‘Super Korean’ translates his love of Laos

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‘Super Korean’ translates his love of Laos


Lee Jeong-hwan, behind President Lee Myung-bak, translates Lee’s words into Laotian during a talk with Laos’ Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong on July 4 at the Blue House. [YONHAP]

A Korea native was spotted translating for President Lee Myung-bak during a meeting with Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong last Thursday at the Blue House.

The sight would seem unremarkable, except that no Korean university offers Laotian.

The translator was none other than Lao-Korea Junior College founder and president Lee Jeong-hwan, 44, known in Laos as the “Super Korean.”

Lee was the first Korean to graduate from the National University of Laos, the most renowned institute in the country. Now, any business done between Korea and Laos goes through Lee.

This year, he returned to Korea after 22 years in Laos at the request of the Blue House to be its official translator.

With only a high school diploma, Lee landed in Laos for his job at a small company in 1990.

Since that was before Korea and Laos had any diplomatic relations, Lee received an anti-communist education from the Korea Freedom Federation before his departure.

On top of that, there were no flights between Korea and Laos, which meant a long, tiring boat trip through Thailand.

Nonetheless, Lee says he received a warm welcome.

But he decided to stay while touring rural areas of Laos in 1991. He encountered a boy dying due to lack of medical care.

“Instantly, I felt that while residing in Laos, I needed to help educate people there and improve the environment around them,” said Lee, who subsequently resigned from the business in 1993.

After the decision, making a living became a problem. He realized that the only way to continue his life as a foreigner was to enter the National University of Laos.

At the education center of the university, he studied alongside peers 10 years younger and dedicated himself to memorizing sentences as a whole without a dictionary. Eventually, in 1996, Lee was accepted to the university and majored in Laotian education.

“I would stay up crying and studying late at night. But I had my reasons; in Korea, I had to confront the reality before my dreams, but Laos, for me, was the land of opportunity. I had a strong determination that I needed to, and would, succeed there,” Lee said.

In 2000, after becoming the first Korean to graduate from the university, Lee began to adapt to the Laotian lifestyle.

With his university connections, he formed relationships with local political and economic figures. Hisvictory at the Laos Marathon in 1994 also helped make his name known in the country.

Lee made money as a translator and a tutor, and with government approval he founded the Lao-Korea Junior College in Vientiane in 2010.

The college, which offers fields of study such as Korean, English and computer science, is currently catching the attention of locals for its practical curriculum.

Last August, he earned a master’s degree in Laotian education, becoming the first foreigner to do so.

As Lee’s story became known in Korea, some of the young generation have been developing a so-called “Laos Dream.”

Currently, 30 Koreans are following in Lee’s footsteps; all of them study Laotian at the National University of Laos.

“Laos is full of resources and has a bright future,” said Lee. “I truly hope that more and more youth from Korea will take an interest in Laos, a country with no limits.”

By Lee Jeong-bong [enational@joongang.co.kr]
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