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Sad night as U.S. envoy bids farewell

Strong Korea-U.S. bonds on show during dinner with friends


A lot can be said about the strong relationship between the United States and Korea but it is only during a special occasion that those emotions are demonstrated.

U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens held a reception last week to bid farewell to her closest friends before moving back to Washington.

Almost 300 people showed up and virtually every single person waited patiently in line for up to 30 minutes to wish her the best in the next stage of her career.

One by one, Stephens took the time to speak to everyone personally to shake hands, hug and exchange the best of wishes.

“I will miss the people, the warmth I received here,” she told The Korea Herald after a long and emotional night.
U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens poses next to a poster showing the embassy’s bicycle squad that traveled to many parts of the country. (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)
U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens poses next to a poster showing the embassy’s bicycle squad that traveled to many parts of the country. (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)

“I received such a warm welcome,” she added. “Koreans really understand the Korea-U.S. relationship and they really want it to be a strong relationship. It has to be a human relationship.”

A piece from the heart

“Obviously our countries have a special strategic and economic relationship, but there is a very human relationship underlying all of that, and that’s what I felt tonight,” she said.

A perfect example of the relationship that both countries share as well as Stephens’ relationship with the country was demonstrated when people like Yi So-yeon, Korea’s first astronaut, and folk singer Jang Sa-ik poured their hearts in song to give Stephens a little piece of themselves and the country she has called home in her 20s, 30s and now 50s.

Another impressive connection shined when Colonel Lee Chul-won got on the stage to serenade his former teacher, now colleague.

Stephens was a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea from 1975 to 1977; Lee was one of her students at the time.

Back then, the nation was a different country on its way to becoming an economic miracle.

“Compared to the Korea I knew 30-plus years ago, people have connections in the United States they didn’t have before,” she said. “They have their kids studying there, they have been there, they go back and forth. The sense of global Korea is not just a slogan. There’s a sense that Korea and United States are embedded together -― so we have to make it work, and that’s what we are trying to do.”

Stephens meets living legend

Her three years in Korea were not all work, there were some funny situations that will make her smile for years to come.

The first had to do with a bicycle trip that she and the embassy staff took from Seoul to Jindo.

Once at the other end of the country, she met pansori singer and living legend Shin Young-hee for a morning singing class.

Generally, the embassy staff prepares ambassadors before every meeting with general information, but this time, after an exhausting trip, Stephens was ushered into a room with Shin virtually unprepared.

“By the time we got to Jindo, the entire system fell apart and we met this imposing, authoritative woman who spoke all in Korean, I didn’t have an interpreter, and I had to figure out for myself that she is a pansori living legend.

“This is all at 7 a.m. after we biked the whole length of the country. So we had this incredible Jindo style breakfast and now I had to sing at 7 a.m. and there are (television) cameras there and I can’t sing,” she recounted with a smile.

Pictures in a bathhouse

Another amusing story that will probably be retold very often involves another bicycle trip with the embassy staff to South Chungcheong Province to meet local officials.

“Before the dinner we went to the bathhouse to get cleaned up for the official dinner that night,” she said.

Just as she placed her belongings in the locker room and was about to get into the bath, Stephens’ picture showed up during the news on the overhead television screen.

“All the ladies in the bathhouse said, ‘Oh, that’s you! Let’s take pictures,’ but none of us where wearing anything. I said let’s wait please,” she said with a warm laugh, “They did wait and then we took the pictures.”

Concerning the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, Stephens explained that there is a willingness on both sides to ratify the deal.

“I’m optimistic about it. It’s too important to fail,” she said. “It will happen as soon as possible, everyone understands that we need to move forward with it so I think we are on track.”

By Yoav Cerralbo (yoav@heraldcorp.com)
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