Interview with Ottawa Life Magazine – Ambassador Cho Hee-yong
OTTAWA LIFE MAGAZINE: What is your background as an Ambassador and when did you first arrive in Canada? What are your impressions of Canada since arriving in Ottawa?
AMBASSADOR CHO HEE-YONG: When I was first offered the position in Ottawa, my wife and I were very honoured and pleased to be given the special opportunity to serve in Canada. Canada is one of the most well-known and respected countries among Koreans. We have such a positive and favorable perception of this country. In fact, Canada always ranks among the top four most appealing countries in the world by the Korean public.
His Excellency Mr. Cho Hee-yong, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Canada
We arrived in Canada at the end of July 2012, so we have spent over one full year here in Ottawa. Before I assumed my post in Canada, I was working as the Ambassador to Sweden and Latvia. In fact, I have been working in the Foreign Service since 1979 and have travelled all over the globe: from China to Japan to the Philippines, and from Washington to Scandinavia. Now, after so many years serving as a diplomat, I have finally made it to Ottawa; one of the best postings for an Ambassador.
Over the past year, I have travelled to most major cities across the country: Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, and in a few weeks’ time I will be visiting Halifax, Charlottetown, Moncton, and Saint John. During these past trips I have had the privilege of meeting with and speaking to so many Canadians, from leaders in government, business, the community, and the world of academia, as well as students, teachers, and the truly inspiring Korean War veterans.
These experiences have confirmed my initial understanding and perception of Canada; that Canadians come from all over the world, they respect, celebrate, and welcome diversity and multiculturalism, they are compassionate, inviting, and generous, and as I quickly discovered, they have an unrivalled love of hockey. Not only that, I was surprised to learn that there are more similarities than differences between Canadians and Koreans and that we both think very highly of each other. Finally, Canadians are very open to others, making it a favourable and positive environment to engage in diplomacy.
Another interesting thing that I have learned over the course of my visits is that most Canadians I have met have some personal connection to Korea. Some have travelled or taught English in the country, or have friends who still teach in Korea. Others are the children or grandchildren of men and women who fought in the Korean War. I recently met with a Korean War veteran who told me that because he is too old to travel, his granddaughter, an English teacher in Korea, frequently visits the UN cemetery in Busan to pay respects to his fallen comrades. I was so deeply touched to hear this story. It shows that the memory of Canada’s Korean War veterans is being passed down from generation to generation and it gives me the hope that our extraordinary friendship, forged in blood, sweat and tears, will endure for years to come.
Overall, I think that these personal connections to Korea are a very important feature of our two countries’ relationship. These ties that bind Korea and Canada make our partnership even closer and stronger.
OTTAWA LIFE MAGAZINE: What makes 2013 an important year for Korea and Canada?
AMBASSADOR CHO HEE-YONG: As you may know, I was very fortunate to have arrived in Ottawa at the start of an incredibly important and historic year. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of official diplomatic relations between Korea and Canada and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. In honour of this double milestone, our two Governments declared 2013 to be the “Year of Korea in Canada” and the “Year of Canada in Korea.” In addition, Veterans Affairs Canada designated 2013 as the “Year of the Korean War Veteran.”
This momentous year has given us an incredible opportunity to look back and reflect on all that has been accomplished since the establishment of Korea-Canada diplomatic relations and garner some insight and ideas on how we can further enhance our two countries bilateral relations for the next 50 years.
In looking back, while the alliance that we celebrate today was formally recognized in 1963, it existed long before our 1963 treaty; our shared history started over a century ago. Before diplomats, there were nearly 200 missionaries, teachers, and physicians working in Korea in the late 19th century, forging the first links between Canadian and Korean people. These early envoys also brought notable cultural, scientific, and social contributions to Korean development; contributions which helped modernize Korea. We Koreans still remember the legacy and achievements of Canadians like John Gale, Dr. Francis William Schofield, and Dr. Oliver Avison.
Our partnership was then solidified in 1950, when thousands of brave Canadians fought and hundreds died alongside Koreans to resist the Communist aggression and preserve South Korea as an independent and free state. Today, there are fewer and fewer Korean War veterans among us, so it is important that we take time to honour them and their familes, listen to their stories, and ensure that they live on for years to come.
