Building a Global Community
Ambassador Oh Joon is the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. His most recent role at the U.N. was President of the Economic and Social Council, which he served from 2015 to 2016.He currently serves as the President of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Having begun his career fresh out of university at the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Oh has served as a diplomat both within South Korea and around the world. Working as a senior member of the Korean Foreign Ministry, he has worked at the Republic of Korea Embassy in Brazil and Malaysia, and most recently was Ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Singapore from 2010 to 2013. He has also served many roles in the United Nations, where he represented the Republic of Korea in many U.N. bodies. He has also served as President of the Security Council in 2014. Seoul Journal Executive editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Ambassador Joon about diplomacy, his experiences, and challenges that face our world today.
SJ: What was your early life like?
OH :I lived in the area that is now called Bukchon, or North Village, kind of old town Seoul. When I was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s, Seoul was very different from what it is today. I think the main village from North Village was quite fitting [for me], because that part of the city, which was already at the center of Seoul, had old traditional neighborhoods, and people still lived in traditional lifestyles. There were not many automobiles in the streets, and some people were still using ox carts to move heavy things around.My father was also a diplomat, but his foreign posting only took place before I was born, so I never had the chance to travel outside Korea until I joined the diplomatic service much later. So I grew up in a very traditional, very Korean setting.If there was anything different from others in my early life, that must have been my parents’ experience of living in Los Angeles, where they met and got married. My father was a Korean diplomat, and my mother was a student at the University of Southern California. I was born after they came back to Korea. When I was a little kid, my parents still had some leftovers from their life in LA, such as a television set.Back then there was no television broadcasting in Korea yet, so they basically would watch AFKN (American Forties Korean Network) which broadcasted all these early American TV shows. My folks used to tell me about their life in America, which must have influenced me one way or another. That’s my early life.
SJ: Did your parents teach you English?
OH: They spoke to me in Korean, of course, but my mother was the one who taught me English first when I was in primary school. After studying at the University of Southern California, she came back to Korea and became a professor of English Literature at a college.At that time,students learned English in middle school, but I started to learn English in primary school. So that was a little bit of an advantage I guess.
SJ: At what age did you know you wanted to work in the field of diplomacy and international relations?
OH: As I said, my father was also a diplomat, but he left the diplomatic service before he could become an ambassador, which my mother felt sorry for.My mother probably wanted me to follow my father’s path and become a diplomat, but it was not so obvious in my early years. My parents basically left me alone when it came to what I wanted to make of my life and what I wanted to study in college — basically that was my choice. When I was in college, I first wanted to be a journalist after graduation.But people around me recommended that I take the diplomat service exam, partly because I was able to speak a few foreign languages like English, Spanish, or even German. They thought I could easily pass the exam, which I did. I didn’t have the chance to try journalism. But once in diplomacy I found that it suited me, and my folks were happy to see me enjoying diplomatic service, even though both of them passed away before I made an ambassador.
SJ: How was the experience of being Ambassador in Singapore?
OH: I enjoyed my posting in Singapore. I’ve been in the service for 36 years and I’m about to retire, and I think I spent at least over two thirds of my entire career on multilateral diplomacy, meaning diplomacy dealing with international relations like the United Nations. So for me, having a bilateral posting was quite rare, and the only places I was posted, other than New York, were Singapore, Malaysia and here. I enjoyed my time in Singapore. I also think this posting was quite important, because even though Singapore is a small city-state, they are very competitive in everything.They’re becoming a kind of model case for national development and for national competitiveness — so that was a good experience.
SJ: What is your role as Ambassador to the United Nations?
OH: I represent my country in the United Nations. You know that the U.N. is an international organization — really the only universal international organization in New York we have. There are 193 member states currently, and I’m representing the Republic of Korea.We are very active in the UN actually.
SJ: What is the most challenging aspect of the position?
RYU: As I said, we are quite active in the U.N., not least because we joined United Nations as a full member quite late — we became a member state in 1991. That was six years after the creation of the United Nations. We were late, because North Korea insisted that the two Koreas should become a member of United Nations as one nation after unification. But as you know, unification never came, so we, South Korea, thought that no, we should become a U.N. member as soon as possible, and be able to contribute to the work of the United Nations. So in 1991 both South Korea and North Korea joined the U.N.as a member state. Actually, this month, we commemorated the 25th anniversary of our membership. In the U.N., we have been very active. In a way we were quite prepared when we joined the U.N. — we had been a state for a long time before joining the United Nations. We prepared ourselves. We served in the Security Council twice, we produced U.N. Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, we produced a president of the General Assembly, and I myself served as a president of the Economic and Social Council, which is one of the main organizations.
