After working nonstop for 30 years, Sohn Ji-ae, former president and CEO of Arirang TV and Radio, who left her post at the end of February after two and a half years, is relishing what she calls her “mid-life time out.”
“March 1 marks my independence from institutions,” said Sohn on Wednesday in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“My career has been so fast, in top gear,” she said of her whirlwind career that started at Business Korea, a monthly magazine, saw her as a correspondent for the New York Times, and then moved on to CNN Seoul bureau.
After 15 years with CNN, she jumped ship to work for the Korean government, taking on the post of spokesperson for the G20 preparation committee in 2010, which was followed by her appointment as the presidential secretary for overseas public relations.
In August 2011, she was appointed to head Arirang TV and Radio, an international English-language broadcasting network in Korea.
The only long break she had was the three-month maternity leave she took with the birth of her third child. “My second was born in November 1999, at the height of Y2K coverage. I took less than a month off,” she said. Y2K was the malfunctioning of computers that was expected to wreak havoc as the world ushered in the new millennium.
“I have had no time to really breathe or think. This (present hiatus) is a really valuable time for me,” Sohn said.
Sohn Ji-ae, former president and CEO of Arirang TV and Radio, poses at a cafe in Insa-dong, Seoul, on April 17. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
What goes through her mind as she watches big news events, such as the Sewol ferry disaster, unfold? (The ferry had just sunk off Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, carrying more than 476 people.)
“I am sure a CNN correspondent is reporting on the ferry sinking now, doing ‘phoners’ from wherever she may be,” Sohn said.
“I’m interested in news, but I can live without it.”
Sohn revealed that she got into journalism almost as a dare. “At Business Korea, one of my editors, a Nepalese, said ‘You’re never going to be a reporter. A fire engine passed by but you didn’t even turn your head,’” she recalled.
“That sparked a rebellious streak in me,” she said. “I didn’t want him to be right. I said, ‘I am going to show you. I am going to be one great reporter.’”
“I think that fueled my journalism career. I made myself a reporter,” she said. “In some ways, he (the Business Korea editor) may have been right, but I wanted to prove him wrong.”
Sohn said she is not a news junkie, however.
“News doesn’t interest me too much, but I am more interested in people. I never have problems talking to people I don’t know,” she said.
“News comes at you. It is usually bad news,” Sohn observed. “Fifteen years of doing that got me thinking: The world knows only a certain aspect of Korea.”
For example, people in the West hear more news about North Korea than about the South, and Sohn thought there was something she could do to change that.
“I was responsible for getting bad news out of Korea. When the G20 came along, it felt like it was time to ‘make amends for your sins,’” Sohn said.
“Korea has so much more potential in the global community than it currently is doing. My passion is to overcome that,” she said, adding that this passion is her is current focus.
“I have another month to figure out what to do next,” she said with a chuckle. Her severance pay ends next month, she explained.
Sohn, then the spokesperson for the G20 preparation committee, briefs reporters at Cheong Wa Dae in 2010. (Yonhap)
Sohn, who has not lived outside Korea since age 12, would like to use this time to try life outside of Korea.
“We are a ‘non-global’ family, despite what others think,” she said.
Her husband lived abroad for three years while attending graduate school and her three daughters ― who turn 25, 15, and 13 this year ― have not lived abroad.
“Maybe the U.S.,” she suggested, explaining that she would like to take on the challenge of researching and discussing certain topics.
In her opinion, Korean diplomats are effective in Washington, D.C., but the same cannot be said of capturing the hearts of Americans.
“With public diplomacy, you’re going after the people directly. One way is through the U.S. media,” she said.
“Is Korea getting its message across in the U.S. media, into the living rooms of Americans? I am not sure,” she said.
“Psy was great, but beyond Psy what do we have?” she asked, referring to the Korean rapper who shot to global fame when the video for his song “Gangnam Style” went viral on YouTube in the summer of 2012.
“How do you get an image of Korea, that is not North Korea, not conglomerates but Koreans as dynamic, future-oriented ― the creative people we know that we are,” she said. “Maybe trying to find that out will give me knowledge to better help my country out,” Sohn said.
Work and family
Like many successful women, Sohn frequently gets asked by young career women whether they should get married and have children. “Women still don’t think they can do both, have a career and a family,” she said sullenly. “I thought the future generation would not be forced to choose.
“It is not a matter of choosing. It’s a matter of wanting something, preparing for it,” Sohn said emphatically.
Growing up with three sisters and going to all-girls schools, the only man in Sohn’s life was her father.
“I realized that people I have to deal with are men. I had a different boyfriend every two months and joined co-ed college clubs. I needed to know men’s psyche,” she said. “I also tried to figure out what kind of man I wanted in my life.
“You do have to get ready for a lifelong partner. They don’t just fall out of the sky,” she said, advising women to “groom men into what you want them to be. Don’t take no for an answer.”
Contrary to her college friends’ prediction that she would be an old maid, Sohn got married at 26. Her husband, Lee Byung-jong, is currently a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University Graduate School, where he teaches international communications and public diplomacy.
Sohn beamed as she cited her husband as her most supportive person. “We have been journalists together for 22 years of our 26-year marriage, until I left CNN,” she said. “When you work that closely, you understand each other.
“He is a very traditional Korean man, but I don’t think he felt he ‘allowed’ me to be a journalist,” she continued. “Perhaps he is allowing me to be less of a mother than others. He would fill in without much fanfare.”
Sohn cautioned young women against harboring fantasies about the perfect partner. “Young women should know men don’t come in a package. You have to earn your respect, your right to be a mother and a career woman,” she said. “It is a lot of give and take.”
On her self-described “little break,” Sohn is only now opening up boxes from old offices.
Just the other day she went through her boxes from the G20 days. Everything is in top-notch condition, she says.
“G20 is something I’ll remember for a very long time,” she said, observing that the yearlong series of events that culminated in the G20 summit meeting in November 2010 raised the overall competence of a lot of people in Korea.
“I feel really privileged to have been part of it,” she said.
As for her stint at Arirang TV & Radio, she knew she did not want to be in the newsroom. “Every CEO brings his competence, special skills. One thing I could have uniquely brought is an international network. I feel like I could have done more, could have helped out more,” she said.
Sohn has no regrets. “I have been really fortunate in having the capability to go after what I want. All my failures didn’t really stop me. I’d forget about it and move on,” she said. “I don’t dwell on things that have not been good.”
Since leaving Arirang TV & Radio, Sohn, an avid reader, has read three books. “I picked up ‘The Kite Runner’ again,” she said.
Although she finds writing to be torture, she is in the process of putting her thoughts on paper for a book she aims to complete by the end of the year. Describing the book as a mix of journalism, communication and personal life experiences, Sohn thinks there may be a way of tying it all together.
Meanwhile, Sohn is also going through menus from various banquets and events that she has collected over the past decade. “They bring back memories. I jotted down details on the menus,” she said.
By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer