WITHIN the spacious compound of the South Korean embassy in Bangkok is a massive building that resembles both a palace and a fortress. The Korean-style structure in Huay Kwang District, not far from the Thai Cultural Center, contains the embassy offices presided over by His Excellency Jeon Jaeman.
The compound also contains the ambassador’s residence and the chancery building. Altogether it’s a fitting image for a true “Asian tiger.”
Ambassador Jeon later explained that the main building of the embassy was designed by late Kim Joongup, a famous architect born in North Korea who went on to design a number of famous monuments, landmarks and buildings in South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK).
Mr Jeon is understandably proud of the embassy and he’s happy to be posted in Bangkok.
Prior to the interview, condolences were conveyed on the tragic sinking of the MV Sewol ferry on April 16, which claimed so many South Korean lives, to Ambassador Jeon and to Lee Junho, director of the Korean Cultural Center (KCC) in Bangkok.
Mr Jeon Jaeman was born in 1955, two years after the end of the Korean War, in Busan, the second largest city in South Korea on the southeast coast of the peninsula. He studied international relations and Chinese language at university and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 1979 during the era of President Park Chung-hee.
Mr Jeon lived in total more than 12 years in so-called “Greater China,” which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, before leaving the MOFA to pursue other interests in 2009. He retired from government service in 2012 but was asked by the government to return to the diplomatic corps later in the same year and dispatched to Bangkok as ambassador.
“Just after my arrival here I was asked by some colleague ambassadors about my previous position. I would answer: ‘Sorry, I was jobless before coming here,’” Mr Jeon said, smiling.
Positions Mr Jeon has held with the MOFA include consul at the Korean Consulate General in Hong Kong (1987); assistant secretary, Office of the President (1992); first secretary, Korean embassy in Japan (1995); head of the Asia-Pacific Trade Team, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT), 1998; counselor, Korean Embassy in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) 2001; senior coordinator for planning and management, MOFAT (2003); consul-general, Korean Consulate General in Guangzhou, PRC (2006); ambassador adviser for International Relations to Gyeonggi-do Province, PRC (2009); and minister of the Korean Embassy in the PRC (2009).
“Before leaving the government in the spring of 2012, my position was first deputy director of the National Intelligence Service. My job was to collect intelligence from abroad, analyze it and, if necessary, forward it to the highest level,” said Mr Jeon.
Prior to his present assignment he had never been posted to an ASEAN country but had travelled extensively in the region. “My first trip to Thailand was in 1992 when I was going to Cambodia, which at the time had no diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea. Of course, there was no direct flight from Seoul to Phnom Penh, so I had to change flights in Bangkok and stayed overnight,” said Mr Jeon.
“In October 2012 I came here as ambassador. The term is usually three years. Traditionally an embassy has four major functions. The first is to represent the home country and negotiate on its behalf with the host country. The second is promoting ties between the two countries in the fields of economic, social, and cultural fields.
“We are trying to widen and deepen the economic cooperation between Korea and Thailand, including helping more Korean companies to come here for business and advising Thai companies with an interest in doing business in Korea. We are also trying to expand exchanges between the two countries in the fields of education, science, culture, sports and so on.
“Thirdly, we observe and study the local situation and report our assessments to headquarters in Seoul. Last but not least, we endeavor to ensure the safety of Korean nationals in Thailand, both tourists and residents.
“My duties and responsibilities also include the managing of the embassy. This is an administrative job with responsibility over the budget and personnel.
“I travel outside Bangkok mainly on official business. I have visited many places in Thailand, including Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya, Chaiyapum, Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham, Pattaya, Chonburi, Rayong, Hua Hin, Phuket and Nakhon Si Thammarat.
“I especially liked Hua Hin, where I enjoyed swimming in the pool of my hotel by the sea and visiting the night market.
“Cooperation between Korea and Thailand is already very good but it can be made even better and upgraded. The relationship between our two countries was labeled a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2012. This shows how close it is.
“As you may well know, Korean pop culture is very well received in Thailand. In order to meet the growing demand for cultural exchange, we opened the Korean Cultural Center on Sukhumvit Road, between Sois 15 and 17, last July. For the past three years we have held the Korean-Thai Friendship Festival jointly with Thailand’s Ministry of Culture,” said the ambassador.
Operated by the South Korean government and overseen by the embassy, KCC is described as a neighborhood community organization in Thailand involved in sharing cultural ideas to create a more intimate friendship between the peoples of Thailand and Korea. The center welcomes every nationality.
Its role includes organizing Korean language lessons, cooking, dance, taekwondo, traditional instrument and magic classes. There is also a K-Cinema film night, performance art exhibitions and music concerts, as well as seminars, forums workshops and other cultural activities. The library, multimedia lounge and heritage room also help deepen the knowledge of Korea in Thailand.
Director Lee Junho
Mr Jeon then said that the current strong interest in Korean culture has spurred a desire in many Thai people to learn the Korean language. At present around 60 Korean educators are teaching language classes in Thai high schools and Korean is taught at 40 universities in Thailand.
“What really makes me happy is that there are Korean language departments in eight Thai universities. Thai people like Korean music and dramas, such as our TV soap operas. And I am quite surprised that many high-ranking male Thai government officials know so much about Korean soap operas. This is because their wives often follow them.”
Asked why he thinks so many Thai women like Korean TV dramas, he smiled and answered: “It must be that they are ‘good stories.’ That means that they are ethically correct – if the characters do something good, they will be rewarded and if they do something bad, they will be punished.”
