Interview with the South Korean Minister Counsellor Wonchang La
exploreASEAN had the honour of hosting the South Korean Minister Counsellor Wonchang La during the Seminar in Switzerland, held from 14 to 18 February 2022 at the FHNW campus in Olten. He provided interesting insights into the ASEAN+3 member state South Korea and its unprecedent rapid economic development. Moreover, Mr. Wonchang La was available for a short interview in which he speaks about his personal journey of becoming a diplomate, about the cultural challenges he faced and his personal values. He is currently Deputy Chief of Mission at the South Korean Embassy in Bern and has already been posted in Kazakhstan, Russia, the USA, and Italy.
South Korea and ASEAN
The 7th edition of exploreASEAN focuses for the first time in history not only on the ASEAN but also on the ASEAN+ member states, considering the growth and influence in the global market that cannot be overlooked. This is especially true for South Korea, which is ASEAN’s fifth largest trading partner, and conversely, ASEAN is the second largest trading partner for South Korea. The two economic powers are currently updating their free trade agreement to further reduce trade barriers as South Korea seeks to diversify its trade portfolio and expand its presence in Southeast Asia.
South Korea’s Unprecedent Rapid Economic Development – The Miracle on the Han River
The resource poor country surrounded by powerful neighbours like Japan, China, Russia and North Korea, has seen one of the most unprecedented rapid economic development in the world. South Korea’s GDP grew from 4 billion USD in 1960 to 1.630 billion USD in 2020, this means an increase of 410 times in the last 60 years. In terms of GDP, South Korea ranks 10th in the world, after the G7 states, China and India. Moreover, GDP per capita has increased 209 times. The country’s trade volume ranks 7th in export and 9th in import. In addition, according to the Bloomberg Innovation Index, South Korea ranked 1st in 2021. It was already the case for the seventh time over the last nine years.
After the Korean war in 1953, only few people may have foreseen such an economic success story for the developing country. The South Korean government, with its seamless execution of economic development plans and focused investments in talent development on the one hand, and the Korean people, with their strong work ethic and an enthusiasm for education on the other hand, have been key to this never-before-seen economic growth, dubbed the “Miracle on the Han River”.
After Mr. Wonchang La’s presentation the PR team had the unique possibility to conduct an interview with the Minister Counsellor who has been posted in several different countries. His latest challenge awaits him in Bern, Switzerland. As a widely traveled diplomate, a cultural expert and connected to South Korea by his roots, he is the perfect interview fit for the current exploreASEAN edition.
Mr. Müller: During the presentation you mentioned the quality development of Korean goods, like the Korean car, which quality you have experienced quite disappointing in the late 1990’s and surprisingly good in 2006 when you bought a Hyundai car in Moscow. You also mentioned this strong work ethic of South Korean people. Did this work ethic develop during this time, or was it just that it finally paid off thanks to other factors that came together and ensured that the economy developed and produced better quality?
Mr. La: That’s a tricky question. Just like Switzerland, South Korea is a resource poor country, so in order to survive and succeed you have to work hard. That work ethic has been etched into our mentality throughout the history. Once South Korea became an independent country after the war, we could work for ourselves. With the advent of the democracy in 1987 after the end of the military dictatorship really unleashed people’s freedom to be rewarded for what they do. Also, South Korean family have witnessed that higher education pays off. So that is why each family is motivated to send their kids to college. Doing so requires a lot of sacrifice from these families but they think it is worth it and they place it on top priority. So, this ingrained in a work ethic and the strong motivation to put the next generation into higher education. Those are the two most critical elements in the South Korean work force which turned them into one of the top-notch workforces in the world.
Mr. Müller: Now I would like to ask you more personal questions. In your life, you have lived, studied and worked in many countries: How did you handle the cultural differences? What has been the main challenges?
