Korean-speaking ambassadors welcome Muto appointment

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Korean-speaking ambassadors welcome Muto appointment


Masatoshi Muto / Kathleen Stevens / Miklos Lengyel / Vitali Fen

The news of Masatoshi Muto’s appointment as the new Japanese Ambassador to Korea on Thursday was welcomed by the diplomatic community in Korea, but there is one group that was particularly excited about the diplomat’s arrival.

The group, Hamsamo, is comprised of foreign ambassadors. In addition to being a diplomat, the major requirement for membership is speaking fluent Korean. Prospective members are screened by existing members.

Hansamo is an acronym for Hangukeul Saranghaneun Moim, which means a group that loves Korea.

The group hopes Muto will accept their offer of membership.

Three of the group’s four members - U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stevens, Hungarian Ambassador Miklos Lengyel and Uzbek Ambassador Vitali Fen - are known as some of the best Korean speakers among the 78 foreign ambassadors in Korea.

The fourth member, Vietnamese Ambassador Tran Trong Toan, who moved to Korea earlier this year, is currently studying Korean.

Muto received part of his training as a junior diplomat in Korea and previously spent several years in Korea while serving on three different assignments. He is also known to be a fluent speaker of Korean.

Lee Man-sup, former National Assembly speaker, is Korean, but he is one of the founding members of the group.

The group members gather once every two months over lunch and sometimes bring their spouses with them.

Sometimes, they say, they share ideas on sensitive issues that they can’t freely discuss in the public, including issues related to the political situation on the Korean Peninsula and the inter-Korean relationship.

All of the meetings are held in Korean. The latest meeting was held at the U.S. Embassy residence in Seoul in June.

The group started in 2002 when Lee, then the National Assembly speaker, formed the group along with Mongolian Ambassador Perenlei Urjinlhundev and Kazakh Ambassador Bakishev Dulat.

The group’s membership expanded when Chinese Ambassador Li Bin and the ambassadors of Uzbekistan, Hungary and Vietnam joined.

But when the ambassadors of China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam finished their terms in Korea, the group’s membership shrank back down to three.

Still, Lee is confident the group’s membership will continue to expand with the addition of new members such as the Vietnamese ambassador and Muto.

“The new Vietnamese ambassador will join us on the condition she learns Korean well,” Lee said. “I will also invite Japanese Ambassador Muto to join us when I meet him.”

Martin Uden, the U.K. Ambassador, is also known to speak fluent Korean, but his busy schedule has thus far prevented him from attending a meeting, one of Lee’s aides said.

Fen is a third generation Goryeoin, or ethnic Koreans in Central Asia or Russia. Having worked in Korea as an ambassador for 16 years, Fen is the longest-serving ambassador in Korea. His wife is also a third generation Goryeoin.

Stevens came to Korea for the first time in the 1970s as a member of the U.S. Peace Corps. She taught English in Yesan, South Chungcheong, where she got the Korean name Shim Eun-gyeong.

Lengyel learned Korean in Moscow and bolstered his Korean language skills when he was dispatched to Pyongyang.

By Kang Chan-ho [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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