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November, 2003 Vol. 28 No. 3
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The Yangs with Governor Linda Lingle

The Yangs with Governor Linda Lingle

Teacher, Scholar, Statesman

South Korean Ambassador Sung Chul Yang learned cultural diversity at UH

by Tom Nugent

Sung Chul Yang doesn't mince words in describing a childhood interrupted by war. The distinguished former South Korean ambassador to the United States remembers the 1950-53 armed conflict as a sinister nightmare, soaked in human blood. "I was only 10 years old when the Korean War broke out," recalls the 64-year-old Yang (MA '67 Manoa). "The destruction was a terrible thing to witness. I saw dead bodies in the ditches of my hometown. Empty shells were my toys; my friends and I collected them and played soldier. We lived in a world where death and destruction were simply routine."

The sensitive sixth-grader struggled to understand a civil war that seemed irrational and absurd as control of the town alternated between warring forces. "I couldn't understand then why some people were 'good people' during the brief North Korean occupation but became 'bad people,' incarcerated after the South Korean military and police force recaptured the town. What a tragic merry-go-round!"

Yang spent most of his professional career -- as a university professor, elected official and Seoul's ambassador to Washington (2000-2003) -- searching for a formula to bring peace and prosperity to the entire Korean Peninsula. He recently returned to Seoul to resume writing and teaching. Long recognized as one of the world's most knowledgeable experts on Korean history and diplomacy (his 1990 study, Korean-U.S. Relations in a Changing World, is widely regarded as a classic overview of the region's tangled problems), he intends to "go on working for reconciliation and peace between North and South Korea for the rest of my life."

An epiphany in inter-cultural relations

With a chuckle, Yang describes an early lesson in cultural understanding. As an East-West Center grantee at UH Manoa, he attended weekly dance parties. "I was a naive young man back then, and after one of these parties, I had a heated discussion with a student from Australia. He asked me whether Koreans wore kimono like the Japanese. I was visibly upset and told him Koreans wear their traditional clothes, hanbok. He apologized and then asked me if I knew what the native Australians wore. Obviously, I didn't. He told me: 'If you don't know what native Australians wear, how do you expect me to know about your country's traditional costume?'"

It was a decisive epiphany. Yang threw himself into the task of learning about foreign cultures in order to better understand and appreciate the world around him.

Cultural open-mindedness isn't all he gained at UH. "I met my wife, a third-generation Korean American. We will cherish those moments as long as we live." Yang Jung-jin (known to her Hawaiian family and friends as Daisy Lee) holds three master's degrees and a doctorate in international education. The couple returned to Honolulu in 2003 for the centennial of Korean immigration to Hawai'i and the U.S. -- a special celebration for a woman whose grandparents were on the second boat carrying Korean immigrants to the Islands.

Yang completed a doctorate at the University of Kentucky. In between teaching assignments at Kentucky, the University of Indiana and the Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung-Hee University in Seoul, he became an internationally renowned scholar and historian. In 1996 he was elected to the Korean National Assembly, where he was a powerful voice for reconciliation between the two Koreas. The South Korean government named him U.S. ambassador in 2000.

A witness to extraordinary changes

According to a Korean saying, even mountains and rivers change in 10 years. "That means mountains and rivers in Honolulu and Seoul and America and Korea have changed nearly four times," Yang exclaims. "Back then, the tallest building (in Seoul) was the eight-story Japanese-vintage department store. Now there are thousands of high-rise apartments and office towers. The population jumped from 3 million when I left in 1965 to 11 million today. Annual per-capita income has soared, from $100 then to $10,000 in 2003. There are at least 140 flights each week between Korea and America, in 1965 such flights did not exist."

Yang speaks eloquently about perils and promise facing the United States. "I spent 21 of my most productive years in the United States. America symbolizes the idea of liberty. This cardinal concept has attracted people from all corners of the earth, whether they are suffering from persecution, famine, disease, repression or tyranny. America has become the land of liberty, openness, opportunity and, above all, diversity. It would be utterly disastrous -- and self-defeating -- if one mistakenly believed that America's might makes her right. It is America's ideals that make her great!"

Recalling a veteran hopping on one leg along a New York City parade for Korean War veterans, he continues: "Such encounters remind one that war is not 'the continuation of foreign policy by other means,' but a policy failure. War-mongering is easy . . . but peace-making, that's a huge challenge. Today, it is everyone's challenge!"

The proud father of a physician son and Harvard graduate daughter, Yang believes life has been very good to him. "I can say that Rudyard Kipling was patently wrong when he wrote: 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet!' For me, the University of Hawai'i was a shining example of East meeting West."

Observations by the ambassador

On life in North Korea today: "The current North Korean regime, with its adulterated totalitarian communist system and its father-son personality cult and succession scheme, is an anachronism. Its durability is increasingly in doubt. The state of the North Korean economy and life there are tragic; poverty and malnutrition are comparable to what we see in Rwanda or Ethiopia."

On the politics of North Korea: "For more than a decade, the ruling group has tried to get out of North Korea's 'no-win-no-way-out' situation. Unfortunately, the vicious circle of severe shortages of food, energy and hard currency has compelled them to resort to extortion by blackmail or brinkmanship, or to clandestine smuggling, counterfeiting and drug-trafficking, not to mention export of missiles. A better option would be to shed North Korea's obsolete political economy and join the international community as a lawful member."

On the efforts at reform: "The irony and tragedy is that even if President Kim Jong Il and his ruling establishment decide to abandon their old practices, no leader or ruling elite can transform the nearly six-decades-old closed system into an open system overnight. So the North Korean tragedy continues."

On removing the threat of nuclear weapons: "Under no circumstances must North Korea's nuclear program be tolerated; both plutonium- and uranium-based nuclear projects must be dismantled irreversibly and promptly. A nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula is a must! In return, the United States and other concerned countries must provide North Korea security assurances along with multilateral financial assistance."

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer and former People magazine reporter.