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[Alumni Interview] Making History of the Future on the Global Diplomatic Stage
[Alumni Interview] Making History of the Future on the Global Diplomatic Stage

Former Ambassador to the UK Park Eun Ha, Who Brought a New Wind to the Diplomatic Arena (History, Class of ‘80)

Alumnus Park Eun Ha’s home is full of props and artworks that she has collected throughout her career as a diplomat around the world for nearly 40 years. There are many stories of her accomplishments, such as being the first female candidate to rank first in the Foreign Service Examination and the first female diplomat to be appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but there are also many small stories of her life and memories from India, China, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and other places where she was posted. These stories represent Park’s life in the fierce diplomatic arena marked by unrivaled passion and dedication. Not only did Park pioneer an uncharted path, but she was also a witness to historical transitions across decades. The use of the term ‘the first female’ alone does not suffice when it comes to explaining Park’s journey.


Dream of Standing at the Center of a New History

"Early in my childhood, my dreams changed a couple of times. Initially, I wanted to be a painter. But I concluded that though I could fulfill the technical aspect, I lacked the genius. Then I aspired to be a historian. I loved reading history books and was intrigued by the stories, which eventually led to the decision to pursue history at Yonsei. Studying history was a joy, but as we know, our country has a tragic history of being deprived of sovereignty. As such, rather than studying the history of the past, I wanted to work on creating a new history of the future. I wanted to be in the scene."

Park decided on the direction of her life at an early age, and she soon became curious about the Western world that once dominated and led the globe, with a history starkly different from Korea's. However, when Park was an undergraduate, traveling abroad was more challenging than it is now. It was hard to find a way to get to Europe. Nonetheless, Park’s determination was strong, and she eventually found a way to travel abroad. Her destination? Germany.

"Back then, individuals were not permitted to travel abroad freely. However, there was a professor in my department who was from Germany, and I asked him about ways to get there. I then found out that there was a summer semester in Germany, and with a letter of recommendation from the professor, I was accepted to the University of Bonn’s summer school. Upon receiving the news, I went straight to the president's office. I convinced him that I wanted to go to Germany and study for the summer, which required a special permit from the president, and I was able to get my passport issued."

Upon reaching Germany, Park’s purpose was far from sitting at a desk and studying history. After quitting summer school, she purchased a Eurail Pass and traveled across Europe for a month and a half. It was during this journey that Park realized she is someone who identifies her goals and takes the initiative in life to carry out her plans.

"It was a moment of realization. I truly desired to work in the field, representing my country on the international stage. At the time, it was more of a vague dream, but I later discovered the role of a diplomat and the requirement to pass the Foreign Service Exam to pursue this career.  But I hadn't made up my mind until I graduated. I remember applying to graduate school to learn more about Western history, but I was not accepted. Perhaps because of the school, I decided so quickly that I wanted to be a diplomat."

Passing the Foreign Service Exam, Surviving in a Male-Dominated Culture

After failing to be accepted into graduate school, Park began preparing for the Foreign Service Examination upon graduation. In 1985, she passed the 19th Foreign Service Examination in just over a year. Despite the examination typically requiring years of preparation, Park not only managed to pass but also attained the title of ‘the first female candidate to rank first.’ However, along the way, she faced some curious stares. At that time, foreign service was considered a male-dominated field to the extent that few female students were preparing for the examination. It was also a time when there weren't many women pursuing careers in society. With diplomacy requiring constant relocation from one country to another, doubts arose regarding women's ability to pursue such a career.

"When I attended language school for a conversation class and mentioned that I was preparing for the conversation test for the Foreign Service Exam, everyone looked at me in amazement. I was even asked how a woman could live alone in a foreign country and how she would take care of her husband if she got married. During an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was also questioned about my plans for marriage and whether I intended to continue my career as a diplomat after marriage. It was a very different time. It was common for most women to quit their jobs after getting married back in those days. However, I had a different thought. I believed that this was the job that I could work with professionalism regardless of being married or not. When asked by the interviewer at the time, I confidently stated, "My marriage has no bearing on my work life, and I fully intend to pursue my career even after getting married."

