British ambassador sees big changes on the horizon for Korea

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British ambassador sees big changes on the horizon for Korea


Scott Wightman, new British Ambassador to Korea, talks with the Korea Joongang Daily on Dec. 7. By Kim Jin-won

Before starting his official duties as new British Ambassador to Korea, Scott Wightman volunteered for a three-week homestay with a Korean family in Sangam-dong, Seoul, last month, thinking it would be an “interesting introduction to Korea” for him.

The plan worked better than expected. It actually caused the Korean media and the public to become interested in the friendly gesture by the multilingual, soft-spoken Scot, expecting him to be a goodwill ambassador to Korea like his predecessor Martin Uden.

So far, Wightman is living up to the hype with active communication with Korean people through Twitter, informing them of his activities including visiting the Paralympics athletes’ training center in Icheon on Dec. 8.

It was partly due to Korea’s preparation for the London Paralympic Games next year, but nonetheless it received positive feedback from the public as the first visit by a foreign envoy to the venue.

In an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Wightman said he was enthralled by the Koreans’ warmth and generosity and revealed his goal to learn Korean, although he concedes it is much more difficult than the languages he has already learned such as French, German, Italian and Chinese.

“I would like to have a reasonably free-flowing conversation with people in Korea about everyday subjects and deliver speeches in Korean,” Wightman said. “If I could get that, then I would be satisfied, but it’s a big challenge,” he added with smile.

During the interview, held at his residence in Jeong-dong, Seoul, on Dec. 7, Wightman also expressed his country’s deep interests in the looming political changes on the Korean Peninsula with expected power shifts in many of the surrounding countries next year.

He said the stability in the region is important to the United Kingdom because South Korea is a major trade partner and North Korea’s nuclear program is a potential threat to the whole world. He urged the North to take steps that are necessary to enable serious talks on its denuclearization.

“I hope we don’t see aggressive action, or further provocation, [from North Korea],” he said.

He said the ongoing situation in the North is adding uncertainty to the region and stressed that sending a clear message on what is required of such events at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March next year is important.

“I think we all need to take advantage of whatever opportunity we have to get this message across and to make it clear to them there is another way. There is potential for them to have a very different relationship with the rest of the world, a relationship that would be to the benefit of ordinary North Korean people,” he said.

Wightman volunteered for the job in Seoul, intrigued partly by the emergence of East Asia. Quoting British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s remark on the historic shift in economic and political influence from the West to the East, Wightman said the U.K. is trying to actively engage the countries in the region including Korea.

“We are reinforcing our embassy here in South Korea. Because of that we are doing it in other countries in East Asia as well, despite the fact that we are having cutbacks elsewhere,” the ambassador said.

He said Korea’s significance comes not just in a package with global powers such as China and Japan, but it is making quite an impact as a role model, citing major global events Korea has hosted or won the rights to host, such as the G-20 Seoul Summit last year, the Busan aid effectiveness forum held two weeks ago and the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.

He said what Korea is showing to the world, including leadership in the green growth initiative and global peace-keeping efforts, is that sheer size is not everything about going big in East Asia.

“Korea’s population is not very different from our population, so you don’t have to have big population to have big impact,” he said.

The emerging trilateral initiatives are also being looked at with interest. Wightman said it could present bigger, more open markets to countries in other parts of the world.

“I think closer cooperation between South Korea, Japan and China is in everybody’s interest,” he said. “I think it will enable those countries, but also other countries interested in the region, such as ourselves, to manage global problems more effectively.”

The ambassador said he saw the street protests denouncing the ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement at the National Assembly.

“That’s the people exercising their democratic rights to protest,” he said.

He said in the process of liberalization, some people suffer, and that it’s important to support those people to enable them to adapt to new circumstances. But, he stressed that the British government’s belief that trade liberalization benefits all the parties concerned in the end and there is a public consensus in the U.K. in favor of open market and increased trade liberalization.

He said that the bilateral benefit is already taking shape from the Korea-EU FTA only months after it took effect, citing a significant increase in exports for both sides, which he said created a new opportunity for cooperation, like the one going on in the Middle East.

He said one of his objectives as the ambassador is to increase that trade partnership based on an open, free economic framework.

By Moon Gwang-lip []
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