Big world, small countries: Koreans in unlikely placesThere are some countries that are so small, so poor or so far from Korea that few people here might be able to point them out on a map, much less move there. Yet Koreans have wound up in small, unknown and faraway places - places like Yemen , Bhutan, Sierra Leone and Fiji.
These are the stories of Koreans who now serve as honorary consuls to those four countries. A common thread run through their tales: Each time it starts with business, then friendships with local residents. Friendships deepen into family ties. Eventually, what started as a business trip winds up as a love affair with the entire country.
These four people are more than just Koreans; they are global citizens, honorary consul of Korea and explorers of small countries in a wide world.
The daughter of the desert
Arabian Peninsula, near the entrance of the Red Sea
22 million people (2005
Capital City: Sanaa
Major religion: Islam
Jung Sun-hee, 39, feared that she would live too much of an ordinary life. Hoping to do something adventurous, she applied to the department of Arab Literature at the Korean University of Foreign Studies. Degree in hand, she was admitted to a graduate program for interpretation when something unexpected happened: She became the adopted daughter of an Arab high official.
“In 1992, a minister from Yemen and his wife visited Korea,” she said. “They were worried a lot about language. I became their local guide, and I guess they liked how well I spoke Arabic. They were warm people. We quickly became friends.”
The following year, she was hired by a trading company and flew to Libya. She attended an exposition of state-run companies and sold over $3 million worth of products. She was invited by the minister to come to Yemen to study. The next day, she packed her things and moved to the country on the edge of the Arabian peninsula. She spent eight months with the couple, calling the Minister “Abu” and his wife “Umu,” Arabic for mother and father.
Then in 1994, when she was studying at the National University of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, civil war erupted.
“My family and the Korean consular said I should return home as soon as possible,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave my family, but I did. When I gave some money to my foster parents hoping that it would help them, my foster father yelled at me, asking whether I measured affection between parents and children with money. I cried a lot. I was overwhelmed by their love.”
In 1995, she was selected to go to Egypt as an international student supported by the state. At Cairo University, she studied Islamic philosophy. While attending a special program on regional studies, she fell in love with a Korean man who worked for Samsung Electronics and had been sent to Egypt. They got married as soon as she finished her studies. She then went to Saudi Arabia, this time as the wife of a resident trader. For six years, she worked as a local coordinator and interpreter for reporters and marketers from Korea.
In 2002, she returned to Korea, and set up Four Season T&C, a consulting firm for businesses operating in the Middle East, based on the network she built from meetings with Saudi royals there.
In June 2003, she was appointed as an honorary consul to Yemen, the first female consul to an Islamic nation. Last April, she played a critical role in inviting Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, to Korea. The visit led to the Korea National Oil Corporation earning operating rights to four oil districts in Yemen.
“The young bureaucrats I met at my foster parents’ home are now central members of their government,” she said. “I get e-mail messages from them now and then. I don’t charge consulting fees for them, because it’s my second home.”
High up on the happiness index at the top of the Himalayas
Northwestern Himalayan Mountains
Population: 700,000 (2004)
Capital City: Thimbu
Main religions: 75% Lima, 25% Hindu
In the early spring of 1983, strangers walked into the life of a 39-year old entrepreneur. They introduced themselves as the uncles of the king of Bhutan, a nation nestled in the Himalayas. They had stopped over in Korea for a tour after an official visit to Japan. The man’s acquaintances in Japan asked him to show the Bhutanese around Korea, so he took the group to Bulguksa Temple, in Gyeongju, South Gyeongsang province.
Mesmerized by the temple’s beauty, the royal uncles decided to stay another week. Before their farewell, one of them suggested that the Korean guide set up a Korea-Bhutan friendship. This was years before the two countries set up official relations.
That was how Kim Han-young, 62, the honorary consul to Bhutan, wound up in the small, quirky country.
“I was naturally attracted to them, because we had so many similarities, in our appearance, the way we dressed, our lifestyle habits and language,” Mr. Kim said. “In Bhutanese, the phrase ‘uh, it’s cold’ is the same as it is in Korean. When an arrow hits the target, they say ‘jotta!’ meaning ‘good’ in Korean? It’s quite similar.”
After the group’s visit, Mr. Kim first became involved in economic exchanges with the country. He had little success, though, mainly because Bhutan is one of Asia’s most impoverished countries (they are, however, among the happiest people in the world. The Bhutanese government does not measure its gross national product, preferring to look at its “Gross National Happiness.”)
