A special report:
The first face and the first voice the Korean public will meet upon visiting the vast majority of the foreign embassies here is a Korean one.
In this way, the real face behind any foreign embassy in Seoul is Korean.
The reason is simple: The Korean language and culture is formidable to non-Koreans. So, most embassy staff are hired from among locals here.
Partly because of the politically sensitive nature of the work at foreign missions, locals hired in Seoul exhibit a lot of pride in their profession. Local staff share a feeling of camaraderie, too.
So much so, they have organized a number of professional and social clubs, the oldest of which is the rightly named Embassy Staff Club (ESC).
“The local staff act as a bridge between embassy diplomats and Korean society,” said Kim Jeong-sook, a local official at the Gabonese Embassy and president of the ESC, at the club’s November meeting. “Our job description is really expansive. We have to do many things depending on the culture and the embassy.”
Kim, who has been president since 2008, said the club began in March 1991 and was born out of the friendship and sense of esprit de corps local staff felt, due to the “common environment of our work.”
The work of the local staff at foreign diplomatic missions in Korea makes it possible for foreign diplomats to interact with the Korean public, the press and, in many cases, even the government.
Others at the meeting said the work of the foreign diplomatic missions operating here crucially depends on the expertise of their local staff.
“The nature of the work place, our work, it is very confidential, we are often providing personal help to ambassadors, solving problems no one else can do,” Kim said.
ESC has 200 members currently. Among them are Bae Mee-soon and Kim Myeong-hee at the Egyptian Embassy, and Hong Mariclaire In-sook at the Morroccan Embassy. Kim Ki-jeong who has been a staff person at the Cote d’Voire Embassy for 13 years joined some 20-30 ESC members for the club’s special November meeting at Lotte City Hotel.
The hotel was inaugurating its grand opening in a week-long promotion by taking them to a room inspection of the eight-storey building.
A lot of chatting went on among the ladies ― almost all embassy staff are women, during the hotel’s requisite 20-minute-long presentation.
(Lotte City Hotel has Naru restaurant, conference rooms, banquet halls. Express metro services were launched this month to Kimpo Airport and the new hotel and commercial area making the trip from Hongdae and Yeoido possible in about 15 minutes.)
Intimate relationships have developed among club members. Many of them have known each other for over a decade.
The ESC has had six club presidents in its 20-year history. A unique aspect of the embassy staff work is its high retention rate.
The embassy sees ambassadors and diplomats come and go, but the local staff remain. Many of them have stayed on with a single embassy for 10, 15, sometimes even 20 years or more.
Choi Hyun-kyung, a veteran 20-year staff person at the Qatar Embassy, was the ESC president for 11 years, its longest serving president.
Other club presidents included Lee Sook-ki, staff at the Oman Embassy, who served a two-year term as the club’s first president in 1991-1993. Cho In-ja, local staff at the Mexican Embassy, was the club’s second president in 1993 and Park Mi-jeong, at the Portuguese Embassy, was president from 1995-1997.
“Local staff are important because they are messengers, liaisons, between the diplomats and the Korean public, government personnel and the local press,” said Koo Anna, who has been with the Ghanan Embassy for 11 years.
How hard is it to get a job at a foreign diplomatic mission? Nowadays, it’s hard.
For the job itself, one must have considerable language skills and organizational ability par none. As way of compensation, the job is stable, the salary is good and employees get weekends off, a rarity here, even in this era of the supposed five-day work week.
“The economy is bad these days, so the competition is greater and for fewer spaces because even fewer people are leaving,” said Kim of the Cote d’Voire Embassy.