AN ALUMNA of the Department of Political Science and International Studies of Yonsei University and the incumbent Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, Kang Kyung-wha is widely remarked as an eminent female leader in the contemporary Korean society. Former Editor-in-Chief of The Yonsei Annals, Minister Kang is the first woman to have ever led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Korea. Her achievements as a Korean female national in the domestic and international realms of diplomacy continue to inspire countless young minds. In an exclusive interview with the The Yonsei Annals, Minister Kang shared her personal stories as a student, mother, minister, and beyond.
Annals: It is an honor to interview our previous Editor-in-Chief, and the current Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, Minister Kang. For the first question, we would like to hear about your time at The Yonsei Annals. Are there any memorable incidents that you recall from the Annals?
Minister Kang: First of all, we were a very small organization. At one point, it consisted of just two members: me and Mr. Lee Won-jo, who is currently a lawyer. It was the two of us producing the summer edition, working through the days and the evenings. Although this experience made us good friends, it also entailed a lot of hard work. My recollection of those times is that we were treated as an addition to Yonsei Chunchu, the official Korean newspaper. We had a small office that could only be reached by passing through the Chunchu office. By every measure, we were a small addition, but, of course, for all of us who have been a part of it, it was a great experience.
Annals: Having read the previous articles that you have written at the Annals, we were deeply impressed with the level of writing that you displayed as an undergraduate student. What personal and/or academic experiences would you attribute your English proficiency to?
Minister Kang: Compared to the experiences that I had since the Annals and the continuous improvement in my language skills, I recall those times as a time of minimum skills with English. Writing articles was as hard for me then as it must be for you now. But, of course, I had two and a half years of schooling in the United States in my elementary school years. I completed my fourth, fifth, and sixth grades in the U.S., and that formed the basic foundation of my English abilities. Once I returned to Korea, six years in the Korean educational system, which dedicates a significant number of hours on English, contributed to the consolidation of the grammatical foundation of my English. Regardless, I recall those times as a constant struggle to put the right language on paper.
Annals: We were also very curious about the life you had as a student at Yonsei. What kind of formative experiences did you undergo in your student life?
Minister Kang: My college days were a combination of fun and studying; I wasn’t just a bookworm. I spent many hours outside of the classroom, watching two of my favorite teams—our school basketball and baseball teams—play in the Jangchung Arena. And I also played a lot of tennis myself. As evident from my recollections, my school days were a healthy time for me, but not quite so for my country. It was a time of ample political struggle due to the nature of the government at that time. I don’t recall there being any year in which the curriculum was fully implemented; there were constant breaks during semesters due to student demonstrations and closure of schools. All of this was a part of the formative experiences that I had in my youth.
Annals: Being the first female minister in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and having been in one of the highest positions in the United Nations ever served by a Korean female national, you are known as the epitome of a self-made woman in the field of diplomacy. Did you happen to tumble into this career path or did you have a firm conviction in your pursuits?
Minister Kang: I would say neither. For one, I have always welcomed opportunities to do something new. And for another, I always felt that I would do something beyond the confines of my country. I would say that such attitude in life was a product of the nurturing that my parents provided me and the experiences that I had as a young girl who had lived outside of the country for two and a half years.
With the language skills that I acquired from my childhood, I had access to foreign magazines; I still recall searching and reading articles in English magazines. In this way, I always kept an eye out to what was happening in the larger world, constantly refining my language skills and fostering an open-minded mentality. It was more that readiness and that mindset than any conviction which brought me this far in life. It is, however, certainly not the case that I just tumbled into this opportunity: opportunities came my way when I was ultimately prepared to seize them.
Annals: One dilemma that many students, especially those who are bilingual and beyond, face is whether to remain in Korea or to pursue a life outside of Korea. How did you feel as a bilingual student who had just graduated from university?
Minister Kang: In those times, not many people, especially women, were able to pursue a life outside of Korea. My friends who were extremely bright were denied the opportunity to study abroad, as their parents simply could not tolerate the concept of their daughters taking on the unknown world on their own. Fortunately, my parents were not like that. They had full trust and confidence in me.
