For Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Director-General Oh Young-ju, international cooperation is an investment for Korea’s future. Hence, she took charge of the Ebola operation, sending major emergency relief teams abroad for the first time in Korean history.
Oh’s decision drew opposition from Koreans who were against the idea of sending medical workers abroad to mitigate a pandemic outbreak. The controversy culminated when a Korean physician was at risk of contracting the disease last December. The pressure was on Oh, who was in charge of the Ebola operation. However, her prompt response led to the worker’s safety, turning a risk into a milestone in the history of Korean humanitarian diplomacy.
Oh explained that providing assistance to other nations advances our national interest.
“Since the size of Korea’s domestic economy is relatively small, the country is highly dependent on export,” she said. “As a result, only when the global society is peaceful and flourishing can Korea thrive.”
The change in the international perception of Korea was another benefit that Oh mentioned.
“Spending over two trillion won per year on Official Developmental Assistance (ODA) will improve the world’s perception of Korea,” she stressed. “Koreans will be respected as citizens of an open and mature country. The benefit that Korea can gain from helping other nations can be infinitely larger than the money it spends today.”
In addition to managing the Ebola operation, Oh conducts various tasks as the head of the Development Cooperation Bureau. One of her tasks is establishing policies concerning ODA. She coordinates with the government, schools and civil society to decide the recipient countries and programs. Oh also represents Korea’s ODA policies at OECD and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), which implements policies designed by the bureau.
“The programs initiated by the Development Cooperation Bureau are diverse,” Oh remarked. “Our work ranges from starting Saemaul, which means new town movement as well as movement in developing nations to providing humanitarian assistance to those stricken by a pandemic.”
Until now, Oh has worked at various places including the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the UN. As a multilateral diplomacy specialist, she has led UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s election campaign. When Ban’s chance of winning the election was thought to be very slim, Oh met with countless foreign representatives to remind them of the benefits each country would gain if Ban were elected. Through the experience, She learned that the ability to befriend others is an asset that diplomats must have.
“Diplomacy ultimately occurs between people,” she explained. “Therefore, your attitude and knowledge should be appealing to the people you meet.”
While having a successful career as a diplomat, Oh has had difficulties balancing work and family.
“When I first joined MOFA in 1988, I was the fourth female diplomat in Korea,” she said. “Unlike male colleagues who could stay with their wives, my son and I constantly moved to a new country while my husband stayed in Seoul.”
The glass ceiling in MOFA at the time was another challenge for her. Working in the field of multilateral diplomacy was considered the best opportunity for female diplomats since the job involved a lot of discussions and conversations, which was deemed suitable for women.
“Being a female diplomat and the first Ewha graduate to pass the Korean Foreign Service Exam, I was a minority at work,” she confessed. “Thus, I tried to accomplish given tasks no matter how difficult they were. This enabled me to become the sole female director at MOFA.”
Oh’s ultimate goal is to become an excellent ambassador of Korea. She hopes to represent Korea in a positive image at future posts.
Just as she had decided to work in an area that was male-dominated at the time, Oh suggested that Ewha students be open-minded about their career paths.
“Because becoming a diplomat was a goal that I set after years of contemplation, I was more motivated,” she recalled. “Try to look at life in the long run and acquire wisdom to overcome the challenges you might face.”
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