese occupation and Korean War. With several statistics and slides, the ambassador illustrated the miraculous recovery of a nation that went from a per-capita income of $72 in 1962 to $20,000 in 2011.
Economics wasn’t the only subject the talk touched upon. Pointing out the dated priorities and policies built into the U.S.-Korean alliance as recently as 2010, Dr. Han Duk-soo tackled the very real challenges confronting this trans-Pacific partnership. North Korea figured prominently in this discussion, and the ambassador noted that for now, the promising six-party talks (between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States) are on hold.
On a different front, the ambassador also tackled the controversial issue of free trade between the two nations. The proposed agreement would eliminate the tariffs on American goods exported to Korea (11.6 percent) and on Korean goods imported to the United States (3.7 percent). Although the details are still being hammered out between the two governments, the potential economic and job benefits pose a very tempting agreement.
The event closed on a high note, with Dr. Han Duk-soo stressing the longstanding legacy of mutual support and commitment between Korea and the United States, and expressing his hope that the partnership would lead to a better, friendlier world.
The S&B’s own Joseph Wlos ’15 had a chance to sit down and chat with the ambassador about some of these same issues for a few minutes before his talk.

There are many South Korea students at Grinnell and at colleges across the United States, and you yourself studied for several years at Harvard. What is the appeal and advantage in the American system of higher education?
Freedom of thought and the real creativity being offered and conducted by the professors are the main advantages. And of course, the overall standards of education are very high, and the campus life itself is a real way to transform students in the environments of the universities . . . The quality of U.S. higher education is very high and good, because the logistical support behind the universities is fantastic. The students themselves are very hard working, and the students themselves are not circumscribed in any way—they have a real freedom of research. All of these factors work together to form very well prepared, creative students who can show good leadership in every area they engage themselves.
In your opinion or experience, are there any disadvantages to the American system of higher education? Where can improvements be made?
I cannot find many disadvantages, because I was always satisfied by the system of American universities. I have only studied here at a larger school, so sometimes the personal interactions between the professors and the students were not always close or intimate. All colleges and universities differ in that regard . . . At some universities and colleges in the U.S., the faculty members are very busy doing research. With the right combination of good logistical support, creativity and excellence of students, colleges and universities can create more powerful connections between their students and faculty.

Today, it is much easier for world leaders to have one-on-one conversations, via travel or phone calls. What do you believe is the role of ambassadors in the modern era?
Well, yes, it’s true that it’s quite different from 200 years ago, when if the ambassador did not report to their government, the government would be aloof from everything going on in that country. Today, with advances in telecommunications, some people wonder if an ambassador residing in a different country is really necessary, but I believe the role of ambassadors is becoming more multifunctional and diverse than 200 years ago. We are not only dealing with the government and state department in diplomatic activities. We are engaged in all of the departments—we are engaged with all of the citizens of our country who are living in this country, such as the students or the businessmen. Sometimes there is an issue that really needs mobilization from ambassadors, such as our work to push through Congress a free trade bill between Korea and the United States. That requires great support from the general public. So, I require a very diverse and complex approach . . . As an ambassador it is now also very important to perform outreach and cultural engagements in the country where the ambassador is residing. We call this approach comprehensive diplomacy. So, communication over the Internet or by phone for our political and diplomatic issues is not necessarily the correct long-term route for this position.

What are the advantages of the pending free trade agreement for the United States and for South Korea?
First, for the United States, it would create jobs. For Korea, exports from the United States would increase by 11 billion dollars . . . This does not include the increase in investment opportunities. Now, between Korea and the United States, our trade deficits are almost balanced, unlike the U.S. relationship with countries such as Germany or Japan. Our relationship is already balanced, so that is a huge advantage for the deal. However, in 2006, Koreans invested in the US—in electronics, automobiles and other areas—around 5 billion dollars. U.S. investment in Korea totaled around 2 billion dollars. This free trade deal would help close that gap. It will eliminate higher tariffs, allowing more exports from placing like Iowa—agricultural products, such as corn, beef and pork, will benefit for this. For Korea, we are not gaining a large short term benefit from this agreement, but in the medium and long term Korean industries will have more competition in terms of production and investments, and in the short term high quality products from the United States will have some benefits for the 42 million population. For the U.S., there will be more exports, more jobs, and from then on, there will be some sort of business alliance that will really make Korean businesses and U.S. businesses and agricultural sector stronger in competing with China and Japan.

What has delayed passage of the agreement?
Last December, the auto industry strongly objected to the free trade agreement, so we had additional negotiations. Today, the UAW supports this deal, which is a very unprecedented case for a labor union. Now, closer cooperation between the U.S. Congress and executive administration will be required to work together to pass the bill as quickly as possible, because as the bill is languishing in Congress, Korea has negotiated a free trade bill with the EU, and imports from the EU are increasing by 20 percent as a result. So, it is in the U.S.’s best competitive interest to get this deal done quickly.

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