Throughout this past, Korea and Canada have steadily developed a Special Partnership based on our shared history, common values, robust economic ties, and close people to people connections. We have also achieved countless successes together as staunch allies, ideal partners, and like-minded countries. It is fair to say that our relations have never been closer or stronger than they are right now.
So, as the Ambassador to Canada during this special year, I appreciate that I am in a very unique position to further develop and strengthen Korea-Canada relations and bring this partnership to the next level. Not only that, I cannot think of a better time to recognize the tremendous support and collaboration from the Canadian public.
OTTAWA LIFE MAGAZINE: How did Canada contribute to the Korean War and what is the role of the UN on the Korean Peninsula?
AMBASSADOR CHO HEE-YONG: One of our greatest shared experiences began 60 years ago when Canadians and Koreans stood shoulder to shoulder in the Korean War. This represents one of the most significant military engagements in Canada’s history and its third largest military deployment in the 20th century. In fact, last month on July 27th, the anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement, Prime Minister Harper said, “The Korean War was one of the most challenging chapters in Canada’s proud military history. In proportion to its population, Canada’s contribution of troops was one of the largest within the international force.”
Koreans still remember the legacy of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle of Kap’yong, which Prime Minister Harper stated is among Canada’s greatest victories and most illustrious moments in its military history. Thanks to efforts of Canada’s Princess Patricia’s, the Chinese invasion into Seoul was halted, allowing for the UN counterattack that drove the invasion back over the 38th parallel. This is indeed a story that resonates in the hearts and minds of the Korean people, and it is a story that should be remembered and shared for years to come.
Korean’s also remember the contributions of Mr. Lester B. Pearson, who was actively involved in UN efforts to resolve the war, leading to the successful signing of the armistice agreement on July 27, 1953. In fact, when Mr. Pearson was asked what he considered the greatest single achievement of the Security Council and of the United Nations itself, he replied that the most important single achievement had been the organization’s action in Korea.
Overall for Canada, nearly 27,000 Canadians served throughout the Korean War and a total of 516 of these young men and women made the ultimate sacrifice. We Koreans have never forgotten the extraordinary contributions and tremendous sacrifices of these Canadians who defended a country they never knew and a people they never met.
Last month, on the 60th anniversary of the armistice, President Park Geun-Hye visited the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan. There, she laid flowers and paid a special tribute to Canada’s Hearsey brothers, who participated in the Korean War and whose graves now lay side-by-side with so many other brave Canadian veterans. The story of these two Canadians is that the younger brother joined the Canadian Armed Forces to fight in the war. His older brother, out of concern for his younger brother’s safety, joined the war a short time later and was killed in action. After 61 years of missing his brother, the younger Hearsey left a final request that he wanted to be buried beside him in Korea. At their tombs, President Park renewed her commitment to never let their sacrifices be in vain.
Indeed, thanks to Canada’s veterans and so many Canadians over the years, Korea has become a strong, prosperous, and sovereign nation. To quote Minister Blaney, “There would be no ‘Gangnam Style’ if it had not been for the sacrifices of Canadians.” I think this statement reflects the pride that Canadians feel over their significant role in shaping Korea as we know it today.
In addition, I fully agree with the comments of President Obama. I believe the Korean War was a victory for the South. Since the war, we have become a genuine democracy; we have transformed from an aid-recipient to a donor country; we have emerged as the world’s 15th largest economy and member of G20; and we are now a full-fledged partner in some of the great councils of the world. In fact, Korea is seen as a model country for other developing nations in terms of democracy building and economic development.
In regard to the UN, Korea is often said to be its beloved child, which indicates the special bond forged in history between the ROK and the UN. By many accounts, the ROK is a success story for the UN.
As you know, the Korean War was the first war in which a world organization, the United Nations, played a military role and defeated the enemy. Since the signing of the Armistice Agreement, peace has been kept by a military armistice commission, of which Canada is a member. This UN command continues a program of regular guard post inspections throughout the southern portion of the DMZ, and conducts investigations of any alleged Armistice violations which come to its attention.
