Students and diplomats square off
The Embassy Youth Forum gives students a chance to debate major issues, in person and through a UCC network created on the Web.
|Clockwise from left: Hannah Chang; Kim Ji-eun; Brian McFeeters, the United States Embassy’s deputy minister-counselor for political affairs; Patrick Linehan, minister-counselor for public affairs; Lee Kang-eun; Chung Yoo-jin and Kim Ha-jung. Provided by the U.S. Embassy|
Bordered by riot police, a high stone wall and barbed wire, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul may seem like a fortress for the diplomats within. Yet for Korean college students, a face-to-face conversation with U.S. government officials can be just a click away.
“Before, we’ve done innovative things like Web chats, which don’t happen too often in the government world,” said John Lee, public affairs assistant at the U.S. Embassy. “But as we thought about it, you always have to keep on innovating. We thought the next best thing was user-created content, and we thought of ways to make our own UCC.”
Led by Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs Patrick Linehan, such brainstorming sessions produced the Embassy Youth Forum, a series of videotaped issue-specific discussions in English among local university students and American diplomats that are then uploaded to the embassy Web site.
While posted in Brazil, Linehan, who previously served as embassy spokesman in Seoul from 1996-1999, helped create a youth exchange program that sowed the seeds for the EYF here in Korea. “Even before I arrived back in Seoul I knew that creating a youth-oriented program was how I wanted to make a difference here in Korea,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I chose to go to the Web because that is where young people are these days.”
The forums, also called “Real People Talking,” began last April. Since then, the embassy’s Information Resource Center in Yongsan District, central Seoul, has hosted a total of nine EYFs, the most recent falling last Thursday. The centerpiece of each forum is a roundtable discussion among five to six Korean students and two to three American guests, including Linehan, who serves as moderator. In addition to the student panelists, each session draws between 50 to 100 student observers who are welcome to ask questions.
At last Thursday’s EYF on North Korea, Linehan opened the discussion by posing questions, such as whether North Koreans and South Koreans are one people.
“Yes, we are, and no, we aren’t,” answered Hannah Chang, an international studies major at Ewha Womans University who was on the panel for the first time. “We’re identical twins brought up in different conditions.”
To that, Chung Yoo-jin, another international studies major from Ewha, replied, “We as South Koreans come from a totally different place from North Koreans.” Later, she posed the question, “Do they [North Koreans] think of us as one?”
Here, the forum’s guest diplomat, Deputy Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs Brian McFeeters, chimed in: “People are on foot there. They say, ‘Oh look at that lucky person, they’re on a bicycle.’ They’re just getting along. They don’t really sit around in a nice room and discuss.”
McFeeters, whose duties include assisting Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth and tracking inter-Korean relations, has visited Mount Kumgang, the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Pyongyang in the North.
Another panelist, Lee Kang-eun, a sophomore at Hanyang University, remained optimistic about the possibility of reunification. “‘Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,’” she said, reading a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. “We have an obligation to tell people to rise up.”
McFeeters later hearkened to Lee’s quote by King. “When the Soviet Union fell, people thought, ‘North Korea can’t last.’ People are going to get fed up and get Martin Luther King syndrome,” he said, adding that he thought reunification would happen within 10 years.
Although the discussions get heated sometimes - both in past EYFs and on Thursday - panelist Kim Ha-jung, a business administration major at Sungkyunkwan University, said he never comes away from the table angry. “A lot of us know each other already because there are only so many English-language opportunities for debate,” he said.
One topic that sparked a particularly lively exchange was U.S. beef imports in the May 2008 EYF. “The students wanted to talk about it for over an hour and a half and we thought, ‘Yeah, there’s something to this beef issue, there’s traction building,’” said John Lee from the embassy. “That’s what we told certain sectors of the embassy.”
Although Chung Yoo-jin wasn’t present at that EYF, she mentioned it as a notable topic. “I heard it was really interesting, all the more so because in the following months, Koreans became crazy about the Korus FTA and the prospect of U.S. beef entering Korea.”
For others, Real People Talking is an opportunity to learn outside the classroom. “This forum allows me to expose myself with new and different people every time … more than just the people I see at school,” said Kim Ji-eun, a panelist who attends Sookmyung Women’s University.
The EYFs create a network that extends beyond just the in-person audience as well. Since March 2008, the English site of Real People Talking has received about 28,000 hits, while the Korean site has tallied just over 3,000. The most popular videos have come from the sixth EYF with U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, which Kim Ji-eun said she found most interesting.
“We also have a Cyworld club,” said Lee Kang-eun. “We wanted [people in the audience] who couldn’t speak out to participate afterward, so we made a bulletin board and it’s effective to post materials.” She said the discussions on the social networking site are around half in English and half in Korean.
“We’re still in our development phase, growing and growing, and getting a lot of interest,” said John Lee from the embassy. Television production students from Sookmyung as well as student interns at the embassy man the cameras, and the Embassy Office of Public Affairs is responsible for the original and post production content of the videos, Linehan said.
As for what the embassy is able to take away from the discussions, Linehan emphasized that the EYF is a dialogue that provides an exchange of opinions. “It is a great way of ‘feeling the pulse,’ of finding out what real Koreans are thinking and feeling.”
For more information on Real People Talking, visit http://seoul.usembassy.gov/eyf.html.
By Hannah Bae [email@example.com]