SJ: Has it been an advantage to have Ban Ki-moon as Secretary-General?
OH: Yes, of course,Mr. Ban is a proud son of Korea, and even though he does not represent Korea in the U.N., he is head of the U.N.Secretariat. Having him at the head of the U.N. Secretariat is not only a proud thing, but also has promoted the image of Korea abroad.
SJ:You said that you represent Korea at the U.N., but you also have to represent the U.N. in Korea. Which is more difficult?
OH: : Both of them are important parts of my work. I don’t know which is more difficult. [Laughs]
SJ: What is the most important skill that you need to be an ambassador in the UN?
OH: In general, to become a good diplomat, you need the ability to speak foreign languages, and you better be well versed in international affairs by studying orby watching what is happening in the world. But personally I think it is important to be open-minded from an early age. In this globalized world, where the world is really shrinking fast and we live in a global village, being open-minded to others— others meaning others with different cultures, different ethnicities, different religion — is very important, because human beings by nature are not really open to others. We don’t feel comfortable being with other people and working with others [who are different from us.] We are more comfortable with people who look like us, who think like us, who speak like us. But in this world you cannot live like that. You have to constantly deal with people who are different from you. Especially if you want to be a diplomat — that’s your job, so I think that being open-minded is very important.
SJ: Are you open-minded by nature, or do you have to work hard on that yourself?
OH: I think I got it through my career, through my life. Of course, there have been errors I made; there have been lessons I learned. I sometimes give this story to people. The first foreign city I lived in was London in 1982, and there were only four Korean restaurants in London. When you go to a Korean restaurant, whatever you order, they usually give you all those small dishes. But in those days in London, Korean restaurants didn’t do that. They charged for each individual small dish — they charged for kimchi, they charged for anchovies, whatever small dishes usually come with your order. I was working in the Foreign Service, so I was probably better off than any other student, and I went to those restaurants whenever I liked, and I ordered whatever I liked. One day, I was eating by myself, and I noticed that in the next table, there was a Korean student who ordered only a bowl of rice and kimchi. And the manager took pity on him and brought soup. When I saw that, I really felt guilty about what I was doing. I just stood up and came out, and I decided I would never eat Korean food as long as possible. I didn’t touch any Korean food for the next three months, and that sort of changed my appetite almost for good. Now I’m very flexible with food— I eat everything, and those kinds of events sort of give you a chance to think about what you are, and how you can be open-minded to different cultures.
SJ: What advice would you give to young diplomats?
OH: I think that, in the globalized world, a lot of problems we face come from globalization. Globalization has brought a lot of benefits to humanity as well, but at the same time, if you think about it, problems like terrorism, economic inequalities, climate change, refugees, most of these problems are either caused by globalization or exacerbated by globalization. In the past, for example, if you lived in Korea 500 years ago, chances for you to meet any Muslim or any black people were very slim. You would probably never meet them in your entire life, for most people,99% of the time. But now, even if you’re Korean, you meet different people all the time, and you have to deal with them all the time. So what I’m saying is, we need to think about globalization, and we need to use our collective wisdom to come up with ways of maximizing the benefits of globalization and minimizing the negative impact of globalization. I think that’s the path for all of us, but especially for diplomats.
SJ: Can you tell me about an issue that’s close to your heart that you are dealing with in the U.N.?
OH: In the U.N. during my current posting, one of the positions I served was a president of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I think that both professionally and personally, this issue, the rights of persons with disabilities, is close to my heart. Not least because my own mother passed away about 15 years ago after suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and she spent the last three years of her life in a wheelchair. I lived with her and gave her care, and that experience gave me the chance to see the world from the perspective from a disabled person. For example, when you go out to eat, you need to first check whether there is accessibility by wheelchair. Otherwise you cannot choose that restaurant. Whatever you do, you have a different perspective in life if you have a disability. I also realized that at a certain age of our life, we all become a disabled person. It doesn’t matter whether you are disabled for a few weeks, for a few years, or for entire life; all of us, at a certain age in our life, become a person with disabilities.
