I couldn’t believe I was sitting across from a top Korean government official.
But there sat Yuna, my friend from 10 years ago, looking bright as ever. We were attempting to beat the heavy June heat by ducking into a nearby coffee shop.
As Dale and I inquired about her life, we could see she had come to a place of great contentment. But it was not always this way.
The Back Story
“When I came back after overseas graduate study,” she shared, “my relationship with my boyfriend crumbled. We had been going out for almost 10 years, and I thought we’d marry.”
“But now, in retrospect, I can see how it wouldn’t have been good for my heart and soul. It would have destroyed my faith. In fact, what happened actually sharpened my Christian faith and gave me vision in my chosen career."
I asked her what she meant.
“Well, although I struggled with the loss, I feel it helped me get clearer on what I wanted from life. And I’m perfectly content now, in my forties, being single.”
“Really?” I queried.
“Yes. Of course, my parents struggled. But I’ve been able to give them the attention they need as they are getting older. And I’ve been able to follow my career dreams.”
Using Her Position For Good
This friend is in a position of prominence. She works for the Korean Ministry of Elections. Her position is especially significant since Korea impeached its president earlier this year (2017).
“Wow, you must have been busy,” I suggested.
“Yes, very. But you know, we all could see the writing on the wall. She was the Korean president for five years, and the case against her built up over the last two or three. We all believed it was coming.”
She went on. “Park Geun-hye was ousted peacefully in March. Then we had 60 days to pull off a new presidential election. Peacefully.”
“Was it peaceful for you?” I inquired, tongue-in-cheek.
“Not at all! That’s why I’m glad you’re here now, after the elections,” she confided. “But one of my primary responsibilities was to make all the arrangements for a special conference happening right before, and during, the elections.”
South Korea As A Model For Democracy
“You see, many in the developing world view South Korea as a model for democracy and prosperity.”
I had not heard that before. Of course, I’m not from the developing world. I leaned forward, wanting to learn more.
“Well, after the Korean war, around 1953, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. I think it’s GDP put it at number 109 of 114 nations at the time. But now, well, I think it’s in the top 15. And that’s in a relatively short span of 64 years.”
I let that sink in. I know several other nations have made tremendous economic gains over the same time period. These include Japan & Germany after WWII (but with help), the other three “Tigers” of Asia (Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India & China). But as Yuna and I talked, I realized the Korean achievements really stood out.
She went on. “So my role was to plan and execute this conference bringing representatives from about 40 mostly developing nations to Korea during election week. They were here to observe and learn about peaceful democratic transition. You know, the Korean model fits more with the reality of what these nations are facing than the American model.”
That was interesting to contemplate. But it made sense. What developing country wants to take two centuries to become democratic and prosperous? There is hardly enough time now.
Korean Democracy In Action
We asked her about the protesters (that day, well over 10,000) who were populating the street as we passed through.
“They are construction workers, I believe. They’re probably protesting their labor conditions. We have protests like this all the time. But Korean protests are always peaceful. You do not need to worry. You are safe here.”
I realized this was democracy in action. It was what the delegates from the 40+ developing nations had come to observe. This was the energy of a prosperous nation giving its people a place to raise their voices and express their opinions.
As we wrapped up our time together, I felt as if I had learned so much in such a short time with Yuna. Not only did I learn about the struggles she had encountered – and how she had overcome them – but also about a land and its people. This was our first time to Korea.
“We’ll be back,” I said as we parted later. “Your country has impressed and surprised us. I am so glad we chose a Korean detour on our way to Singapore [to attend a conference],” I expressed with a wink.
This encounter with Yuna has added much to my understanding of South Korea, and even to the overall regional challenges. But that’s the topic for another blog post!
* In 2017, South Korea is predicted to be #14 in both the IMF’s (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank’s Lists of Countries by GDP, and #13 in the CIA’s World Factbook out of 195 countries. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP))