Corps values

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Corps values

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“I graduated from Michigan University in the Northeast.”

This statement is engraved at the entrance of the student hall at Michigan University at Ann Arbor. To call the university that represents the Midwest as that of the Northeast was a confusing statement.

The quote was from the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy during a speech at the university in November 1960, right before the presidential election. He began his speech by praising Michigan University as the best university - with a “secondary campus” called Harvard, his alma mater.

But perhaps the speech was more notable for Kennedy’s call for the creation of the U.S. Peace Corps. Sending young Americans as volunteers to developing countries fit in well with Kennedy’s “New Frontier” political philosophy. There was also the strategic thinking that the Peace Corps would enhance the country’s image and contribute to America’s national security in the midst of a fierce Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy envisioned that the volunteers would have to eat, sleep and speak like the locals of the host country. Having volunteers abroad would have the double benefit of helping developing countries and generating regional experts with authentic rather than textbook experience.

Between 1966 and 1981, 3,200 Peace Corps volunteers were sent to South Korea. They worked as medical volunteers, job trainers or as English teachers in schools throughout the country at a time when native English speakers were hard to find. Having spent two years of their youth in Korea, they naturally built pro-South Korean networks in the United States.

It is said that today, these volunteers are filling the void that U.S. soldiers who fought during the Korean War have left due to the passing of time.

So it was especially heartwarming to hear that the government invited former Peace Corps volunteers here to show them the Korea of today and to arrange reunions with old friends and students with whom they had lost touch.

It was even reported that the former volunteers declined to stay in government-provided hotels, preferring instead to book more humble rooms at inns, befitting their experience with poorer Koreans.

The new U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens, was herself once a Peace Corps volunteer here. We hope that her diplomacy will be full of insight and understanding of the hearts of Koreans, as someone who experienced Korean society at the grassroots.


The writer is a deputy political editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yeh Young-june [yyjune@joongang.co.kr]
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