[OUTLOOK]A Community Along the New Silk Road

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[OUTLOOK]A Community Along the New Silk Road

Only two experts in Korean language existed within the U.S. Defense Department when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950.

They were Yunpi Kim, a second-generation Korean-American from California who worked as an interpreter and code analyzer in the U.S. Army during World War II, and Dick Chun, who grew up in Hawaii.

When the Korean War broke out, the U.S. State Department scurried to train specialists in the Korean language. A good textbook was the main problem.

Back then, there was no adequate textbook on the Korean language written in English. What they found, with difficulty, was a book on Korean grammar written by Gustaf John Ramstedt (1873-1950), a Finnish linguist and diplomat.

The book was used as a basic text for U.S. soldiers at the beginning of the war. Among the U.S. soldiers who served in Korea during the war, there were also some second generation Finnish-Americans.

Many of them worked as telecommunications personnel at U.S. Army bases and used Finnish among themselves on the job to confuse any enemy listeners.

It would be difficult to think of the recruitment of Finnish-Americans as telecommunication personnel as a mere coincidence, and indeed the Americans used Navajo-speaking troops during the Second World War for the same purpose.

Mr. Ramstedt was a scholar who devoted much of his life to studying languages. He traveled on many occasions to Mongolia and the Far East in search of the linguistic origins of the Finnish language in Ural-Altai languages.

When Russia was swept by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Finland declared its independence and appointed Mr. Ramstedt, who was then a professor at the University of Helsinki, as its first ambassador to Japan.

While working in Tokyo from 1919 to 1929, Mr. Ramstedt took the opportunity to study both Japanese and Korean whenever time allowed.

He frequently visited the Korean ghetto located on the outskirts of Tokyo, visits which were sometimes the subject of suspicion by Japanese officials.

But those suspicions were dispelled after the Japanese decided that he was, indeed, a language scholar and was not using the visits to stir up or report on Korean sentiment for independence.

Upon his return to Finland, Mr. Ramstedt taught a course on the Korean language at the University of Helsinki, the first of its kind in Europe.

Among European languages, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are of the same Finnish-Uigur language family. As a result, cultural exchanges and sympathy among these three countries have been widely developed.

Mr. Ramstedt believed that Mongolian, Korean, Japanese and Turkish, which belong to the Ural-Altai language family, shared the same linguistic roots as the three European languages.

At this point, we could invoke Mr. Ramstedt's thoughts to expand our diplomatic horizon.

We should strengthen our cultural ties with countries that pertain to the Ural-Altai language family and keep in mind the possible formation of a cultural community with these countries.

The absence of a community that we can fall back on is starkly felt when engaging in multilateral diplomacy in the international arena.

Asia may seem to be a support group, but Asian countries are often our competitors when it comes to multilateral diplomacy.

Consolidation of ties with countries of the Ural-Altai language family could serve as momentum for us to form a community with these countries for the benefit of our multilateral diplomacy, especially as a new "silk road era" that connects Europe and Asia by train and road lies within the foreseeable future.

Countries with Ural-Altai languages stretch from Japan and Mongolia through Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and European nations such as Hungary, Estonia and Finland.

Therefore, our support for Korean studies, presently concentrated in the United States, should be gradually expanded to and strengthened in countries with Ural-Altai cultures.

As I prepare to finish my tour of duty as ambassador to Finland and return home, this is one of my fondest wishes.


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The writer is the Korean ambassador to Finland

by Yang Dong-chil

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