[Viewpoint] Time to rebuild our U.S. embassyOn Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., a large-scale construction project, the size of five-and a half soccer fields, is in a frenzy.
Scheduled to be completed next year, it will house the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. Designed by Ieoh Ming Pei, the world-famous Chinese-American architect who designed the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, this 40,000 square-meter building will be the largest embassy in the United States. When it is completed by 500 Chinese workers using materials only from China, the building will surely become a landmark in the midst of Washington to the magnificence of the “rising power.”
Apart from the Chinese Embassy, there are many distinctive embassy buildings in Washington, D.C., regarded as the capital of the world.
The Embassy of Japan near the Korean Embassy in Washington earns praise and admiration because of its traditional architecture and landscaping. After passing through the entrance painted with Japanese patterns, one enters a hall that can accommodate 150 people. Especially when the cherry trees bloom along the Potomac River in the spring, this building plays a great role in fostering the image of Japan in Washington.
The British Embassy in Washington, D.C., next to the official residence of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, draws attention because of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister whom Americans particularly love, in front of the building.
Possessing a large hall that can accommodate hundreds, the building serves as a meeting place between the United States and Britain, countries that have a special relationship. By holding a surprise birthday party for Condoleezza Rice two years ago, the British Embassy won favor from the newly appointed U.S. secretary of state.
The newly built Swedish Embassy beside the Potomac River, a favorite tourist attraction in Washington, is called a public building of dreams by diplomats, thanks to its excellent location and complex structure, including a performance hall, a cultural center and a public relations hall along with its state-of-the-art architecture. Washingtonians call this building the House of Sweden to express their feeling of intimacy with it.
What does our Korean Embassy in Washington look like? The many decades-old, five-story building reminds people of military quarters due to its dark gray color. Inside, more than 100 staff members occupy every space in dozens of offices, arranged as if they were barracks. An office for a single person is at times partitioned into two compartments and shared by two people. It is no exaggeration for former diplomats to complain, “We could barely breathe here for three years before we left.”
This building serves as a poor symbol to present the image of Korea in the so-called capital of the world. Except for the national flag of Korea, the Taegeukgi, raised in front of the building, the Korean Embassy has almost no characteristics for passersby to feel Korean. Although serving visitors is one of its biggest jobs, the Korean Embassy has a hard time finding a place every year to hold large receptions to commemorate the Korean War or National Foundation Day, because it has no large halls.
The staff members in the Korean Embassy have had many discussions about those problems. But the embassy kept silent, fearing the government in Seoul would say, “Don’t blame the facility for your not doing any work.” But now the time has come to seriously consider rebuilding the Korean Embassy. This is not because we are jealous of the giant Chinese Embassy. Nor is it because the Korean Embassy in the United States falls far behind the Korean Embassy buildings in China, Russia and Japan. The truly important reason is that the embassy symbolizes Korea’s interest in and efforts toward the United States. The general opinion of experts is that the United States is still the country in which Korea has to place the greatest diplomatic weight for the coming 100 years.
To prop up the relationship between the two countries into the next century, the Korean Embassy needs to be reconstructed as a complex building, with form and function. The number of personnel at the embassy has remained unchanged since the 1980s. That should be increased, too, in keeping with the bilateral relations that have developed to date.
Timely enough, the Korean Embassy in Washington announced last week that it would pursue the purchase of the legation building of the Daehan Empire in the United States, which Emperor Gojong built in downtown Washington, D.C. as a symbol of the country’s self-reliant, practical diplomacy.
If even Emperor Gojong, a novice in modern diplomacy, grasped the importance of the United States and spent money from the national coffers on constructing such a building in Washington, it becomes even clearer that we need to rebuild the Korean Embassy in the United States.
*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Khang Chan-ho