Grassroots Diplomacy: The Value of People-to-People Relations and the ROK-U.S. Alliance

Maj. Kenny Loui, CAP
Director of Undergraduate Programs, Global Education Institute
Assistant Professor and Chair, Department of International Education
Namseoul University

“Duty. Honor. Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be.” – General Douglas MacArthur, May 12, 1962

These words by General Douglas MacArthur, who served as supreme allied commander of the Southwest Pacific during World War II and commander of UN forces during the Korean War, should serve as a guidepost for all American and Korean military officers and diplomats alike. For that matter, it should be the core values for anyone working in the field of public service. Whether you are a diplomat, soldier, doctor, lawyer, or teacher, you should strive to carry out your duties to the best of your ability, while serving your community and country with honor.

General MacArthur’s words from 56 years ago are ever more poignant in today’s interconnected global society where the problems we face are better addressed collectively through shared goals, visions, and solutions as opposed to unilaterally, especially as we approach 70 years of the ROK-U.S. alliance. At least this is what I often convey to students enrolled in my classes, which usually comprise of students from Korea and other countries around the world. Despite our two countries’ differences in terms of history, language, and culture, Korea and the United States share many common objectives and national interests. I say this as an American who has lived in Korea for ten years and have come to consider the “Land of the Morning Calm” my second home and the Korean people members of my extended family.

Through my experiences studying and working abroad in several countries over the years, including overseas assignments with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of State, and Civil Air Patrol (U.S. Air Force Auxiliary), I hold the belief that diplomacy isn’t limited to the realm of politics and reserved only for those select few in society who hold the job title of “diplomat.” To embrace such a viewpoint would be ignorant, and for that matter, arrogant. In brief, I believe anyone can be an “ambassador” and practice diplomacy, regardless of their nationality, gender, age, or occupation. A salient case-in-point is my own experience as a “cultural ambassador” during my first visit to Korea a decade ago … and for that matter, the impetus for my decision to come to Korea in the first place.

In college, my career goal was to become either a lawyer or a diplomat. I was pretty much on the “right track” when I decided to take a job with the U.S. Department of Justice and got my first taste of a career in diplomacy when I was sent to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo for a temporary duty assignment. At that time, I was also pursuing my Master’s degree, so work and school kept me busy during my time in Japan. While living in Tokyo, I befriended several of my classmates who were from Korea. And from them, I learned more about and eventually developed an interest in the Korean language and culture. In return, I shared with my new friends from Korea my own diverse mix of cultures since I grew up in a Thai-Chinese-American household.

I would leave Japan as an “honorary Korean,” as one of my Korean friends called me prior to my departure at Narita Airport, telling me to “come visit home” someday. I would heed his words in the near future and pay a visit to my “second home,” but in a manner that most people (including myself) did not expect, and for a much longer term than expected. After completing my Master’s degree, I would leave what many of my friends and family considered a promising career in the U.S. Department of Justice to become a high school teacher in South Korea, essentially resetting my career progression back to “Step 1.”

In June 2008, upon graduation, I accepted a Fulbright Grant to teach in a Korean high school and intern at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. The instructors and guest speakers during our summer orientation reiterated to me and the other scholarship recipients that we were not only students, teaching assistants, or interns, we were “cultural ambassadors.” That was a title that probably inflated the egos of some of my peers, myself included (but only a little). Nonetheless, it was an important role with an equally important responsibility attached to it, an important lesson that I learned from my own experiences and the experiences of others over the course of my Fulbright Grant year.

In brief, the manner in which one conducts herself or himself, especially in an “official” capacity, can make or break relations between Korea and the United States. After all, we have all probably heard of the terms “the ugly American” or “the ugly Korean” used to describe those few who have sadly left unfavorable impressions of themselves through their inappropriate behavior and negative interactions with others in their host countries.

I certainly did not want to be labeled as an “ugly American” during my time in Korea, especially as a student and educator sponsored by the U.S. government. Thus, I took my role as a teacher and as a cultural ambassador very seriously, especially since for some of my students, I was the first American they had ever met or interacted with. In my mind, it was not only a professional courtesy to do so, but a duty to make a good first and lasting impression on these students, as my relationship with them would probably influence not only their perspectives of me personally but of Americans in general.

All in all, my Fulbright grant year was an enriching experience. I had the chance to serve as a mentor to several students, helping them discover their dreams and develop plans to pursue those dreams. My students, in turn, reiterated my newfound dream of pursuing a career in teaching and youth mentoring. In fact, my original intention for leaving my former job and accepting the Fulbright teaching grant was two-fold—to learn more about Korea and to eventually transition into a career with the U.S. Department of State, specifically to become a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (in simple terms, a diplomat). All that changed during my one year as a high school teacher, not only because of the joys of the teaching profession itself but because of the students I met, especially one in particular.

For students’ final projects, I had them do a short research project and presentation on a “global issue” that was important to them. There is one student whose presentation I still remember as clearly as yesterday, not because of the effort she put into her research and preparation, or how articulately she spoke, but because of how she concluded her presentation. At the end of her presentation, Mirae told her classmates, “Earning a lot of money and getting a good job is the goal of most students, but I think success in this world should be defined as having kindness and humanity. It is our responsibility to save our world.” Then, as she stood behind the podium in front of the classroom, she diverted her gaze from her classmates and looked directly into my eyes, and said, “Kenny 쌤 taught us that.” I was touched by her words, to the point where I found myself holding back the tears forming in my eyes. To this day, that is still one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me or about me.