My advice to university students is to have an openness to novelty. Your views on life and your views on work will gradually evolve and change: I have different views now from when I was in my forties, fifties, and now well into my sixties. But one unchanging advice that I keep to my heart is to always choose novelty over anything else. If I had a choice between doing the same work and getting a promotion, and doing something else without a promotion and without any guarantee of success, I would definitely go for the latter, not the former.
Annals: From working at the Korean Broadcasting System to working at the National Assembly and then the United Nations, you have pursued a wide range of career paths. If you were to choose one lasting life lesson that has stayed with you, what would it be?
Minister Kang: The same idea applies here: not being shy of taking new opportunities and not being afraid of failing. Failure comes with its own reward. It may be painful, but there is a silver lining: you learn your lesson and you move on.
Yes, it has been an eclectic career path. This eclecticism, again, stems from not shying away from novel opportunities. It was only after many tries that I ultimately entered the Foreign Ministry, as Foreign Ministries are rather exclusive realms—not just in this country, but all over the world. So, it took many knocks on the door before I was admitted. But aside from that, it really were the opportunities coming my way and my preparation for them.
In retrospect, I cherish every bit of it: working with the KBS, working for four speakers of the National Assembly, finally joining the Foreign Ministry and then the United Nations, and now being back to the Foreign Ministry. Every step of the way has been beneficial. It all came to define the kind of work that I currently do as Foreign Minister.
Annals: In a previous interview with The Women’s News in 2017, you mentioned that the global status of South Korea has been greatly raised compared to the past. Have you been able to sense this improvement in both your professional and personal spheres of life?
Minister Kang: I certainly sense the improvement in my professional sphere of life. As one of the ten largest economies in the world, Korea maintains a profile in the global community as a model citizen. We also have a responsible voice in the global arena as a member state of the United Nations. The fact that Korea is a global success story also plays an important role. We are one of the rare cases in which a country has gone from a state of abject poverty to an extremely vibrant market economy, and from total destruction and military dictatorship to a thriving democracy. This momentous transformation brings us considerable attention and admiration.
On top of that, the hall-ryu* and K-pop are also creating a huge wave of cultural influence across the globe. I can’t tell you enough of how much enthusiasm exists out there. Everywhere I go, there is always a group of avid hall-ryu fans—even in Cuba where I recently visited! This cultural influence that derives from our K-pop stars fosters a unique profile for Korea in the global community. It also assists me in my current work, as the decisions and statements that are made on the foreign policy front are perceived with credibility and trust. This credibility, in particular, is greatly needed as we move toward our vision of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula that is wholly at peace.
Annals: As one of the most prominent female leaders in the contemporary Korean society, you have experienced the life of a career woman in Korea and abroad. Is there a practical advice that you would like to share with women who might face similar problems that you have once undergone?
Minister Kang: I struggled with the issue of the work-life balance at a time of minimal support: there were very few social policies, such as the provision of childcare facilities, that facilitated this balance for working women. In the past, I had to raise three children with little to no support. I had no choice but to rely on both sides of my family, on my own side and my husband’s side, who were there to give a helping hand whenever was necessary. So basically, I muddled through.
I am grateful that my children, who are all in their thirties now, have grown up to be young, healthy adults. Now that my children have reached adulthood, I no longer have to deal with the issue—I only have to mind my own work. But the formative years were indeed very challenging.
I believe that we are now at a phase in which the support system, although it may not be complete, continues to be strengthened. In muddling through, you just have to remind yourself that you’re not aiming to be perfect at everything. People often fall into the trap of thinking, “I need to be a perfect mother, a perfect wife, and a perfect career woman.” But one thing you must understand is: it just doesn’t happen. You must simply accept this fact and do the best you can.
Annals: Based on your experience as a full-time mother and a full-time worker, could you give us some tips on time management?
