Why did you choose this particular country?
I was stationed in South Korea when I was in the U.S. Army. During my time in South Korea I became fascinated in the many issues on the Korean Peninsula and East Asia as a region. The overlapping webs of relationships, tensions and grievances informing policy decisions in the region make it a fascinating place to study. Issues regarding the Korean Peninsula are particularly fascinating in their difficulty to solve and the possibility of a conflict starting on the Korean Peninsula igniting a larger conflict in the region. I would like a career where I work on issues regarding the Korean Peninsula and East Asia as a whole and believe learning Korean is a crucial step toward that goal.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
While it may sound cliché, my biggest lesson was how much people all over the world look to the United States for leadership. During the Trump-Kim Summit I recall walking back from class and passing countless restaurants, shops and people in the streets glued to televisions and phones broadcasting the post-meeting speech from President Trump.
During my stay I lived in a guesthouse to save money and ended up meeting countless travelers from all over the world. I had the pleasure of conversing with many of these travelers and was amazed again and again by how much they knew about our government, politics and pop-culture. Conversations with travelers from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine among other places really drove home the degree to which decisions made in the United States affected the day-to-day lives of countless people all over the world. Between the Trump-Kim Summit and the guesthouse experience, I began to appreciate the significance of American Foreign Policy decisions and the responsibility to get them right.
What are two interesting things about South Korea that the average person doesn’t know?
The first interesting thing is how forward-looking most South Koreans are. While many countries in the region spend time looking back to older days of Great Walls, Samurai and Emperors, South Koreans are much more excited in the present and future. They want success, prosperity and prestige so much that their society is filled with highly-educated, multilingual citizens who must undergo an obscene amount of competition to find jobs. While findings employment can be a cut-throat process in South Korea, their competitiveness has paid huge dividends as evidenced by the very technologically advanced city of Seoul being home to many residents who still remember when South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world.
The second interesting thing may have less to do with the average person and more to do with misconceptions among the American media regarding Korean reunification. During the year leading up to my summer in Seoul I heard countless assertions that an increasing number of young South Koreans do not want reunification as it would damage the South’s economy to help Koreans in the North whom they have never met. While these assertions seemed reasonable intuitively, I asked almost every South Korean I could and they were consistently shocked that people think they don’t want reunification. While there is survey data that supports the original assertion, I never met a single person who did not want reunification. According to the people I talked to, there were different views on how long a reunification process should take, but the view that it should not be undertaken was viewed as an extreme view held by a small minority on the far-right of their political spectrum.