SJ:Are there a lot of intercultural conflicts that happen in the U.N.?
OH: Yes. As I said, that’s one of the challenges we are faced with in our contemporary world. Because you know, if you look back on instances like 911, and if you look at all those issues that are current, like refugees from the Middle East trying to get to the shore of Europe — many of them get drowned in the Mediterranean Sea — orif you look at the problems caused by violent extremism...All of them, as I said earlier, have to do with the fact thatnow, people with different religions, different cultures and different ethnicities, have to live together and interact with others on a constant basis. It’s not very much in line with human nature to respect diversity, to live with others peacefully. So what we need is to realize this, because we cannot reverse the trend of globalization. The only way forward is to learn to live with others peacefully, and work with others harmoniously, and respect – understand and respect diversity, and respect the fact that others are different from us. I think diplomats are on the forefront of these efforts. So that is why the United Nations is important, because that is where all these debates or interactions take place.
SJ: What would you describe as the most rewarding aspect of your work?
OH:Probably the fact that my work was more about the public. For example, compared to other people who are working for companies or private organizations, my work has mostly been about the global public. When you are a diplomat, you pursue your own national interests sometimes, but at other times you pursue global interests. But fortunately for all of us, the world is getting more and more globalized, and national interests of many countries become more inline with global interests. Climate change is a good example. If you want to improve your own environment in your own country, then you cannot do that without improving the overall environmental situation.Pollution does not know any borders. Pollution moves around across borders. Without all of us working together, you cannot deal with climate change.
SJ: Are there any aspects of Korean culture that you find that others have difficulty understanding?
OH: I don’t know…all the different cultures are unique in their own way. These days, sometimes, some country’s culture becomes very popular and kind of dominant. For example,American culture has been the standard for decades, but these days there has been the rise of k-pop culture, so there are different cultures having different advantages. They come and go. But I think in general we can talk about global culture, world culture, in which whatever is prevalent will be built on by other cultures. I heard someone criticizing k-pop culture as a recycled American pop culture. But American pop culture has been all over the world and all over Asia, and how come only Korea has been able to recycle? That’s because, in my opinion, Korean culture has been flexible enough to build on American culture and to take advantage of American pop culture, and reproduce it as k-pop. So that’s how culture evolves in our world, I think.
SJ:You must be pleased to see Korean culture gaining momentum internationally. What are you most proud of when you tell people about Korea?
OH: I think we Koreans are flexible and resilient. I think that this is not least because Korea is located in the world in the crossroads of civilization in a small peninsula. We got this kind of trait of being resilient and being able to adapt ourselves to new challenges, new changes. So that’s our strength. That does not mean, of course, that we are good at everything. We do somethings okay, but some things badly. I think basically all people have different advantages. We learn from each other, we build on from each other.
SJ: You mentioned about how environmental issues affect all of us. Are there members of the U.N. who still refuse to accept certain fundamental things like global warming?
OH:I don’t think any member state is refusing to cooperate, but it’s more a matter of who’s going to take more forthcoming actions first. We are able to, for example, reduce our carbon emission, which we know will improve air quality all over the world and address climate change, but each individual country has their own argument. For example, developing countries are saying that all these CO2 emissions in the past were caused by developed countries during their industrialization process.The developing countries are now about to industrialize themselves,so they think that developed countries should bear bigger burdens than developing countries — to which developed countries also agree.But we are trying to come up with the best formula that is accepted by everyone.
SJ: What is the single most important issue that the world faces today?
OH: I think it’s the challenges coming from globalization, and how to maximize the benefits of globalization.
SJ: Are there any programs that you support to globalize the world, like the Sister Cities program for example?
OH: Our timeslearned to haveinteractions, exchanges, and cooperation among different people and different countries at all levels, in all sectors. Interactions between countries are no longer monopolized by governmental representatives or diplomats. So, as you said, city-to-city cooperation, or people-to-people exchanges are getting more and more important. This is thanks to revolutionary advances in transportation and communication. It took several months to cross the pacific in the past, but now it takes only twelve hours. Airfare is so cheap — a lot of people can fly. In the early 20st century, flying was a real privilege for some people.Ordinary people couldn’t afford to fly. Now all of us can. So like the Sister Cities program, exchanges among different cities in the world is one way of promoting overall interactions and corporation among countries in the world.