When I was Mirae’s age, I believed that the only way to really, truly make a difference in society and change the world for the better was at the top of one’s chosen career field or as someone with a “fancy” job title and the authority, influence, and prestige that come with it. Hence, I pursued a career in government, with the goal of someday becoming a diplomat and climbing up the proverbial career ladder as high as I could so that I could be in the position to make the greatest positive impact possible in the world. But a 16-year-old girl named Mirae and several young people like her that I met in a high school in Pohang widened my narrow perspective on who has the power to instill positive change in the world and how. I departed Korea in the summer of 2009 with a warm feeling in my heart, reflecting on the impact I had made in my students’ lives, and for that matter, the impact that they had made in my life, coming to the realization that neither of us needed a fancy job title or to be in a position of power to do so.

Since leaving Korea in 2009, I would find myself returning several times and serving the Korean people as well as my fellow Americans, in several capacities—albeit not at the top, but at the ground level. During the past several years, besides my work as a university professor and Civil Air Patrol officer, I have found myself involved in a variety of volunteer youth mentoring activities in Korea including serving as an advisor for the U.S. Embassy’s Alumni-Youth Leadership Program (글로벌 리더십 캠프) in Seoul, as a leadership and training officer for the Young Falcons of Korea (한국항공소년단) in Daegu, and as a lecturer for the Korea Science Camp (한국과학캠프) in Busan which emphasizes volunteerism and public service through its service learning program (나눔교실). In each of these roles, I’ve found myself in a position to pursue my childhood dream of making a positive impact on the lives of others, but in a completely different way than I had initially expected—not as a diplomat but as a teacher. That being said, as I stated earlier, I believe anyone can be a diplomat … even a taxi driver.

In March 2016, as I was riding a taxi to Busan Station after completing volunteer work at a local middle school, the taxi driver and I engaged in some lighthearted conversation. One topic that came up was the taxi driver’s supposedly uncanny ability to smell where a person is from. If what the gentleman driving me to Busan Station told me was true, he was able to tell what country a person is from based on the person’s scent, a skill he said he acquired from driving people from various countries over the years. But what he told me after that was surprising, to me and even to him: “You don’t smell like a foreigner. You smell like a Korean.” We both laughed at the comment, but I was very humbled by it and by what he said when we arrived at Busan Station: “Well, it was nice meeting you. You’re a good man. Continue to do good things.” I nodded and smiled as I exited the vehicle. He returned my gesture with a warm smile of his own, then drove off to find his next customer.

When an American makes a Korean smile and vice versa, isn’t that considered fostering successful diplomatic relations? When a Korean and an American share with each other their language and culture, isn’t that also fostering successful diplomatic relations? When an American and a Korean develop a friendship so strong that they consider themselves brothers and sisters, as has been my experience in Korea, isn’t that, too, fostering successful diplomatic relations? Although seemingly insignificant in the larger scheme of things and hardly newsworthy, isn’t everything I just described above successful diplomacy and adding in some way to the fortitude of the ROK-U.S. alliance?

When you influence someone’s life in a positive way, that person in turn goes onto influencing another person’s life, and then that person another. This diffusion of positivity then becomes akin to a domino effect. In short, by touching one life at a time, we are changing the world for the better. That being said, the strength of the ROK-U.S. alliance shouldn’t and needn’t be defined only by the strength of our diplomatic, military, and economic ties, but by the strength of our people-to-people relations, our friendship, and our kinship.

Again, to reiterate my key point: Anyone (a career diplomat, military officer, teacher, student, or even a short-term traveler on vacation or a business trip) can practice diplomacy and be a cultural ambassador … even you, the person reading this article today! In fact, anytime you interact with people from a country other than your own—whether you are in your home country or a visitor in theirs—for all intents and purposes, you are an ambassador of your country, and you are very much practicing public diplomacy through what you say and do, and for that matter, how you say and do it.

How a person perceives of you, and by extension your nation as a whole, will largely be influenced by their one-on-one interactions with you. So to my fellow Americans and Koreans, given the fact that we are all in some way ambassadors and diplomats, I encourage each and every one of us to hold ourselves to the standards of service to duty, honor, and country through our interactions with each other as we reach the precipice of 70 years of the ROK-U.S. alliance and go together (“같이 갑시다”) towards the next 70 years.


Dr. Kenny Loui is the Director of Undergraduate Programs for the Global Education Institute and an assistant professor and chair for the Department of International Education at Namseoul University. He is also a major in the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. Dr. Loui was a Fulbright Grantee to the Republic of Korea and earned his Ph.D. in criminal justice with an emphasis in comparative policing and juvenile justice policy from Nova Southeastern University. In 2011, he was awarded the U.S. President’s Call to Service Award (Lifetime Volunteer Service Award) for his community service and volunteer efforts in the United States and the Republic of Korea.

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