Minister Kang: As aforementioned, time management has become less of an issue now that my children are on their own. These days, I try to see them on the weekends, and, I have to say, that is the time that I am able to truly relax. Through family time, I find the motivation to return to work on the next day and face the challenges that arise.
With children, however, time management becomes an extremely demanding task. There is no perfect solution. One tip is that you need the family support, especially from your spouse, as it is a shared responsibility. I’m delighted to see many young men in the Foreign Ministry, and I’m sure beyond, who are ready to take on that challenge with their wives.
Nevertheless, you must remember that although the sharedness does present a lot of comfort, you will inevitably lose control of your time when you have a child. You must accept that fact, particularly when your child is at a young, infant age. In the end, you have to do things that are in the best interest of your child. Despite the difficult circumstances, I think I did exactly that—although my children may remember different times when they felt that it wasn’t necessarily the case. But that has been the guiding principle: to act in the best interest of your child and work around his or her needs. The daily struggle may not get any easier, but as long as you have this guiding line, you can at least tell yourself that you’re doing this for your child. In this way, you will know that you are on the right course.
Annals: Through the different formative experiences, you must have encountered numerous figures who have influenced you in a positive manner. If you were to pinpoint some major figures who have attributed to your model of leadership, who would it be?
Minister Kang: Well, I can think of a few. First of all, my father. He was a first-generation broadcaster in radio, black-and-white television, and color television. I always observed him in his career and witnessed how he would care for his team. I remember how he would spend much more time caring for the people under him, rather than serving those above him.
In retrospect, I think that established a good model of leadership for me. I remember on New Year’s Eve, our small apartment would be filled with people from his work, enjoying my mother’s very favorite man-du-guk**. Every New Year’s Eve was spent like that. I think that indicated the respect and love that my father enjoyed at work. Having had a close look on my father’s work ethics, it set a good tone in the formation of my own thoughts on what a leader is.
Then I had several more teachers. One is a former member of parliament and minister, Lee Yeon-suk. She is still my mentor, and she set a model leadership that was truly empowering of others. She let people do their work and motivated them to complete their work rather than demanding to do so.
I also learned a great deal from Louis Arbour, who was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was Louis who took me into the UN system in 2007. The brilliance of her intellect and her ability to stay one or two steps ahead of everybody else truly inspired me. Having worked with her for two years, I think she is the most intellectually brilliant person that I have known inside and outside the country. I learned from her the idea that a leader should always provoke new thoughts. Navi Pillay, her successor, was also a courageous advocate that I learned a great deal from.
Then, I think President Kim Dae-jung also influenced me. I worked as his interpreter, Korean-English, for nearly three years. His ability to listen and engage with his counterparts at a level that addresses various questions and concerns was absolutely respectable. He was able to do that because he was a very good listener. He gave answers in a way that was immediately understood and accepted by his counterparts. We always talk of “good communication” these days. But I don’t see good communication at a daily level simply because people don’t listen. Good communication begins with good listening, and good listeners are rare these days.
Annals: We would like to move onto the last question of our interview. You are living a dream of many students who are interested in pursuing a career in foreign affairs. If you were to identify three key qualities for success in this field, what would they be?
Minister Kang: I would say curiosity, humility and—if you are aspiring to become a diplomat for your country—certainly patriotism. To be specific, I would say enlightened patriotism: you must place patriotism in an international context, and see your country in the larger, global scheme of matters. You must also be able to read where the best interest of your country lies, seeing from that broader perspective. Such enlightened patriotism is harder to achieve.
I frequently see colleagues in the Foreign Ministry who are too narrowly focused in their own area and their own task. But in order to understand what that truly means for the country, you have to see it in the grander scheme of things. So, I would say enlightened patriotism, by which I mean coupling patriotism with a sense of globalism.
*Hall-ryu: translates to the Korean wave; refers to the global phenomenon in which the Korean entertainment and music industries thrive in foreign countries
**Man-du-guk: Korean dumpling soup