Upon entering the foreign ministry, the glass ceiling posed a formidable challenge to Park. She encountered many new obstacles that were unlike anything she had faced at home or in school. The opportunities available to women were extremely limited. Despite her efforts to break through the glass ceiling, she often received feedback such as 'You are better than most guys here,' which was the last thing Park wanted to hear.

"My seniors meant it as a compliment, but I didn't want to hear it. Wouldn’t it truly be a compliment if they were to say ‘You are better than guys who are really good’? There were a lot of things that were limited because I was a woman. About two years after I joined the ministry, I had the opportunity to study abroad. Just before that, I met my husband at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we got married, and for this, I was told by some to give up the opportunity (to study abroad) for someone else.  Of course, I'm not one to give in to that. Also, because I'm a woman, I wasn't given the opportunity to go to the U.S., Japan, and other major countries that constitute Korea’s core diplomatic partners. Only countries where a certain amount of decency was expected to be maintained, where stereotypes of women were projected, were allowed. Consequently, I was excluded from assignments to countries of significant diplomatic importance, as well as those deemed too challenging — essentially, the 'hardcore' ones were off-limits.” 


Take the Initiative to Do the Small Things Rather Than Being a Part of the Something Big

However, for Park, the conventional wisdom and expectations that society demanded of women at that time were never important. With firm determination and pride in what she wanted to do, along with confidence in her abilities, she moved forward no matter the challenges she faced. To Park, it was not about winning over men but about personal growth and the pursuit of her dream. Without sacrificing her happiness or following the path of others, she moved forward.

"There were invisible barriers, but I didn't want to entrust my happiness to others. I didn't want to pursue a position that others admired; I wanted a position I truly desired, so I took on the challenge, even if there were obstacles. Even if it was hardcore, if the opportunity came, I would try it. In the end, the most important thing for me was what I could do with my initiative. Rather than being a part of a big machine, I set my own agenda and found something meaningful to do, even if it was small. For example, on issues at the ministerial level, such as the North Korean nuclear issue, it is hard to take initiative as an individual. But when it came to raising issues of women's rights at the United Nations and participating in the Commission on the Status of Women, I was able to take the initiative. Such works were enjoyable."

Be it in the field of governmental, economic, or public diplomacy, Park found ways to make her mark on the diplomatic stage and stay ahead of the curve. She has served as Consul General in New York, Director of Planning and Research at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Counselor at the Mission to the United Nations, Director of the Development Cooperation Bureau, Ambassador to China, and Ambassador for Public Diplomacy. For this reason, Park is acknowledged as an expert in multilateral diplomacy, as well as in China and public diplomacy. Despite her reputation, Park does not try to define her career or area of expertise, not only because work as a diplomat involves a series of interesting tasks, but because she has a philosophy about the role of a diplomat.

"I worked at the United Nations, where I gained experience in multilateral diplomacy, and I also worked in countries like the UK, India, and China, which focus on bilateral diplomacy. I think diplomats are supposed to be generalists. No matter the given role in any country, they have to fulfill their responsibilities. One must have sufficient knowledge to discuss major issues and to convey and persuade the country's stance. For example, even though I'm not a trade expert, I was able to contribute to the SK-UK FTA negotiation process. At the same time, you need to know a particular area in great depth."

Park, who enjoyed the diplomatic field in all the countries she worked in, has achieved a lot as a diplomat who embodies both generalist and specialist qualities. She cites the four 'P's as the qualities of a good diplomat, which she has recognized through her extensive experience in the foreign ministry. They are Passion, Practice, Patience, and Patriotism. Passion is the drive to work as a representative of one’s country, Practice is the ongoing effort to improve one's competence, Patience is the time and effort devoted to building genuine relationships, and Patriotism is the mission to serve public affairs. These virtues are crucial for aspiring diplomats and have been the foundation for many of the choices she has made throughout her career.

