Former Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was appointed the Honorary Chair Professor in the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha starting this fall semester. After her first special lecture as an Ewha professor on Aug. 10, Ewha Voice interviewed Professor Kang in her new office.
In Kang’s office, there was a picture of her giving a lecture to Ewha students in the spring of 2018. Kang said her memory of students’ eyes filled with inspiration was what made her return to academia, although she had “a 30-some-years- long-detour,” dedicating herself to public services both in the foreign ministry and the United Nations (UN).
“See those photos,” Kang said. “Every face in that scene is full of energy and optimism. When President Kim Eun-mee invited me to join the Ewha family at the time I decided to step down as Foreign Minister, I consented without any second thoughts.”
Executing the duties of a high-ranking post in various departments of the UN and the foreign ministry, Kang aimed to do her best in the given positions and be a force for good on a daily basis.
“South Korea is expected to deal with more and more global issues as its stature grows on a global scale,” Kang stated. “I cannot be fully satisfied with all my work during my tenure, but I think I have committed myself to the given situations and positions.”
Amongst numerous accomplishments, she recalled rescuing Koreans living abroad who suffered terribly due to COVID-19 as her most memorable achievement. She was also proud of the reforms that she made within the foreign ministry.
“Ministry officials and I utilized all the available means to safely bring back nearly 60,000 citizens residing abroad,” Kang said. “Moreover, we endeavored to transform the ministry, which had been rather closed, elitist, and exclusive to people who passed the foreign affairs official exams, into a more flexible organization. We hired experts with diverse career paths and ensured the work-life balance by eliminating unnecessary overtime work.”
For Ewha students pursuing a career in international organizations, Kang advised them to be curious about global affairs and gain broad knowledge about global development.
“Building careers in civil society groups or academia that you are interested in is the minimum,” Kang said. “You need to be open-minded about cultural diversity as you would work with people from different backgrounds once you work for the UN. When I was in the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, my immediate advisor was from Morocco, and my schedule assistant was from Indonesia. You basically will be surrounded by diversity.”
Kang recommended students to appreciate diversity and not prejudge the actions of others. She highlighted that what others intend can easily be misread due to differences in cultural codes.
Kang acknowledges that Korean society has taken a huge step toward gender equality, compared to when she had just returned to Korea with her doctorate from the United States. However, she thinks the barriers that women confront have become more “invisible, intangible and informal.”
According to the professor, the public sector has carried out constructive actions, such as the regulation that governmental advisory boards have 30 percent of either gender, to encourage more women leaders to be leading figures. However, the public and especially the corporate sector require more proactive solutions to foster women leaders.
As the first female foreign minister, Kang learned there are people with misogynic views who have trouble accepting women being in charge of a weighty portfolio in policy and security. Nonetheless, she hopes that women continue to achieve their ambitions without being swayed by such unjust criticisms and prejudices.
Professor Kang answers Ewha’s questions
Ewha Voice conducted a survey from Sept. 7 to Sept. 10 to collect students’ questions for Professor Kang.
How did you come to Ewha?
When the announcement was made of a cabinet reshuffle that meant I would be stepping down as foreign minister, the first message I received was from President Kim Eun-mee to join Ewha.
I have officially met the president at work. She has been a member of the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Advisory Committee and was the key voice in our development assistance policy. We have had an excellent working relationship.
As a part of my task force to review the Japan-South Korea Comfort Women Agreement in 2015, she made major contributions, so I was well aware how capable and active she is. When she offered me the position, I did not have to think that much.
What lectures and research studies are you planning to conduct at Ewha?
I am only planning to organize a couple of special lectures this semester. Perhaps I could bring some key speakers to engage with the group.
I want to do something on climate change, because the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November is going to make or break the Earth’s environmental regulations. I want our students to be fully aware of what the issues and the stakes are.
Thinking ahead of the next semester, I am certainly considering structuring a course on international relations, international organizations, or the future of multilateralism, and perhaps research programs along these lines.
What is the key factor that determines foreign policy decisions? Is it security, economic benefits, or ideals such as democracy?
Those are all goals that the government tries to promote. We need to have in mind that Korea is the sole remaining divided country in the world, in a lasting legacy of the Cold War.
Overcoming that division, perhaps not immediately toward unification, but at least finding a modality where the two sides can coexist needs to be considered. After a period of coexistence, I think then we can seriously talk about unification. It is an overriding issue for the government in Korea, and it certainly requires all three sectors: making sure that our security remains solid as we promote peace, ensuring that our economic prosperity continues for our citizens, and holding on to the ideals that we cherish as a lively democracy.
What do you think is the skill most needed to become a diplomat?
Language and patience. Issues between countries are not resolved all that easily. You need to be patient and be able to tell yourself to live with the complexities. Sometimes, no solution is the best solution. That requires a lot of tenacity and patience. It is also crucial to understand your counterparts.
What concrete efforts would you suggest that Ewha students take in order to make feminism more mainstream and acceptable to our society?
Social change always accompanies backlash. If feminism is moving forward, feminists are bound to face anti-feminist backlash. Change happens very quickly in Korea, and when change happens, it means that the backlash against that change is also going to become aggressive.
However, I have no doubt that we will maintain equal rights for men and women in the long run. You just have to be confident that you are pursuing the right path, but also be open-minded about what drives the anti-feminist movement.
Professor Kang’s final thoughts
Stating her goal as the Honorary Chair Professor, Kang paraphrased Hillary Clinton. “As Hillary said, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ I believe it takes a whole campus to raise a good woman leader. I am highly honored and delighted to be a part of the efforts of Ewha to raise competent women leaders.”