Last night I got to attend a very special event celebrating the 241st anniversary of the U.S.’s Independence. This was my very first big State Department type event that I have attended, and it sure was an experience to remember.
The Fourth of July reception was held at the Holiday Inn in Gwangju (상무지구) and about 250 people were in attendance. All the CLS scholars were invited by the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the U.S. Embassy, Marc Knapper. After the previous ambassador, Mark Lippert, stepped down following the November 2016 elections, Knapper was been the acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
The event was also hosted by the mayor of Gwangju, Yoon Jang-Hyeon (광주광역시장 윤장현). Both Knapper and Mayor Yoon gave welcoming remarks and a speech which was then followed by a talk from Dr. David Shaffer, who is former peace corps volunteer in South Korea. Dr. Shaffer has since lived in Korea (now for 45 years) and gave his speech completely in Korean about how the country has developed considerably in the last 45 years.
What was interesting to me is that the Gwangju mayor brought up Otto Warmbier, the UVA student who was detained in North Korea and died after his release, in his speech. Considering that many Gwangju citizens disapprove of how Trump is handling North Korean hostilities and that North Korea is a sensitive topic, it surprised me that he would want to talk about it at the Fourth of July reception…
Also… This was the first year that the Fourth of July reception was held in Gwangju ever. Until now it has always been held in Busan and Seoul. I asked my resident director why they moved it this year to Gwangju and her answer was that Gwangju has the most anti-american sentiments out of all of South Korea. Thus, it is important to foster a better relationship with the Gwangju and its people.
Other People in Attendance
There were also some Foreign Service Officers (FSO) at the event with whom I really enjoyed talking with as I am considering potentially taking the FSO exam within the coming years. I have read a lot of books and accounts of various officers and life in the foreign service, but it was much cooler to hear it from those who are currently on duty! Those I met last night had served in places such as Russia, Vietnam, China and of course South Korea.
There were also Fulbright scholars, but unfortunately only ETAs (English Teach Assistants). I have done events in the past with Fulbright ETAs and even met one again yesterday that I did an event with two years ago (we recognized each other!). However, I would love to be able to talk with Fulbright scholars who are doing research as well. Even thought there were no Fulbright research scholars there was a student who is currently interning with the Foreign Service Internship Program, a program that I did not know about before but is now something I will definitely look into applying for.
I also got to chat with the Minister Counselor of Public Affairs, Robert Ogburn, who works in Seoul right now at the Embassy. I met with him two years ago while doing the NSLI-Y program when I was invited to have Thanksgiving dinner at his house.
Director Jeong of Gwangjuilbo News agency and many local community leaders from Gwangju were also in attendance.
Networking and Learning from Others
Overall, it was an amazing opportunity to talk with and learn from so many world leaders all in one night. The world of diplomacy and the State Department seems like another dream reality that I would love to enter, but I also realize that I need to start working on making some serious connections and networking.
Speaking of networking…. when I would talk with certain people there was this invisible threshold that I seemed to pass when that person seemed to have made a connection with me or showed an interest (however small that may be at this point). At that moment he or she would pull out their business card and tell you to get in contact. I am definitely going to take advantage of that! Also what was new to me is that the higher up the person, the nicer their business card and that the highest people had little metal containers that were specifically designed to hold their business card. Some of them even had their names engraved on it. Fancy….
Anyways because all these important people were in attendance (at first I felt intimated, but quickly got comfortable) there was major security. I have never been through such heavy security in all my life before, but I understand why they may have taken all the extra precautions. In 2015, Mark Lippert as the ambassador was slashed with a large knife on the face by a Korean shouting about U.S. military drills in South Korea. He had to get 80 stitches on his cheek and was very lucky to not have been more seriously hurt.
So I took the city bus to get to the venue and it dropped me off about one street away from the hotel. On my way to the hotel I counted 14 police buses. I had not seen these in Gwangju yet until last night, but in Seoul by the U.S. embassy there are a ton. The police buses are the same size as a coach bus and can also be used to block off paths or roads.
In addition to all these police buses filled with police officers there was the Korean SWAT team guarding the entrance to the hotel. They are dressed in all black (some had a maroon color too) and are heavily armed. Because of their vehicles the round-a-bout, the thing where people usually unload their cars and meet the bellhop, was blocked off to regular cars.
Once I entered the lobby someone asked for my invitation and then another very tall guy escorted me into the elevator. I must have hit the button twice for the third floor because I by accident went to the B1 level first. When the elevator doors opened up I was face to face with a Korean reporter holding a big camera… but he did not get on the elevator with me.
When I got to the third floor there was a check in table where I had to show my invitation again and then have my passport and ID checked. They even took a photo of my passport. I had by bag searched and went through a metal detector and then got checked by a hand wand. Then inside the venue there was a lot of security too, but they did not wear regular police outfits or security outfits and instead had on nice suits. They are pretty easy to distinguish though because they will move around the edges of the room and have a clear ear piece in their ears and will talk to each other via a radio system with they hands over their mouths. They were also relatively big men.
The other reason there was all this security is because outside the hotel there were protestors. Although it was raining, a significant amount of Koreans came to protest the U.S. policies regarding anti missile defense systems, THAAD. Some of the posters included pictures of President Trump. We were instructed to ignore the protestors and walk straight to the venue.
Food & Media
As for the food, there was a big sushi bar and an assorted cheese bar (along with the dessert bar) which is what I mainly ate. There was some American food and fusion food as well. Waiters came around with wine and other refreshments, with which we used to give a toast to the Fourth of July.
Overall, the event was about three hours long and was mainly a lot of small talk. In my case, I was asking a lot of asking questions and learning from those higher up and getting advice.
Hopefully, if this is something I choose to pursue, I can follow in the footsteps of those I met last night. It was an honor to attend last night and an amazing first step towards various careers I have been considering.
Here are some stuff about the event last night that was in the media this morning:
광주MBC 뉴스클립이에요. 행사를 좀 더 비판적으로 보고 있네요.
MBC Gwangju News about the event – tone and attitude is more critical though… (I’m at 1:06 on the far right with a bun…)
I also made it into the Gwangju news paper!
I am to the four to the left of the mayor and in the second row, you can really only see my face.