First Female Diplomat to the UK, Accomplished by a Sense of Duty

The most brilliant moment in Park's diplomatic career would probably be when she was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom. Though she had achieved many titles of 'firsts', the appointment as ambassador to the UK was a breakthrough. She was the first female career diplomat to be appointed to a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council since the inception of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. UK is not only internationally influential but also at the center of the interests of many countries around the world. In a country where diplomatic battles are fierce, the post of ambassador to the United Kingdom was an opportunity that did not come easily to a woman.

During the Brexit period, Park contributed to negotiating the Korea-UK FTA to reduce the economic impact on Korean companies. However, one of the accomplishments she finds particularly rewarding is the introduction of a system that allows Korean citizens to enter the UK automatically without a separate immigration check. As a result of her negotiations, at Heathrow and Gatwick airports in the UK, where entry procedures are known for being meticulous and lengthy, South Korean citizens can now clear immigration with only passport scanning and facial recognition, exempted from face-to-face interviews and filling out entry documents. At the time, this automatic entry system was only available to citizens of seven countries, and it was Park’s persistent efforts that achieved this.

"I think that's the sense of fulfillment that comes from being a public servant. Working in public service means that you have the opportunity to contribute to the people and the country. To do this, it is necessary to first have autonomy and pursue what you can do to contribute to the country and society through what you love. In addition, you have to have a mission. The public sector is all about having a mission. No matter how small it is, one must have a sense of mission to solve the problems the country and its people face and to benefit them."

Park believes that an important role of diplomats is to provide systems and support measures so that citizens do not face sanctions or suffer losses when they trade or travel. Through such efforts, she has contributed to enhancing the power of the Korean passport and increasing the convenience of citizens abroad. Her frequency is aligned not only with her sense of duty and self-direction in public service but also with deeper, more essential values.

"Connecting with people has also been an important part of my life. Everything involves people. When you have an authentic relationship, it broadens the scope of what you can do, and your horizons, which leads to success. Of course, it doesn't just happen. I think there are two important assets that everyone has in common. One is the mind, and the other is time. How you use these two things gives you an idea of what kind of person you are. If you are investing time in something, it means you are viewing it as valuable to yourself. You have to use these two things to build deep relationships."

Autonomy, a sense of mission, and a sense of connectedness to people are the three pillars of Park’s identity, and they have made her a successful diplomat with many ‘first’s. She believes fulfilling these three pillars qualifies an individual as successful in other fields as well.

The Queen’s Apple That Touched the Queen’s Heart

Park has met various figures across different countries, establishing a worldwide network through sincerity. Looking back on her life as a diplomat, there were many moments of insight through countless encounters. Several meaningful memories and episodes are still in her heart, in particular the meeting with the Queen of England.

"When I first became ambassador to the United Kingdom, I went to Buckingham Palace and presented my credentials to Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen is usually briefed on information about the country and makes official statements, but she skipped the formalities and talked a lot about her memories from her visit to Korea a long time ago. In particular, during her visit to Korea, there was a party for the Queen's 70th birthday in Hahoe Village in Andong, and she recalled it as a treasured memory."

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom paid a state visit to the Republic of Korea from April 19 to 22, 1999, at the invitation of President Kim Dae Jung and his wife. The British royal family planned an itinerary to experience Korean traditional culture, including watching a play at Hahoe Village in Andong, visiting old houses, and making kimchi. A tree was also planted to commemorate her visit to Andong, which grew tremendously over the years. In 2019, Prince Andrew, the Queen's second son, planted an apple tree next to the Queen's tree to mark the 20th anniversary of her visit.

"I got a call from Andong saying that they wanted to send their apples for the Queen's birthday. I came up with the suggestion that instead of just putting them in boxes, we should wrap these apples individually and name them 'Queen's Apple' with the Queen's portrait labeled on them. I got about 50 boxes and delivered them to the royal family, and later at a garden party, the Queen called me and told me that she really enjoyed the apples. With that, ambassadors from all over the world expressed interest in our apples. In the end, we also gifted ambassadors of the major countries, and I received comments from them that goes ‘There are two kinds of ambassadors to the UK, those who received the Queen’s Apple, and those who did not’. Throughout my time as an Ambassador to the UK, I gifted the Queen’s Apple to the Royal Family.”

