WHAT USUALLY comes to mind when we imagine a diplomat is someone in a formal suit, holding a glass of wine and wandering around the banquet room to meet new people—a scene we often encounter in movies. However, attending formal dinners just happens to be a perk of a diplomat’s job, which entails any activity—whether it be political, economic, or cultural—that represents and promotes the interests of his or her country. In Korea, a total number of 1,980 diplomats are working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Seoul and in embassies and legations abroad. Wherever in the world they may be, they have one common goal: to connect Korea with the rest of the world. In order to learn more about the duties and responsibilities of a diplomat, The Yonsei Annals interviewed Seo Eun-ji, the Deputy Director General for Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs, who has been working at MOFA since 1995. Seo shared her valuable insight from her diverse experiences in Korea and abroad, while also giving her advice to students who aspire to become diplomats.
Annals: Could you describe the main responsibilities of a diplomat?
Seo: The responsibilities differ between those who work at the headquarters in Seoul and those who work abroad. In the former’s case, the main responsibility is to send specific orders to the Korean embassies and legations on how to operate in their respective countries. For example, since I am now working at the Department of Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs, my duty is to provide guidelines to my colleagues abroad on projects to introduce Korean culture to the foreign public. On the other hand, for those who are working in embassies and legations, the main responsibility lies in protecting Korean nationals and residents living in the country. They also carry out the directions they receive from the ministry and engage in negotiations with one or multiple countries to secure Korea’s best interests.
Annals: What is the main objective of MOFA that all diplomats, both in Korea and abroad, follow?
Seo: I think the shared mission that all South Korean diplomats contribute to is the establishment of peace in the Korean peninsula. Not everyone is directly dealing with the issues of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and mediating with the United States on the matter, but everyone strives to make a positive change in their respective area of specialty. For example, as the Deputy of Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs, I am working to raise awareness of the positive effects of peace in the Korean peninsula to people around the world. Attaining peace is one of the main career goals of a diplomat and we are doing our best to influence change in our own way.
Annals: How do the diplomats in the headquarter and abroad communicate?
Seo: We have a “message system” that allows us to communicate efficiently. In the ministry, we hold meetings within and between various departments and external organizations; the decisions made in those meetings are then sent out as orders overseas. Our colleagues in foreign countries receive the instructions, complete the task, and report back on the progress and result. Thus, no matter where we work—at the headquarters or abroad—the first task on our list when we come to the office every morning is to check for any news or updates in the message system. We are exchanging reports constantly.
Annals: How do diplomats get appointed abroad?
Seo: After working at the ministry for a period of time, we apply to be sent abroad. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to serve in the country they desire. Most people wish to work in More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs), but there are limited vacancies for those areas. Thus, MOFA enforces a rotation system, so those who served in MEDCs in their previous term will be sent to Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs) the next time, and vice versa. As such, the chances of working in the countries or positions we want are low. I myself worked in three countries—Vietnam, Switzerland, and the United States—in different positions.
Annals: In your opinion, what are some of the essential qualities of a diplomat that are not considered in the exam for the Diplomat Candidate Selection System?
Seo: Many people point out skills, such as proficiency in a second language and a strong sense of responsibility, as the foundational qualities of diplomats. On top of that, I would like to emphasize the ability to adapt to circumstances quickly and make tough decisions. As previously mentioned, we all serve in embassies and legations abroad, locations that are sometimes far and in a different time zone from Korea. There are times when, in the midst of a sudden crisis, receiving instant feedback from the ministry becomes difficult. In critical moments, we are left with no choice but to rely on our evaluation of the situation and make a decision on how to best handle the issue. Of course, it is important to study for the exam and learn about the theoretical foundations of our duties, but I think having the ability to make swift judgment is also crucial for diplomats.
Annals: The second stage of the exam for the Diplomat Candidate Selection System is scheduled to be in June. If you could go back in time to when you were preparing for the exam, what advice would you give yourself?
Seo: When I was appointed as a diplomat 24 years ago, there were only 2 female applicants out of the 35 people who passed the exam. I was the 14th female diplomat who had ever passed the exam. So, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about what my career and personal life would be like as a female diplomat. I wasn’t informed about the issues I would face as a female—such as giving birth and raising my children—in an organization that used to be largely male-oriented. I didn’t expect that managing my job and taking care of my family would be challenging. In my case, I had to rely on my mother’s help to take care of my children—she even accompanied me abroad to do so. However, none of these issues were in my mind when I was aspiring to become a diplomat. If I could go back to those times, I would want to at least be aware of these difficulties in order to be better prepared to face them.
