A place called home

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A place called home

One of the most recognizable foreign faces on the peninsula to Koreans is that of Jeffrey D. Jones, the president of the America Chamber of Commerce Korea.

Mr. Jones, or Jo Jae-myeong, the name bestowed on him by a local friend, likes to call himself an egg -- the reverse of how Korean-Americans often refer to themselves as bananas. He says the white is his looks and the yolk is his real self. When told that the white part is bigger, he'll tell you that the nutrition is in the yolk.

He calls Korea "our country," as Koreans do.

Mr. Jones, 50, has been at the helm of AmCham Korea for more than four years, longer than any local Amcham chief before him. At the end of this month, however, he will step down to make way for a successor. Before becoming president, Mr. Jones spent eight years as the chamber's vice president.

At his home in Hannam-dong, a 330-square-meter house he designed himself, Mr. Jones, stately at 186 centimeters tall (6-foot-1), looks relaxed. "Now I feel free and easy," he says. "Most of my term I didn't have much time for my private life because I had so many expectations to meet." Still, he is not in the best of health -- he was recently released from a hospital for kidney problems -- and he looked a bit fatigued. But he brightened up when he talked about his years with AmCham.

The head of the chamber has mighty power in Korea, because the United States holds considerable influence over local politics, diplomacy, economics and culture. During his time with the chamber, Mr. Jones often met with the presidents of Korea and the United States.

AmCham Korea, now comprising more than 1,000 American companies with operations here and more than 2,000 local residents, used to be regarded by Koreans as a high-handed organization. Mr. Jones has been able to change that -- people credit him for lowering the threshold between Korean society and the American organization. As Mr. Jones puts it, when Koreans think AmCham is overbearing, it leads to anti-American sentiment, which hurts everybody.

"After I became president," he says, "I just kept volunteering for press conferences, lectures and meeting people, to bridge the gaps. At first, AmCham members didn't welcome the accessible profile, but they accepted the approach after seeing relations improve."

He said he is proud that during his years in office there was not much anti-American sentiment in trade and commerce. For one thing, when Idaho-based Micron Technology, a semiconductor manufacturer, was negotiating to buy the local chipmaker Hynix, both sides clearly trusted Mr. Jones.

But not everything on the job went so smoothly. He says he has many regrets about how he handled negotiations regarding the auto industry, the division of hospitals' and pharmacies' duties, and Korea's movie quota system. He recalls a statement he made about the struggling Daewoo Motor Co.: "The company should be sold even for nothing, if there is a willing buyer." At times like that the local press would paint him as an American wolf in pro-Korea sheep's clothing. "You never know how much that hurts," he says. "I swear that I've never ever done anything that would be unfair to Korea."

Explaining his win-win philosophy, he says that if a deal was only to the Korean side's benefit, it would not be settled, of course. Vice versa would not help, he says, for in the long run a deal benefiting only the American side would result in fewer and fewer Korean companies willing to trade.

His affinity for Korea looked especially sincere when he talked about the anti-American sentiment that has flared up recently. He says the feeling isn't much different from the old days, say the 1980s. The negative emotions boil over because Korea is too dependent on the United States for its economic growth, and that fuels resentment, he says. He also says that American policy is sometimes arrogant, saying its way is the best.

Mr. Jones began working in Korea in 1980, as an attorney for Kim & Chang, a firm he will continue with when he leaves AmCham.

He came to the peninsula as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary. Counting those two years spreading the word, Mr. Jones has spent half of his life in Korea. "My first encounter with this country was Aug. 15, 1971, Korea's Independence Day," he says. "The moment the airplane door opened at Gimpo Airport, my friends were disgusted by the smell of manure and night soil from farms nearby. But it didn't bother me at all. It's strange, but I felt that I was at home. After my two years as a missionary, I went back to the United States. But I missed Korea so much that I cried and swore I would come back."

Another thing that made Mr. Jones feel he was destined to live in Korea was how fast he picked up the language during his preliminary missionary training in Hawaii. He says he was the only missionary trainee who could understand the sermons in Korean toward the end of the training program, before they were sent to Korea.

While serving his mission in Masan, South Gyeongsang province, he saw many Koreans suffering from diseases. So he decided to attend medical school once he got home to the United States. But after one day of medical school, he changed his mind, and decided to go to law school. After graduation, he joined the multinational firm Baker and McKenzie. A few years later, he took the job in Korea. It was all meant to be, he says.

Born in Boise, Idaho, Mr. Jones says he can trace his genealogy back to the pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower. Now he is very much Koreanized -- he enjoys kimchi stew and loves to go to singing rooms. He got married two years ago to a Korean woman, Lee In-suk, 20 years his junior, after five years of being madly in love. The couple has a son, Jamie, whose Korean name is Jae-min. The boy recently celebrated his first birthday.

What Mr. Jones says he likes most about Korea and its people is jeong, a hard-to-translate feeling of sympathy and loyalty. He says it's hard to find the same sentiment in the United States. Another thing he says he admires is the sense of filial respect Koreans maintain. Once he tried to mimic Korean customs while serving his own parents, who were surprised, to say the least.

"I find it really hard to be a Korean," Mr. Jones says. "My Korean speaking ability is, in fact, only that of a 12-year-old Korean boy. I am fully aware that Koreans give me more respect than I deserve. That's why I'm always thankful to Korea and its people."

Mr. Jones has translated that gratitude into good works. A few years ago he established a foundation to help the jobless. Since then, about 6,000 Koreans can thank him for getting them off unemployment rolls. He also belongs to more than 30 groups, including many charities.

"Until the day I die, I will live on this soil, loving this country," he says. Does that mean he'll switch his citizenship? "But I love America as well, so I'm not going to be naturalized -- for myself and for my country."

Still, after a five-hour interview, it is clear that Mr. Jones wasn't kidding all that much about the egg comparison. Waving goodbye, he says, "Let's talk some more -- maybe over some soju."

by Lee Man-hoon

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