Through this experience, Park was reminded of the essence of diplomacy. She was impressed by the sincerity of the British royal family in its approach to public diplomacy, and also by the British diplomatic strategy of leveraging the authority and dignity of the royal family. Above all, she realized the fundamental importance of interpersonal relationships in diplomacy between nations. Having visited China twice, she had early insights into the significance of these 'relationships' and actively sought to implement them in practice.

During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when conventional diplomatic activities were restricted, Park took a creative approach by preparing large quantities of kimchi at the embassy. These were meticulously packaged and presented to key figures in the UK. Aware of potential preferences or aversions to kimchi, she personally contacted each recipient beforehand to confirm their interest, and received unanimous acceptance. Park's initiative was warmly received as a refreshing and uplifting gesture during challenging times. Additionally, Park gained recognition for regularly introducing Korean cuisine to foreign dignitaries at her official residence.

Throughout her extensive diplomatic career, Park witnessed Korea's rising stature in the global arena and recognized the potent influence of culture. As K-pop achieved global acclaim, British media, initially critical of South Korea's idol training system, began praising BTS for their Billboard achievements, dubbing them the 'Beatles of the 21st century.' Culture serves as a crucial indicator of a nation's identity, and interest in Korean culture is expanding beyond K-pop to encompass contemporary art, music, and cuisine, accompanied by a growing demand for Korean language courses. This trend reflects an increasing favorability toward South Korea and underscores the country's expanding soft power.

The Life of Korea’s First Diplomat Couple Heading in the Same Direction

One of Park's notable 'firsts' was becoming part of 'Korea's first diplomat couple'. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she met and married her husband, Kim Won Soo, the former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. Their life together as diplomats naturally piques curiosity. One might assume that being assigned to different countries posed significant challenges, given they spent more than half of their 30-year marriage living apart. However, Park remained unfazed.

"There's no policy to assign married diplomats to the same region. As a couple, we spent a third of our time abroad together and the rest apart in different locations. Was it lonely? Not really (laughs). Just because you're married doesn't mean you have to be together all the time. Even apart, sharing common goals seems essential for a fulfilling marriage. We always felt connected, supporting each other's dreams as comrades."

Today, the proportion of women in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is about 60 percent, higher than that of men. This is a huge change from when Park first joined the ministry, but there are still concerns.

"I once officiated at a junior’s wedding. She was a diplomat, and her husband worked for an international organization. Naturally, there will be times when such couples have to live apart for extended periods, as my husband and I did. So, I offered them three pieces of advice: support each other in pursuing their dreams without overshadowing one another, maintain a healthy distance, and avoid becoming overly dependent on each other. Ultimately, they should share common goals and directions and find joy in the journey together."

While societal barriers like the glass ceiling persist and many women find it challenging to balance work and family, Park says that in the end, it is a matter of choosing what makes life more worthwhile. For some, family holds more value than career success, while for others, professional achievements take precedence. Making such decisions requires deep self-awareness above all else.

"It's challenging to find a job that fulfills every aspect of life. Eventually, many find themselves torn between work and family. It's crucial to stay steadfast in your values. To do that, you need to know yourself well. Without this foundation, you may find yourself torn between societal expectations and family demands.”
Alumnus Park Eun Ha states that her recognition as a successful diplomat was a result of good luck. Growing up in Korea during its rapid development provided her numerous opportunities in diplomacy. Her parents' educational philosophy, which disregarded gender limitations, coupled with her experiences at Yonsei University, nurtured her international aspirations and broadened her horizons among insightful peers. However, luck alone wasn't enough. Park's achievements stemmed from her passion for her goals and her unwavering dedication throughout her career. Even after retiring from diplomacy, she continues to make the most of her life by actively participating in activities such as painting and serving as a civilian ambassador for international events. This summer, she will attend the Olympics in Paris, embracing her new roles in global events.

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