South Korean Ambassador Rhee Young-min has relied on more than ‘ginseng ’ power to steer the course of his eventful diplomatic career.In an interview with PAUL GABRIEL,the retiring envoy relates how he has endured through thick and thin.
THE chirping of birds adds to the delightful morning atmosphere at Lorong Nipah, where the South Korean Embassy is tucked away.
But something appears to be niggling the mind of the chief occupant of the majestic-looking chancery. Rhee Young-min hesitates at first when asked, but finally bares his emotions.
“It’s about a construction project,” he divulges. “The local authority wants to build a 35-storey apartment block beside our embassy to house squatters. We aren’t very happy about this, and we have voiced our objections. It is not going to be conducive.
“It will never be the same with a high-rise building with thousands of occupants overlooking us,” he laments.
Underlining his concern at the ramifications of the project, he says the chancery is located on a choice piece of land.
“We built it six years ago at a cost of US$14mil, with land cost alone accounting to US$10mil. This location has been ideal for us – so far.”
The envoy refuses to dwell on the downside for long, though, and he is soon portraying himself as highly motivated by talking about the big picture of relations between South Korea and Malaysia.
“The last thing I want is for this thing to trouble us. Relations between South Korea and Malaysia are at their best since our diplomatic ties were established in 1960. Our two countries must continue to move forward to seize new opportunities,” he stresses.
Indeed, Rhee’s 35-year diplomatic career has been distinguished by resoluteness when faced with tough situations. Now 63, he had joined the Foreign Service in 1968 and started with a “hardship” posting to Kampala where he served as Third Secretary in the Ugandan capital from 1971 to 1973.
It turned out to be a “double agony” tenure for the Kwangju-born diplomat, who set foot there just as General Idi Amin had seized power. The dictator had quashed all political activity to begin a sordid reign, dispatching military death squads to quell any opposition.
“There was civil unrest and the political situation was very unstable. Foreigners, especially Asians, became a target of Amin who expelled almost 60,000 of us, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, in 1972 on the ground that Asians were not contributing to the Ugandan economy,” Rhee recalls.
“Our safety was at stake.”
There was no privileged diplomatic status, let alone “immunity”, against physical harassment, he relates, recalling a harrowing encounter with thugs in which he, his wife, and daughter who was three years old then, were almost beaten to death.
In the incident which, he says, still haunts him, they were travelling in their official car when thugs forced them to a halt and dragged them out of the vehicle.
“We were severely beaten, even my little girl was not spared. We were lucky to escape alive. But for days we could not sleep at night, as we were gripped with fear,” says Rhee, who counts himself lucky to have survived Amin’s reign of terror.
The young Rhee was next sent to the Philippines to be Second Secretary, then promoted to Consul at the Korean Consulate-General in Honolulu in 1977, and later made Deputy Consul-General in Hong Kong in 1987.
All these years enriched his career experience to prepare him for greater challenges ahead, which turned out to be another stint in Kampala!
The steps of diplomatic destiny would guide him back to the Ugandan capital in 1992 – only this time as the ambassador in a more peaceful post-Amin environment.
Rhee was to serve another three years in Kampala, making him South Korea’s expert on Ugandan affairs.
Sitting back in his comfortable lounge here, the envoy, who was posted to Kuala Lumpur in September 2000, speaks to clear misconceptions about Uganda and its people.
“It is a beautiful country with very pleasant weather, as much of the country is located on a high plateau (1,000m to 1,400m above sea-level).
“The lakes and rivers keep Uganda fairly cool. The country has rich fertile land, and the kindly climate is a great advantage.
“Food was never a problem. There was enough grain for everyone,” says Rhee of the country described by Sir Winston Churchill as the “Pearl of Africa.”
And he points out a significant economic data of Uganda, which he learnt during his maiden stint there. “The per capita income of Ugandans at that time was US$350, compared to South Korea’s US$70. Uganda was then even richer than (South) Korea.
“But we have outdone the Ugandans many times over. Last year, our per capita income reached US$10,000, while Uganda’s is still about the same at US$400,” discloses the father of two daughters.
Rhee says there is a great lesson to be learnt from this “reversal of fortunes.”
“It all boils down to political leadership, the style of leadership. That’s the key, really, to deciding a country’s destiny.
“For South Korea, we had President Park Chung-hee who was the key factor behind our economic transformation. In Malaysia, you have been fortunate to be blessed with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s outstanding leadership. For example, his Look East policy greatly benefited Malaysians.
“That is why I always regret it when certain people (here) do not recognise that they are living in a peaceful and beautiful country. Some of the young do not seem to be bothered,” he contends.
Rhee speaks with pride of his country’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun, upon whom he places his full faith and trust to take South Korea to greater heights.
“I fully respect his background and the path that led him to power. He is the youngest president for us and has his own leadership style, and I am confident he will be a successful leader,” he avers.
The new administration, he says, is reform-minded and pioneering changes aimed at making the country more competitive and resilient.
Meritocracy is being emphasised and young, efficient officers in the civil service and corporate sector are being rewarded with accelerated promotions.
“Even in the Foreign Service, more of the younger diplomats are moving up fast. We have younger ambassadors appointed. It is the same in the Korean business world.
“Look at Samsung! They don’t just judge a worker based on seniority. It’s more on merit,” says Rhee, who was made an ambassador at the age of 52.
He says the changes were being resented by certain quarters in his country, but reiterates that what was being done was in South Korea’s best interest.
“There is resistance, but there is a tidal wave of support for President Roh, especially from the younger generation,” he says.
Rhee, who was ambassador to Kazakhstan from 1996 to 2000, feels that experience should not be the sole criterion to measure an employee.
“A person can be rich with experience, but what’s the point if he’s not active?” he questions.
The ambassador, who returns to Seoul on June 10 prior to his retirement, says many Korean diplomats were clamouring to serve in Kuala Lumpur.
He reveals that some Korean diplomats in Washington DC refer to KL as “Asia DC” to reflect on its bustling capital city status.
A Public Administration graduate of the Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Rhee, who also had a stint at New York’s Colombia University, says he has only one regret – not having studied international relations and politics and become a college professor.
“Since young, teaching had always attracted me. But I had also dreamt of becoming a diplomat. So, I wanted to be both – a professor and a diplomat,” he concludes with a laugh.