Mr Jeon said that the two countries should take advantage of the close political, social, and cultural ties and put more effort into enhancing economic relations. “What is very important is to induce more investment from Korea to Thailand, and this is not an easy job.
“Bilateral trade has increased steadily, and the annual volume has reached US$1.3 billion, but the foreign direct investment (FDI) from Korea in Thailand – about $2.5 billion – is not yet enough, I think, especially when compared with the amount in Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia.
“I hope the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which is now being discussed between Korea and Thailand, and the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) next year will contribute to closer economic relations between our two countries.
“Korea is importing from Thailand electronic devices, agricultural products like rice and fish, and petrochemical products. Korea exports to Thailand cars, especially Hyundai and Kia, but not so many because Japanese car manufacturers have several plants here. Most of our passenger car exports go to the United States and Europe.
“Although the number of cars exported from Korea to Thailand is increasing, the market share is still only 0.4% or so. Korean minivans are becoming very popular in Thailand, especially the model sold in Thailand as Hyundai H1. Some members of the Thai parliament came to our residence in that car, which is called Starex in Korea.
“Korean smart phones, especially Samsung, also sell very well in Thailand. I hear that the market share is about 60%. Korean electronics appliances like TV sets and air conditioners are also very popular with Thai consumers,” said the ambassador.
“A year ago, our prime minister attended the Asia Pacific Water Summit in Chiang Mai. Between the presidential visit and the visit by the prime minister, the president of the Korean National Assembly came here and was greeted very warmly in Bangkok as well as in Chiang Mai.
“From the Thai side, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited South Korea in April 2013 and former Prime Minister Yingluck visited twice, in March 2012 and in February 2013. Former President of Parliament Somsak Kiatsuranont also visited South Korea twice,” said Mr Jeon.
“As for tourism, last year the number of South Korean visitors to Thailand reached 1.3 million, while 370,000 Thai people visited South Korea. You may be surprised to know that there are 312 flights between Korea and Thailand per week. That means on average 45 flights a day. Around 3,500 Koreans are coming to Thailand every day.
“We estimate that around 20,000 Koreans live here. Koreans in Thailand behave well – I haven’t heard any complaints about them from the Thai law enforcement authorities. There are around 55,000 Thais living in Korea. Thai restaurants in Korea are getting more popular nowadays,” the ambassador said.
A message to North Korea
During the interview the subject of South Korea’s neighbor to the north – possibly the world’s most isolated country – was inevitably raised. When asked what he would like to see to improve relations on the Korean peninsula, Mr Jeon replied: “I wish that the North Korean government would abandon its nuclear program and come out into the international community. I want them to adopt the same policy that China did in 1979, followed by Vietnam about 30 years ago. I want them to adopt reform and open policy for the well-being of the people.”
As for the relationship with his North Korean counterpart in Thailand, Mr Jeon disclosed that he would occasionally meet the North Korean ambassador (HE An Song Nam, who left his post in Thailand recently) at official events like receptions. “We usually mingled a bit, asking each other ‘how are you’ and so on. Nothing much really.”
The long division of the Korean peninsula has led to many differences between the inhabitants. “For one, there is now a difference in how North and South Korean people speak. It was the same almost 70 years ago, but after the division of the peninsula the language has developed in slightly different ways. For the most part we can understand and communicate with one another, but I can easily identify someone from the North by their accent and some words they use.”
Mr Jeon has been learning Thai for the past year but finds it very difficult, especially the alphabet. “I wish the Thai alphabet could be simplified so that only one character represents one sound,” said Mr Jeon, voicing a sentiment felt by many foreigners. “I don’t think that I have made much progress, but I am still learning four times a week, usually in the morning.
“Once I felt comfortable speaking German but I have forgotten most of what I knew. I stayed in Tokyo for about three years some 20 years ago and took Japanese lessons three times a week every week until I left. I still remember some.
“I can speak and write Chinese. I am more comfortable when I speak Chinese than when I speak English.”
Asked why his name is spelled in different ways in the local press, the ambassador pointed out that in Korea the surname is placed first and the given name second, as in this article.
Mr Jeon, who is married and has two daughters, said that what he likes most about Thailand is “Thai smiles, in other words, the kindness and hospitality of the people. Bangkok is a good place where I can enjoy swimming outside all year round. I like to play the board game ‘Baduk’ when I have free time,” he added.
He has two favourite Korean restaurants in Bangkok. One is called Seorabol, on Sukhumvit Soi 26, and the other is Myeong Ga, located what is known as ‘Korean Town,’ at Sukhumvit Plaza, Soi 12.
He remembers fondly an early experience when he found himself about ten minutes late for a courtesy call to a very high official. “I was at a loss on what to say and apologized profusely. However, he said, ‘Don’t mention it. Here we can wait at least 30 minutes because everybody knows that the roads in Bangkok are very congested.’ This made me feel so comfortable.
“I also cannot forget the spectacular beauty of the flying lanterns in Chiang Mai and small candle lotus leaves on the Chao Phraya River in front of Asiatique during the Loy Krathong Festival.
“As for my biggest disappointment here, it was when the water management project was shelved due to the political turmoil. I was disappointed since it would be a big project through which the Korean company K-Water could contribute to the reconstruction of Thailand. I hope the project will be resumed after the new government is formed.”