The new Korean-American diplomat

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The new Korean-American diplomat

I heard an interesting story from a fellow journalist recently. Her father was a diplomat, and she spent her childhood in Brazil. When she was in fifth grade, her family moved to Japan. She still vividly remembers the first day at her new elementary school. She was shocked that everyone in her class had dark brown hair. Having lived in Brazil, where people have various ethnic backgrounds, it was natural to her that people had different hair, skin and eyes. By the time she returned to Korea, she had gotten used to the environment in Japan and adjusted easily.

While Korea is converting into a diversified society, some still feel uncomfortable when they see people without typical Korean features. At the same time, Koreans feel solidarity toward people with the same blood. Sometimes, these feelings lead to misunderstanding.

A few days ago, Sung Kim, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, arrived here, and his smiling face may evoke misleading emotions. Some media called the appointment of Kim a “glorious homecoming.” Since he grew up in Korea until he was in seventh grade, it is true that he has returned to his homeland. The prestige of the ambassadorship is certainly glorious. However, we must remember he was appointed by the U.S. government, and he will be working in the interest of the United States. It is only the proper duty of an American citizen who has pledged allegiance to the U.S.

Just like Kim, more and more ethnic Koreans will be doing important jobs in other countries. A few days ago, Mark Keam was reelected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Jean-Vincent Place, who was adopted to a French family when he was seven, was elected to the French Senate two months ago.

When a diplomat is sent to a country of his background, it is possible to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding from cultural differences. However, diplomacy is a process of modulating national interests, and it does not always end in favor of both parties. During the Joseon Dynasty, the court had a hard time when Yun Bong and Jeong Dong, who were originally from Joseon, became ministers of the Ming Dynasty.

Of course, Kim is not a minister of Ming. He is a Korean-American and an official of the U.S. government. What we must not forget is the fact that he is a U.S. citizen. We need to acknowledge that he prioritizes American interests. The emphasis of his Korean-American background should be on American, not Korean.

The writer is an editorial writer

of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I heard an interesting story from a fellow journalist recently. Her father was a diplomat, and she spent her childhood in Brazil. When she was in fifth grade, her family moved to Japan. She still vividly remembers the first day at her new elementary school. She was shocked that everyone in her class had dark brown hair. Having lived in Brazil, where people have various ethnic backgrounds, it was natural to her that people had different hair, skin and eyes. By the time she returned to Korea, she had gotten used to the environment in Japan and adjusted easily.

While Korea is converting into a diversified society, some still feel uncomfortable when they see people without typical Korean features. At the same time, Koreans feel solidarity toward people with the same blood. Sometimes, these feelings lead to misunderstanding.

A few days ago, Sung Kim, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, arrived here, and his smiling face may evoke misleading emotions. Some media called the appointment of Kim a “glorious homecoming.” Since he grew up in Korea until he was in seventh grade, it is true that he has returned to his homeland. The prestige of the ambassadorship is certainly glorious. However, we must remember he was appointed by the U.S. government, and he will be working in the interest of the United States. It is only the proper duty of an American citizen who has pledged allegiance to the U.S.

Just like Kim, more and more ethnic Koreans will be doing important jobs in other countries. A few days ago, Mark Keam was reelected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Jean-Vincent Place, who was adopted to a French family when he was seven, was elected to the French Senate two months ago.

When a diplomat is sent to a country of his background, it is possible to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding from cultural differences. However, diplomacy is a process of modulating national interests, and it does not always end in favor of both parties. During the Joseon Dynasty, the court had a hard time when Yun Bong and Jeong Dong, who were originally from Joseon, became ministers of the Ming Dynasty.

Of course, Kim is not a minister of Ming. He is a Korean-American and an official of the U.S. government. What we must not forget is the fact that he is a U.S. citizen. We need to acknowledge that he prioritizes American interests. The emphasis of his Korean-American background should be on American, not Korean.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Noh Jae-hyun


신문사 후배에게서 재미있는 경험담을 들었다. 후배의 아버지는 외교관이어서 어린 시절을 브라질에서 보냈다. 초등학교 5학년 때 부친을 따라 다시 일본으로 이사했다. 일본 초등학교에 처음 등교한 날 깜짝 놀랐던 기억이 아직도 생생하단다. 학급 모든 아이들의 머리 색깔이 까맸기 때문이었다. 다인종사회인 브라질에서는 머리·피부·눈 색깔이 서로 다른 게 너무나 당연했는데 말이다. 일본에서 어느 정도 적응한 덕분에 훗날 한국에 왔을 때는 별로 놀라지 않았다고 했다.
천천히나마 다문화(多文化)사회로 이행 중인 한국이지만 아직은 나와 다른 외모에 대한 이질감·거부감이 뿌리깊다. 거부감의 반대편에는 같은 외모, 같은 핏줄에 대한 강렬한 동질감이 자리잡고 있다. 이 동질감이 때로 착각을 낳는다. 그제 오후 인천공항을 통해 입국한 성 김 신임 주한 미국대사의 밝은 모습을 보며 든 생각이다. 일부 언론은 김 대사의 부임을 '금의환향'이라고 표현했다. 중학교 1학년까지 한국에 살았으니 고향에 온 것은 맞다. 주한 미국대사의 위상을 생각하면 비단옷(錦衣)을 입었다 할 수도 있다. 그러나 어디까지나 미국 정부가 입혀준 비단옷이다. 그는 앞으로 옷값을 톡톡히 해야 한다. 미국에 충성을 맹세한 미국 시민권자로서 너무나 당연한 의무다.
성 김 대사처럼 외국에서 활약하는 한국계는 점점 늘어날 것이다. 며칠 전엔 미 버지니아주 하원의원 마크 김이 재선에 성공했다. 일곱살 때 프랑스에 입양됐던 한국계 장뱅상 플라세는 두 달전 프랑스 상원의원에 당선됐다. 반대로 우리나라에서도 멀지 않은 미래에 중국계 국회의원이 나오고, 주 베트남 한국대사로 베트남계 한국인이 부임할지 모른다.
출신국에 외교관으로 부임하면 주재국 사정에 밝고 인맥도 풍부하니 장점이 많다. 문화 차이로 인한 불필요한 오해는 없을테니 현안을 매끄럽게 풀어갈 수 있다. 그 결과가 윈윈(win-win)이라면 좋다. 그러나 치열하게 국익을 다투는 외교가 다 윈윈으로 끝나는 건 아니다. 먼 옛날 조선시대엔 조선 출신으로 명나라 환관이 된 윤봉·정동 같은 인물이 고국에 칙사로 올 때마다 시달려야 했다. 윤봉이 칙사대접을 받고 돌아갈 때는 선물 궤짝이 숙소인 태평관(지금의 서울 서소문동)에서 무악재까지 늘어설 정도였다. 고려시대엔 원나라 황후가 된 누이의 권세를 믿고 기(奇)씨 형제들이 기고만장한 적도 있다.
물론 성 김 대사는 명나라 환관도 아니고 원나라 다루가치도 아니다. 한국계 미국인이고 미국 정부 관리다. 우리가 착각하지 말아야 할 것은 그가 어디까지나 미국인이라는 점이다. 미국의 국익이 우선인 그의 입장을 이해하고 인정해야 한다. '한국계 미국인'에서 방점(傍點)은 '한국계'가 아니라 '미국인'에 찍혀야 한다는 말이다. 노재현 논설위원·문화전문기자
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