“It may stem from their Buddhist philosophy on life,” Mr. Kim said. “They are not so obsessed with worldly affairs, and think of sharing as a life requirement. They might have a live trout in their pond, but they wouldn’t catch it to eat. They don’t think it’s fair to kill a beautiful life just for the pleasures of the tongue.”
He says his life would have been much more boring if he hadn’t met the Bhutanese 23 years ago.
“There’s a joke that you are not a Bhutanese if you haven’t been invited to Mr. HY Kim’s house on your trip to Korea,” he said. “But that is nothing compared to what I get when I go to Bhutan. I am treated with feasts of friendship straight from the heart.”
Africa’s megawatt power broker
Population: 5.9 million (2004)
Main religions: Islam (60%), Animism (30%), Christianity (10%)
When he was a little boy, Jeong Hae-jung went to school in the small township of Nonsan in South Chungcheong province, but his mind was already overseas. At the age of 20, he applied to Hyundai Engineering & Construction Company. The moment he was hired, he asked his boss to send him abroad.
His only argument was that he spoke a bit of English. His boss sent him to a construction site in Saudi Arabia. That’s how Mr. Jeong Hae-jung, an honorary consul of Sierra Leone, first escaped from his country into the wide world.
“The local director in Saudi Arabia was an American man,” he says. “He probably thought I was a cool kid, because I always had a book in my hands. So he wrote me a letter of reference to California State University. I made it into the school only after being rejected six times.”
After studying engineering, he went straight into an MBA program, then took a doctoral degree in international economics. It was then that he became friends with an international student from Nigeria.
Years later, the student from Nigeria became the country’s minister of science and technology. He suggested that his college friend come to his home in Africa to start a business. That was in 1981.
To set up his business, MK International, Mr. Jeong began trading everyday goods in Nigeria. By 1983, the company’s main field was consulting for construction and finance companies. It then expanded into Senegal, Cameroon and South Africa. He spent a portion of his income digging wells in local villages. In fact, Mr. Jeong is said to be the first man to bring rice-cleaning machines to Africa.
In 2003, he became the co-director of the UN’s Asia-Africa Chamber of Commerce, also dubbed AACC.
Mr. Jeong has gotten offers to become an honorary consul from other countries. But he prefers to stay in Sierra Leone, saying it gives him a sense of accomplishment to work for one of the most impoverished nations in Africa.
“When you look at mountains and prairies from the plain, there’s nothing more beautiful than Sierra Leone,” he says. “People are warm and innocent. It takes an effort to distance yourself from the resentment toward the Caucasian population in the country, who spread the seeds of slavery and colonialism.”
His next project is to set up 60-megawatt electric generators. “Currently, the production capability of electricity in Sierra Leone is below 240 megawatts,” he says. “I’ve secured a guarantee from the World Bank. It will work out fine. I like there to be light in a country known as the ‘land of dark.’”
High-flyer to a far-off island
Capital City: Suva
Religion: Christianity (50%), Hindu (40%), Islam (7%)
In a hospital in London in 1975, a middle-aged Asian man struggled to overcome his pain. He was delivered to the hospital after having fainted during a flight from Frankfurt to New York. The flight stopped over at Heathrow Airport. The doctors said the man had a gallstone. While waiting for the painkillers to take effect, the man swore that he would never to take a plane again.
He managed to keep that vow for nearly a month.
While in London, Jang U-ju, now 79 and the honorary consul for Fiji , was appointed president of Hyundai Engineering and Construction after working for a year for a construction firm in the Middle East.
Thirty-one years have passed, and he still travels on planes. But Mr. Jang has more titles than ever: After graduating from the Korea Military Academy, he became a chief of one of the most active military bases in Korea. He was also the secretary-general of a North-South Korean Summit by the Red Cross, the head of a group of Korean-American economic leaders, a Korean advisor to the state governments of Idaho and New Jersey and a representative of Hyundai and its affiliates.
In 1991, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade offered him the title of honorary consul to Fiji as an effort to make the influential state in the South Pacific a good Korean ally.
He took the offer. Four years later, he had made some real accomplishments, one of which is the establishment of direct flights between Seoul to Fiji in 1995.
“It started with two flights a week by Korean Air,” he says. “Now it’s three. Up to 60 percent of the passengers are travelers from Europe and China.”
He is going forward with another plan ― to set up a resort on the island run by a Korean.
“If you’re going to travel, why not travel on our plane,” he says. “It’s a form of civil diplomacy in a way, because it helps the islanders.”
by Lee Na-ree