Now, the situation is a little different with more than 50% of the diplomats being women, who also comprise half of the high-ranking positions in MOFA. However, it doesn’t mean that the issues that I have experienced are no longer valid. I even think it has become more challenging, as it is now harder to provide support programs for an increasing number of female diplomats. Thus, I would like to advise the female applicants to always think ahead like I wish I had done when I was an applicant myself.
Annals: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a diplomat?
Seo: I believe that there are more advantages than disadvantages. As a diplomat, we are put in a position where we have to constantly study and seek new knowledge. From time to time, we need to take language proficiency tests in English and the second language we specialize in to maintain a certain level of fluency. We are also subject to internal evaluations on our qualifications before we can be appointed as an ambassador. That is why we are always driven to prove our competence, which drives us to continue learning.
However, aside from all the exams and evaluations, the biggest advantage of being a diplomat is meeting fellow diplomats and leaders of other countries. Sometimes, the people we run into are not just leaders of their countries, but also leaders of the world, or the “opinion-leaders.” Through personal encounters, we get to learn from their insights and are inspired to become better people, representatives, and leaders ourselves.
The biggest disadvantage of the job is the risk of being exposed to unforeseen dangers during our post abroad. Apart from the few MEDCs, we are usually sent to serve in countries that are generally unknown, or ones that suffer frequent terrorist attacks. It becomes even harder when our families come with us; some cases prove to be traumatizing—one of my colleague’s child developed a speech disorder from moving so often, while many other workers nearly died from malaria and similar diseases. However, some hazards cannot be avoided, so this job requires a strong sense of duty in order to overcome these difficulties.
Annals: When have you felt most proud during your career?
Seo: There are countless moments when I felt proud, but two in particular come to mind. The first one is when I worked in a team for the election campaign of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2006. Kang Kyung-hwa, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the head of the team and I was one of the members. Back then, everyone at MOFA was supporting former Secretary General Ban, but as the team member who was in charge of the process, I was busy for months, traveling around to gain support, preparing all the necessary documents, and discussing our campaign strategies every morning in the meeting room. When former Secretary General Ban finally won the election after the three stages of voting with an almost unanimous result of 14 to 1, Financial Times stated in an article that Ban’s election was a result of Korea’s successful diplomatic strategies. That was surprising since we were always accused of not having any campaign strategies during the meetings. Afterwards, our team got together to celebrate the victory, reminiscing the countless hours we spent on planning and executing.
The second is when I led a medical relief team as the Manager of Multilateral Cooperation Humanitarian Aid Team to Sierra Leone when Ebola broke out. When my team and I were planning for this mission, our first and foremost concern was how to evacuate our staff, especially the doctors who might get infected from direct contact with patients. Given that there weren’t any direct flights from Sierra Leone to Korea, we had to find other ways to evacuate the personnel, which was very tricky. The medical staff getting infected was just one of the worst-case scenarios. Anything could happen, so we had to be fully prepared for any situation; we devoted almost 90% of our time to creating a viable strategy for the operation. At one point during our mission in Sierra Leone, one of the doctors was accidentally scratched by an injection needle. Thanks to our pre-planned protocol for such accidents, we successfully evacuated the doctor to Germany in cooperation with the World Health Organization and the British army. He fully recovered there, and we continued our mission in Sierra Leone without further incidents. I, as the team head, felt proud that the total of three missions were carried out successfully, without any mistakes. I even got the nickname “Madame Ebola” after this mission.
Annals: What are some of the challenges you face at work?
Seo: While reaching towards our goals, facing challenges along the way is inevitable. Regarding the mission in Sierra Leone, the accident with the doctor happened on Christmas Eve, and I was working straight from September until April of the following year with almost no sleep or rest. I have two daughters, and I had to leave them with my mother and even lie to them about going to Sierra Leone so they would not worry. When I told my mom the truth, she said that I was a terrible mother to my children for having gone to a place where I could have lost my life. As a diplomat, I am more than proud to have led that mission, but as a mother, I am definitely not.
Annals: Any last comments to our Annals readers and Yonsei students who aspire to become diplomats in the future?
Seo: I think the job of a diplomat requires us to have the initiative to experience new things, since we end up living in different countries where we face problems that are least expected. Thus, before studying for the exam, I advise you all to simply enjoy your life and engage in various activities. As many of you know, carpe diem. Enjoy the present and take on new challenges. Please make the most out of your moments in college, and do not limit yourself to the lessons taught in books and classrooms. Step outside and grasp the opportunities that come your way. Carpe diem!