As such, the UN is still very much present and relevant in Korea. Today, sixty-three years after the Security Council authorized a coalition of forces to fight under the UN flag against North Korean forces; and sixty years after an Armistice Agreement ended hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the UN flag still flies over the Demilitarized Zone.
[Free Trade Agreement]
Of course, these are all encouraging and exciting trade and investment areas, but there remains between us massive and untapped economic potential. There is no doubt that the FTA under negotiation would further enhance and upgrade our economic partnership.
Both sides will need to show more flexibility and compromise in order to seize the momentum of this special year and conclude the FTA swiftly. It would represent a historic turning point and key milestone in the relations between our two countries and set the stage for greater shared prosperity in the future.
[People to People Exchanges and Contributions of Diaspora]
Of course, the strength of our partnership is more than just our economic and political alliances. We have been very encouraged to witness the increasing trend of people-to-people exchanges between our two countries.
Tourism is booming, with roughly a quarter of a million people travelling between Canada and Korea each year. Of them, more than 23,000 Canadians have settled in Korea and more than 230,000 Koreans have immigrated to Canada. 90% of these Korean-Canadians now live in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, but a growing number are joining communities in Alberta and Manitoba.
Why? Because Koreans have a very positive and favorable perception of this country. As I mentioned, Canada is consistently rated among the top four most appealing countries in the world by the Korean public and is often regarded as a first choice for potential Korean immigrants. In my opinion, with the state of immigration in Canada, the opportunities and possibilities for Koreans are endless. For instance, I mentioned that I have had the opportunity to visit cities across Canada and from those trips, what I have realized is that many descendants of Canadian immigrants currently hold leadership roles within their communities or positions in the provinces. By witnessing the success of these individuals I can see that Canada truly respects diversity and multiculturalism.
I am particularly pleased to note that Korean-Canadians themselves have made enormous contributions to the communities they have joined. While the Korean community still lacks sufficient political representation relative to the difficulties they face as a visible minority group with a short immigrant history, they have grown quite rapidly within the past few decades as one of the more prominent communities in Canada.
Not only that, there is an increasing trend of mobility and exchange among our young people. For instance, there are 4,000 annual exchanges in the Working Holiday Program. In addition, there are more than 5,000 Canadians teaching English as a Second Language to young Korean students. Koreans respect Canadian teachers. We estimate that there are around 100,000 Canadians who have taught in Korea. They are playing an excellent role in enhancing public awareness about Canada and developing mutual understanding among our two populations.
Similarly, there are about 22,000 to 23,000 Korean students studying in Canada today, making up the third largest international student population in the country. They bring to Canada our country’s unique ‘Hallyu’ or ‘Korean Wave’.
[‘Gangnam Style’ and the Korean Wave]
This refers to the global spread of Korea’s culture, such as our music, arts, dance, entertainment, food, and brands. You know “Gangnam Style” by K-pop artist Psy or you may use a Samsung cell-phone. Maybe you even own a Kia or a Hyundai and practice the traditional martial art Taekwondo. Of course, when I was growing up, I could never have dreamt that Korea would have cell-phones and cars and kimchi in Canada.
In my opinion, through “Gangnam Style”, I can feel that the world is more familiar with Korean culture, more fond of Korean culture, and more interested in learning about Korean culture. This can only have a positive impact on Korea’s future relations with the world.
While Psy has done so much to create interest in our country and bring Korean culture to young people around the world (he was recently awarded the Ok-gwan Order of Cultural Merit by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the third highest level of cultural recognition by the government), myself and the Embassy have also been hosting a number of cultural celebrations and events, such as the Embassy Speakers Series, Korean movies nights, school visit programs, and cultural caravans, to help strengthen our people-to-people ties and spread awareness of South Korea among Canadians.
OTTAWA LIFE MAGAZINE: What is South Korea’s policy in dealing with North Korea?
