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Heads up – Embassy 27 – July 2010

Diversifying diplomacy

A framed poster commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War is prominently displayed in the office of Choo Kyu Ho, the Republic of Korea’s new Ambassador to London.

The occasion has been a time for reflection, says Ambassador Choo, whose Embassy recently hosted a reception for UK Veterans who fought in the Korean War, along with representatives of the 21 UN Allied Nations who rallied for the Republic of Korea’s freedom.

In a very moving ceremony, war veterans were saluted by Vice Admiral (Retd.) Myung-Soo Hahm, their counterpart aboard the HMS Belfast, a retired warship that was in service in the Korean War. President Lee Myung-bak personally wrote letters of thanks to thousands of war veterans around the world, and the country hosted ‘peace camps’ with the grandchildren of the veterans, to ensure memories of the war do not die with the war generation.

Sixty years on the country can boast a democratic political system and one of the world’s top performing economies. “The hardship we experienced made the Korean people stronger,” says Choo, adding: “We are very proud of what we have achieved over the past 60 years.”

Sadly relations across the 38th parallel remain tense, says the Ambassador, a North Korean policy expert who helped draft a non-aggression agreement in 1990. For the past two decades it has been a rollercoaster ride, says Choo, who has witnessed the highs of the Sunshine Policy as well as the lows of unprovoked aggression.

“We have been living under constant tension. Most South Korean people are frustrated by the North Korean regime. There have been so many repeated armed provocations and unpredictable behaviour, but at the same time we have deep sympathy for the oppressed people of North Korea,” says Choo.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions make the issue not simply a regional one, reminds Choo. Six-party talks have not made much headway, but the Ambassador is convinced that China – North Korea’s ally – holds the key to a lasting solution.

“Since our normalisation of relations with China, we have developed very constructive relations in the political and economic field,” says Choo. “I hope China can play a more constructive role in dealing with North Korea in future.”

However worrying the idea is of a hostile nuclear state on its border, the time has come for the Republic of Korea to cease to be inward-looking and to “diversify” its foreign policy activities, says Choo: “We need to expand our horizons because we have realised that to be prosperous, we need to open our society to the outside world.”

The G20 Summit at the end of the year in Seoul will be an opportunity to put the ‘Global Korea’ policies into practice, he adds. “Korea is unique in that we have moved from being a recipient of aid to being a contributor. So we’d like to be a bridge between the emerging and developed countries. It is important to our president that we return the kindness to the outside world for helping us.”

But it’s much more than disbursing ODA, says Choo. Other areas include expanding its peacekeeping activities, helping reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and using its strengths in science and technology to accelerate development. Advancing the climate change debate is also important – living in harmony with nature is a key principle of Korean philosophy.

“We have a five-year plan to reduce our carbon emissions as a unilateral measure, even though we are not obliged to under the Kyoto Agreement,” says Choo, who adds that Korea will also share its green growth technologies with developing nations.

London, as the world’s largest bilateral capital, is an ideal place to expand contacts with other embassies, he says. A seasoned diplomat who has served in postings as diverse as Venezuela, Japan, Italy and the US, Choo sees London as an opportunity to expand Korea’s cultural relations and people-to-people contacts.

Korea’s many students in the UK can help him in that task and the Ambassador is also keen to attract the brightest and best in Britain to Korea. As a former Commissioner of the Korea Immigration Service, he explains that demographics are changing in Korea: “Society is fast-changing and one of our challenges is the low birth rate. So we have introduced a more open, managed immigration system that will help us sustain our fast-growing economy.”

The Ambassador is also keen to boost investment and trade with Britain – Korea has a strong presence in the UK already, as can be seen by the logos of Korean companies on the football shirts every weekend.

“And we also export good footballers!” adds the Ambassador proudly, who will be supporting Bolton Wanderers this year, home to rising star Chung-yong Lee. “They are the underdogs and we Koreans always support the underdogs,” he says.

Ambassador Choo is a keen midfielder himself: “I receive the ball and distribute it to others – quite fitting for a diplomat”

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HE Mr Choo Kyu Ho

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