Diplomacy and International Relations: Interview with Korean ambassador Jeong

By Helena Reinders

2021 will mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between South Korea and the Netherlands. Over the course of these 60 years the country has experienced rapid economic growth and has established itself as a prominent country in technological industries. The country has become one of the world’s biggest economies and export countries as of 2020. What kind of impact has this had on its diplomatic relations with other countries? How has the South Korean diplomatic culture developed over these years? These and more are the questions which were answered by South Korean ambassador to the Netherlands Yeon-doo Jeong in an interview held by Sphaera in late July of 2020. Mr. Jeong has been working as an ambassador to the Netherlands for a little over 8 months, prior to which he has worked in Japan, the US, Austria, and Sri Lanka. Joining the interview was also Ms. Jinjoo Kang, the second secretary. Miss Kang has a special focus on culture and relations within the Korean embassy. 

The interview consisted of two parts. The first focussing on how one becomes a diplomat in South Korea and what this entails. The second part focussed on Korean-Dutch relations, focussing on past and present events and the different angles to the interconnectedness of the two countries. 

Although historically speaking, during the Joseon era (1392-1897), only noblemen were able to become diplomats, nowadays anyone who aspires to become a professional diplomat in South Korea has got the opportunity to study and apply for the entrance exams. As explained by Korean Ambassador Jeong, everyone who wants to become a diplomat in South Korea can become one as long as they study hard. No matter your educational background, you can always apply to take the entrance exams for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Interestingly enough, Korea does not have any age restrictions on the application for the exams either. The entrance exams consist of three separate rounds of examination. The first round consists of multiple-choice exams on Korean Constitution, Korean History, PSAT(which tests your basic comprehension skills, analysis skills, and application skills), and English(need to submit official English exam test scores e.g. TOEFL, TOEIC etc.). The second round consists of writing exams on international politics, international law, economics, and cross-sector issues. The third round consists of an interview. Although anyone can apply for these exams, usually only 20 to 30 people pass all 3 rounds of exams and become diplomats.

So then, after someone has been accepted to work for South Korea, how are the positions and recruitments managed? The management and recruiting of representatives is done by looking at several aspects. Most posts are decided by picking among those who volunteered for the post. Some posts always receive more volunteers than others, usually these are the so-called ‘warm water posts’, such as Western European countries and Northern American countries. Nonetheless, the Koreans have also found an effective way of managing so-called ‘hardships posts’. Although not decided upon by law, it is common management that those who have served on a hardship post for several years are sent to a warm water post on their next diplomatic mission. However, people’s expertise is also taken into account. If a certain person has been working at the South Asian Section of the ministry of foreign affairs for several years, this person is more likely to be accepted into a post in a country in South Asia. Take into account however, that this kind of expertise does not guarantee a certain position. 

Naturally when working in an international environment, misunderstandings happen when someone gets sent abroad. On these occasions, Ambassador Jeong emphasizes on the motivation one usually has for becoming a diplomat. More so than focussing on possible misunderstandings, one should be curious and willing to learn from different societies and cultures. When being assigned to a new post, everyone goes through an adjustment phase, where he or she gets used to the new environment, culture, and position. Through this phase and most importantly in the remaining time of the position, one should always remain curious and open. This helps you to get used to the new environment, helps you make local friends, and ultimately helps you to give better advice and make better decisions for your function. From personal experience, Mr. Jeong studied Japanese and English during his overseas training period (1994-97), which helped him in his post in Japan. However, when he was later posted in Sri Lanka, it was being open towards the people and towards the new circumstances which helped him in his position.

Knowing a bit more about what Korean diplomacy entails, the next part of the interview focussed mainly on Korean-Dutch relations. As explained by Mr. Jeong, relations between South Korea and the Netherlands go back further than the 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. During the beginning of the 20th century (1905 and 1907), three diplomats of the then Korean Empire came to The Hague Convention to ask for support in their ongoing tensions with the Japanese Empire. Unfortunately, the three diplomats were not admitted to the Conference to have their voices heard. After this, the Korean Empire found itself invaded by the Japanese Empire in 1910. Much changed in the Netherlands’ involvement with Korea after the 2nd world war, more specifically during the Korean war (1950-1953). In this time, the Netherlands sent more than 5000 troops to help fight alongside the South Koreans, troops which to this day still get taken care of by the South Korean government. The veterans of this war are remembered every year and even got sent 20.000 mouth masks by the Korean Government and Embassy during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More recently, Korean-Dutch relations got strengthened yet again when the Korean Wave reached western-Europe. As explained by Ms. Kang, the increase in interest in the Korean culture and music lead to an increase in public awareness as well. As the general public experienced a new interest in Korean culture, the embassy was able to help fund and set up more cultural events in the Netherlands, strengthening bilateral relations. This can most recently be seen in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, where there is currently an exhibition of the works of Korean video artist Nam June Paik.

Nevertheless, there are more components at which the Dutch and the Koreans share interests and values. As mentioned before, South Korea is one of the biggest countries when it comes to the export of semiconductors, something which the Dutch ASML company has profited from as well. With several offices in South Korea, the company works together with Korean household names such as Samsung and SK Hynix. On top of that, there is a Korean interest in the Dutch agricultural efficiency. Seeing as both countries are relatively densely populated, the Koreans are interested in how the Dutch agriculture is so efficient that it even has the capacity to be one of the biggest export countries. On the other hand, there is a growing Dutch interest in the Korean healthcare system and their way of dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being one of the countries which was hit the hardest and quickest, South Korea has managed to keep the virus in check and shows an astonishing capability of dealing with the virus. Lastly, one should not forget the cooperation of the Dutch, South Koreans, and many other countries in preserving peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Something in which the two countries cooperate actively and rigorously.

As the interview came to an end, the opportunity arose for one more question to be asked. Who better to ask this question than to someone who has been working in diplomatic relations for almost 30 years? This question was, naturally, if the ambassador had any tips or advice for current and incoming students. Mr. Jeong his answer was clear and precise.

“Be proud of the university you go to, its legacy, and its traditions. This pride, however, also comes with responsibility. Students should respect multiculturalism and respect each other.”

Lastly, Ambassador Jeong emphasized the importance of exchange students. These students get to experience what it is like to live in another country for a limited time, how to adapt to that country, and get to learn about its culture and values. Especially for students who aspire to work in diplomatic relations, an exchange can be a valuable learning opportunity. Most importantly: enjoy your student years and learn from the students around you.

Artwork by Chira Tudoran