Mr. La: I grew up in South Korea and then moved to the US as a teenager. During my college days I also spend a year in Japan as an exchange student. Ten years later I came back to South Korea to become a Korean diplomate, I was 27 years old at the time and since becoming a diplomate I was posted in five different countries starting with Kazakhstan. The postings in Moscow, Washington D.C., Rome and finally Bern followed. Spending time in all these countries – for me the two most important elements to continue my personal developments as a person and as a professional are the adaptability and the willingness to learn and enjoy my surroundings. Moving from South Korea to the United States as a teenager was a huge challenge, I did not speak English at all, but I made a lot of effort to pick up the language as quickly as possible and I was really focused on my studies. That really helped me to be able to adapt quickly in new surroundings throughout my career so moving from a central Asian country to a former Soviet Union and also going back to Washington DC. and then moving to Rome and Switzerland was quite a change in scenery and working environments but based on my past experiences I enjoyed the transitions and they have been rather smooth.
“…you are more defined by how you do what your tasked to do and not by what you do.”
On my second point, most young people tend to think that their value or their standing is determined by what they do – like what kind of job descriptions they have. It might be true but, in my view, a more accurate, a more useful approach would be that you are more defined by how you do what your tasked to do and not by what you do. If you do even small tasks with a lot of effort and you are willing to do it well then you will be gradually assigned to more important tasks and bigger responsibilities. I think that this really is key for young people to keep in mind. That has actually been my moto during my public career and you know, paying attention to details and small things matters. It allows you to see the differences and this helps you to adapt and enjoy the new environment and find new opportunities.
Mr. Müller: Willingness comes from motivation. What was your motivation to decide to become a diplomat for South Korea in 1997?
Mr. La: In my opinion, not many people end up with the job that they initially thought they would be doing. It was the same for me. I did not think about becoming a South Korean diplomat. I moved to the United States as an immigrant and I started high school and college there. I was in a graduate’s program with the intention to work in the private sector or for international organizations. During my Master’s degree, a South Korean diplomat who was a classmate of mine started foreign service with the South Korean government. Although it was not a venue or the career I was thinking about, I thought it could be an interesting career – so, I applied. To my own surprise I passed all tests on the first try. I think it is probably the same for every country that becoming a diplomate is quite a challenge. The Level of exam is quite difficult and there are usually very few slots open in these positions. In South Korea we select about 20 diplomats each year out of 50 million people.
“…my hard work as a student to focus on international markets and relations paid off.”
Even though I did not try to become a Korean diplomat, my hard work as a student to focus on international markets and relations paid off. In terms of career ways, you might not end up doing what you planned to do but if you spend each day with a determination to excel, then you end up with something surprising, very enjoyable and worthy to do.
Mr. Müller: A great message for all students. Where in the world did you find yourself the most comfortable?
Mr. La: Not as a diplomate but as a person I think Switzerland has the most, what I would wish for my own people and my own country. The clean environments, the beautiful nature the productivity and the level of wage and social welfare and the diversity of education and career developments, the medical services – I mean I can go on and on about the most admirable aspects of Switzerland and I think that this is why Switzerland is the envy of the world and in that regard, I am happy that my country is making small steps to emulate and get closer to Switzerland. You know all the countries that I have been posted had some attractive sides. For instance, Italy and their cultural inheritance is tremendous. I mean not only Rome or Firenze or Venice, even if you go to the small towns, you find some world class Art hidden there and not to mention the cuisine the wines and the beautiful sights. In Washington D.C. I played a small role in helping South Korea and the US to verify their free trade agreement – it was professionally a very rewarding experience. To intermingle with policy makers and top-notch thinkers in foreign affairs and economy is really an accelerating experience. In Moscow I learned a lot about the history about communism and what It means to transit from a communist country to a free economy and about what kind of costs that the people have to pay for this to happen. Kazakhstan is a very exotic place. The first time I went to the green market where vendors sell all these dried fruits – really delicious! For young people I recommend to spend their time to visit different countries and to explore different cultures and see it for themselves.
Mr Müller: Thank you very much for your insightful contribution and for your time!