Departing Australian envoy sees big horizons for Korea
Australia's Ambassador to Korea, James Choi, at the Embassy of Australia in Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]
In recollecting his four years as the first Korea-born ambassador of Australia to Korea, James Choi’s mind inevitably turns to the young people of Korea — whose shoes he was once in.
“One of the highlights of my activities was going to universities and speaking to younger generation Koreans,” Choi told the JoongAng Ilbo at the Australian Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 31.
Choi regularly met with students across universities in Korea and told them about opportunities to study and work in Australia. Those conversations often turned to Choi’s own incorporating of his Australian-Korean identity into his studies and work. Born in Seoul in 1970, Choi migrated to Australia in 1974.
“One of the questions that came from a student was, ‘I've been told to follow instructions from my parents, my lecturers. I've been assiduous in following their instructions. But now all of a sudden, I've been told, I have to be creative. What do I do?’ and that struck me,” Choi recalled.
“I tried to give them a sense of how I dealt with these challenges, growing up in Australia, but also sympathizing with their situation,” he said. “I think that's the challenge the younger generation in Korea is facing right now, facing a future where it's no longer about following instructions from parents or meeting society's expectations, but rather escaping from that and creating your own inspirations and [defining] your own yardsticks for success. If I have inspired [even] one younger generation Korean to think outside the box or think about Australia [...] it has been truly worthwhile.”
Ambassador Choi speaking with the students of Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul in May 2017. [EMBASSY OF AUSTRALIA IN KOREA]
As he finishes his posting in Korea this week, Choi sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo to recall some milestones in bilateral ties over the past four years.
Given that this was not his first diplomatic posting to Korea — he served as third secretary of the Australian Embassy in Seoul in 1995 — Choi spoke of his understanding of the two nations’ relations across decades, and how dynamically things may be changing, yielding more opportunities in regional security, the so-called hydrogen economy and cultural innovations.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
As you conclude your ambassadorship in Korea, how does it compare to the conclusion of your time here in the late 1990s?
Korea has transformed in ways that I don't think [even some] Korean people would understand. Korea has gone from a country in 1995, when it was just about to seek membership of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] to now an active member of the G-20, it is seeking, through the candidacy of [Trade] Minister Yoo [Myung-hee], to become the head of the World Trade Organization. Korea has more power, more recognition, more tools than it has ever had in its past. It is more powerful in economic reach, brand recognition, soft power — many people talk about BTS, Blackpink and Bong Joon-ho. This is shaping the international community's understanding of Korea and Korea's status in the world.
How would you say Australia-Korea ties have evolved through those years?
Australia and Korea have worked together to shape some of the most important institutions in our region. Korea and Australia actually worked together to create APEC [the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum]. [...] We have the two-plus-two foreign and defense minister's meeting every two years. We are the only country aside from the United States that has that with Korea. But also it's important for Korea and Australia to look at how we contribute to the institutions and the rules that would shape the future of the Indo-Pacific.
Would that look like what some political analysts call middle-power cooperation on regional security?
Australia has always been willing to support principles, values [...] that underpin Australia's ongoing foreign policy and strategic priorities, as a middle power, of shaping the region, of creating the common goods, that allow us the freedom to maneuver, to trade freely, and principles that would underpin our democracy and our freedom as an independent sovereign nation. Korea has already done that in many aspects.
In our immediate region, if you look at all the countries, there are no two countries that have so many similar interests as Korea and Australia ... I believe right at this point, when the United States and China tensions intensify, as the rules-based order becomes increasingly challenged, we need to do much more in shaping the future of our region.
This year is the 60th anniversary of Australia-Korea relations. What are your expectations for the bilateral ties?
We will most likely be key partners in dealing with future challenges of climate change. Hydrogen will be a key part of our trade investment story and we'll be leaders in our hydrogen supply chain, not just in the region but globally. [...] I see now Posco has announced a very ambitious plan to be carbon neutral by 2050 and start making "green" steel, and it has announced a plan to invest 12 trillion won [$11 billion] into the hydrogen economy. Most of that will be directed to Australia, because Australia has so many advantages for producing hydrogen. I think in 10 years’ time, we'll see ships carrying what we call “Australia's sunshine,” Australian hydrogen produced by renewable sources, from Australia to Korea.
We'll play much greater roles as leading democracies in the region. I think Korea will come to a point where it realizes it has, as I mentioned, the influence to shape not just events on the Korean Peninsula, but will be one of the leaders on the international stage. The potential I see in younger generations of Korea [...] will lead Korea to be a leading light on all the issues, and all the sectors that underpin Korea's future economy, from soft power industries, K-drama or transforming to something even greater. [...] I think Korea has got a very promising future, economically, politically, strategically, and it will be much more confident as it realizes it doesn't have to be trapped in these zero-sum games in Northeast Asia. I think it should realize that it'll have a global role to play. And in that context, the Australia-Korea partnership will become even more important in the next 60 years.
Ambassador Choi, left, speaking with Choi Jeong-woo, chairman of Korea-Australia Business Council (KABC) and chairman of Posco, at the annual meeting between Australia-Korea Business Council and KABC in Yeouido, western Seoul, in November 2020. [NEWS1]
Unprecedented inter-Korean summits took place during your tenure. What did you make of them?
Firstly, we have welcomed the efforts of President Moon [Jae-in] in to change the dynamics on the North Korean issue. Frankly, many people think the story of North Korea is a glass half-empty, where we have to think the glass is half-full. [...] The efforts of the Moon administration to draw out Kim Jong-un to engage in dialogue have to be recognized as a significant achievement. And I'm sure that many would say that we haven't got the results we want on DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] denuclearization, but one of the most important aspects of the North Korea issue is to engage in dialogue, to build channels of communication, for us to send the message about what the international community wants North Korea to do. The fact that we had the inter-Korean summits, the fact that the U.S. president has had an amazing series of interaction with Kim Jong-un personally, it sent a message to North Korea about what we want.
Ambassador Choi on a charity bike ride in 2018 to support Haemil School, a school for children of multicultural backgrounds. [EMBASSY OF AUSTRALIA IN KOREA]
You were also actively involved on the public diplomacy front, engaging with young students and running marathons or riding bikes for special causes. What did you take away from these experiences?
Some of the highlights of my public diplomacy would be the activities I have done related to sports. I've run the JoongAng Marathon. I've run a marathon in Jeju and also a marathon in Chuncheon [in Gangwon]. It's a great opportunity to travel and mingle with local Koreans. Training for a marathon also means you have to engage with a local community and set yourself some targets. I really enjoyed that aspect of running in different cities to get to know the various cities and engage with the public.
Other sports-related activities have been charity bike rides. One was from the east coast of Korea to Seoul with the embassy team. It was to support singer Insooni’s school, Haemil School, which helps children from multiethnic backgrounds to build skills to integrate into Korean society. We went on a bike ride and visited the school and spoke to the children, talked about Australia's own experiences with migration and the importance of diversity. I had the honor of speaking to the children about my experience of being a migrant in Australia. [...] My story is Australia’s story, it's a story of Australia's migrant community, of Australia's openness, of Australia's diversity, the story of Australia willing to give opportunities to so many people from around the world [...] to succeed, to get an education, to prosper. Hopefully those children got some lessons or tips on how to deal with their own challenges here in Korea.
BY YOO JEE-HYE, ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]