AMBASSADOR CHO HEE-YONG: Over the years, South Korea has made continuous efforts to achieve reconciliation and peace on the Korean peninsula, despite the North’s consistent and frequent military threats. As part of the Park Geun-hye Government’s Trustpolitik, the government seeks to advance a trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula. The goal of this process is to establish sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula and eventually lay the foundation for peaceful reunification.
In order to start building trust between the two Koreas, it is important to respect agreements, no matter how small, and whether they are inter-Korean or international. The Park Geun-hye Government will continue its efforts to develop inter-Korean relations in such a manner. It also seeks to promote positive change within North Korea with the support of the international community. Although it is most important for North Korea to make the right decisions and take steps toward genuine change, it is also necessary for the international community to create an environment whereby North Korea has no other option but to change.
This trust building process is composed of two parts. One is to safeguard peace based on strong deterrence, and the other is to build peace on the Korean Peninsula and within the region.
As you are well aware, North Korea’s provocations over the past year – launching long range missiles and conducting a nuclear test in an attempt to advance its WMD capability – pose a serious threat to the peace and stability of the international community. As such, our position is clear. We, along with our allies in the international community, strongly adhere to maintaining a strong deterrence against North Korea and we will not tolerate their nuclear development. To make substantial progress on denuclearization, necessary pre-steps must be taken in advance. We simply cannot allow the repetition of the vicious cycle that begins with North Korea’s provocations, followed by compensation, and leading to yet further provocations. North Korea has used such tactics in the past.
Our effort to make peace continues even at this moment. If North Korea makes the right choices, Korea and the international community will provide the necessary assistance. However, we will not forsake our principle for short-term political benefit, as there is no room in Trustpolitik for rash conclusions of convenience. We urge North Korea to abandon the path of confrontation and isolation and take the path toward peace and prosperity.
OTTAWA LIFE MAGAZINE: What is your outlook on the future of bilateral relations between Korea and Canada?
AMBASSADOR CHO HEE YONG: Before I leave my post here in Ottawa, I would like to continue four key activities that will help Canada and Korea achieve a Strategic Partnership in the days ahead. First, we must work to expand and strengthen our institutional frameworks, such as revising our Working Holiday Agreement and developing a joint Energy Strategy, as well as finalizing the FTA. We must also work to strengthen Korea and Canada’s partnership on the global stage as like-minded, constructive powers. We must highlight the importance of our people-to-people exchanges, particularly among young people, and we must continue to honour the Korean War Veterans through initiatives like Korea’s Ambassador for Peace medal and our Revisit Korea Program. Most importantly, I wish all of Canada’s Korean War veterans the best of luck and continued good health and longevity so that they may one day join Koreans in witnessing the fruits of their sacrifice: the foundation of a democratically unified peninsula.
As you know, the world is constantly changing, but what remains constant is the geography and history of each country. I envy Canadians. You only have one super-power as a neighbour, while we have so many. You are blessed with valuable natural resources, while Korea has so few. Also, you only have a couple hundred years of history with your neighbours, while we have a shared history that spans thousands with ours.
Of course, all politics is local. It is a reality that each country has its own priorities in addressing issues and challenges. Canada will always place great importance on its relations with the U.S. and the EU – based on geographic and historical ties.
But, I would like to remind Canadians that despite our geographical distance, we have remained close friends and staunch allies for more than six decades. Now, it is incumbent on both of us to ensure that the invaluable sacrifices of the young Canadian men and women who served during the Korean War were not made in vain. I urge both of our countries to remember all the ties that bind us and the significant investments made over the past 100 years and to continue growing our relationship for future generations.
This year, let us turn our attention toward each other. It is time to take hold of the momentum we’ve established to date, grasp the opportunities ahead of us, and take the steps necessary to develop a Strategic Partnership.
Lastly, I would like to say that I am truly optimistic about the future of Korea-Canada relations, and this is never more evident than when we look at the growing number of exchanges between our young people. They are doing so much to bridge our two countries, pushing us closer together every day. So, I think now is the time for everyone – young and old – to come to Korea, taste our food, listen to our music, and experience for yourself what the real “Gangnam Style” is all about.
Part two of this interview will be published in print and online at www.ottawalife.com in November 2013