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Choi Jung-wha, president of Corea Image Communication Institute, talks 20 years of promoting Korea's imageBy Kim Hoo-ran
Published : Jan. 7, 2023 - 09:01
In 2003, interpreter to statesmen and global leaders Choi Jung-wha launched the Corea Image Communication Institute with the goal of communicating Korea’s image to the world.
Both frustration and optimism motivated her.
“People ask why a private individual took on the task of promoting Korea’s image. Well, I traveled to many different countries as an interpreter. But, really, no one ever asked ‘Are you Korean?’ This really upset me,” said Choi in a recent interview with The Korea Herald. “So I was determined to promote Korea.”
Twenty years later, things could not be more different. From a country whose image was unfortunately enmeshed with "M.A.S.H.," an American TV show set in South Korea during the Korean War, Korea is a trendy place; a country that young people around the world want to visit. K-pop has taken the world by storm and Korean movies and dramas enjoy huge followings abroad. People who once frowned upon its garlicky smell now say they enjoy kimchi and boast about making it at home.
“I really, really love that Korea is now envied. I dare say that K-culture has become a trendsetter,” Choi said, her face beaming. “It’s such a great change in just 20 years, isn’t it?”
After the 2002 World Cup, held jointly by Korea and Japan, Choi instinctively felt that the spotlight was on Korea. “Of course, there was the North Korean nuclear issue too,” she added. The year 2002 saw North Korea launch a record number of intercontinental ballistic missiles, eight in total.
“The World Cup and the North Korean issue brought the world’s focus on Korea. And I thought of the proverb: ‘Strike while the iron is hot,’” Choi said.
Proud of her culture and heritage, Choi thought Korea was undervalued and underappreciated. So she set out to do what she could do best: Communicate Korea to the world.
The year 2003, incidentally, was the year that saw Hallyu really begin to burgeon. The "Winter Sonata" TV series became a hit in Japan that year and K-pop was beginning to take off internationally. But very few believed it would last and pundits opined it would be a passing fad.
Choi thought -- or knew -- otherwise. “I kept telling people that Hallyu was not a temporary phenomenon. I said it would continue to evolve and develop. And look where we are now,” Choi said.
Choi, then a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, began the work of promoting Korea by establishing the Korea CQ Forum, a weekly meeting of foreign envoys, international businesspeople and Korea’s opinion leaders where all things Korean could be discussed.
In Choi’s opinion, it is the cultural exchanges that take place at these informal gatherings that explain the longevity of the forum. “I think if I had only communicated Hallyu, the CQ Forum would not be this long running. Everything needs to be give-and-take,” she said. "My focus is on cultural exchange."
For example, foreign ambassadors to Korea frequently host a CQ Forum session where they introduce their own country, culture and food. “Foreigners want Korea’s opinion leaders to know about their country, too,” Choi noted.
It can be easy to make people come once, but difficult to get them to return, Choi pointed out. So what explains the large number of repeat forum members? Over 500 people have participated in the CQ Forum over the past two decades.
“I always give people good information. Everybody wants information. But people can’t live on information alone, they need to have fun. So I try to give them fun, too” said Choi. CQ Forum programs typically include a weekend trip under expert guidance of local people who are eager to share their knowledge and experiences.
An essential element of the success of the CQ Forum is communication. “No matter how much you learn, how much fun you have, it is uncomfortable if communication is not easy. So we always provide simultaneous interpretation. That puts people at ease,” Choi said.
In 2010, Choi brought intercultural communication to another level by convening C-20.
“G-20 was taking place in Korea in 2010. I had heard about B-20 of business leaders, so I brought together leading cultural figures from the G-20 countries to Seoul,” Choi said.
The event was a huge success, and the Culture Communication Forum has been taking place every year since, even during the pandemic in virtual and hybrid formats. “CCF is at a crossroads. It has been going for 12 years and according to the (Chinese) zodiac system, every 12 years is a new beginning,” she said, adding that how to proceed with CCF remains to be decided, especially due to funding issues.
Asked which of the many projects over the past two decades she thinks proved the most meaningful, she said, “Perhaps the best known is the Korea Image Awards -- former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, maestro Chung Myung-whun are among past recipients, and skater Kim Yuna and actor Lee Jung-jae are this year’s recipients. However, CQ Forum is the most personally meaningful,” Choi said.
“When I hear from members who are returning to their home countries that joining CQ Forum was the best thing they had done in Korea, I feel it was all worthwhile,” Choi said.
Choi’s latest project is her YouTube channel, Choi JW Rendez-vous, in which she interviews foreign ambassadors, well-known artists, opinion leaders and celebrities.
“When COVID-19 hit, I couldn’t meet people to promote Korea. Really, necessity is the mother of success. I needed a way to promote Korea in a noncontact way and YouTube was the only solution,” said Choi. “It is great that I started it because I can introduce foreign culture to Koreans and Korean culture to foreigners.”
She has so far uploaded some 270 clips and plans to upload one clip a week. Most of the 70 or so interviews are with high-profile people many of whom shun media interviews, a testimony to her vast network and influence.
Where does her influence come from? Moving people, Choi said. “I realized early on that I act when I am moved emotionally and it then dawned on me that I may be able get people to act if I could move them emotionally. So I am always trying to touch people’s hearts,” Choi said. “It is only when I take genuine interest in the other person, that the other person begins to take interest in me,” she added.
Creating content, much to her delight, suits her just fine. “It never feels like work. It is what I enjoy doing. Just like I enjoy leading CICI, too,” said Choi.
“I try do what I want to do and I enjoy doing it. And that joy is infectious,” she added. “I am grateful that I continue to have seemingly endless ideas.”
Kim Hoo-ran is the Culture desk editor at The Korea Herald –Ed.
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