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Peter Beck: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
The scene was a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations` Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs in February 2009. It was a time when the North Korean front was looking increasingly bleak for Washington.
Pyongyang was threatening to test-fire intercontinental ballistic missiles and the six-nation talks aimed at the North`s denuclearization were on hold indefinitely. With its patience quickly wearing thin, the Barack Obama administration was seriously reconsidering its policy options on the reclusive nation.
Testifying was a tall American gentleman whose outlook on the situation was surprisingly sanguine. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” he said, quoting in his fluent Korean a popular Korean proverb with equivalent meaning. Experience has taught him how to deal with Pyongyang. Start with low expectations, he advised, because big expectations lead to bigger disappointments.
The man was Peter Beck, a 45-year-old Californian who has lived in Korea on five different occasions since he first stumbled upon the country on a backpacking trip in May 1987. This time, he has returned on more permanent grounds as the Asia Foundation representative for Korea. His term is three years but can be extended.
Headquartered in San Francisco, the Asia Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental organization devoted to building a “peaceful, prosperous, just and open Asia-Pacific region.” The foundation`s Korea office, created in 1954, has provided thousands of tons of paper for newspapers and books for Korean children. The office also supported Seoul National University`s 10-year development projects and played a pivotal role in the opening of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, the predecessor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. The amount of funding from the Korean branch has surpassed $93 million (104.5 billion won).
The foundation`s new representative in Korea sat down with The Dong-a Ilbo at his Gyeongun-dong office in Jongno on January 26. He described the previous three weeks as a “whirlwind.” But as a true Californian native, Beck saw everything in a positive light. When asked about how he felt being back in Korea ― he left for the United States in 2006 after completing his term as head of the International Crisis Group ― Beck said it took 23 years but he has finally achieved his dream.
The seeds were planted in 1987 when he interned at the foundation`s headquarters as a sophomore at University of California at Berkeley. Beck soon took time off to travel, happy to get free plane tickets through his mother, who worked for United Airlines. It turned out that his parents contributed more than that; Beck made the fateful trip to Korea on their advice that Northeast Asia seemed safer to visit than Southeast Asia. Armed with nothing more than a copy of Lonely Planet as his guide, Beck admits he was a complete stranger to Korea and could not place it on the map. This all quickly changed.
During his one-week stay at Gwanghwamun, in central Seoul, lodging at an old inn, Beck bore witness to the passionate democracy movements in Korea. He came back again and again, once in 1988 as an exchange student and then to attend graduate school in 1989. For two years in the mid-1990s, he interned for Chung Jae-mun, a lawmaker of the New Korea Party. At this time he also worked as an interpreter for the National Assembly`s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification. Beck calls Chung his adoptive father.
Q. What are your plans as the head of the Korea office?
A. There have been disputes on whether the office should be kept open now that Korea has reached developed nation status with complete political democracy. The foundation`s Japan office, which opened around the same time as the Korea office, has been closed. The situation is the same for the offices in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. To date, the Seoul office is the foundation`s only branch that remains active in a fully developed Asian country.
As you may know, we are working with government-led organizations such as the Korea Development Institute and the Korea International Cooperation Agency to support Korea`s development cooperation projects in developing nations. As such, we hope to continue working with government organizations and civic groups to assist Korea`s mission so that other nations may follow its example.
Q. Has Seoul changed much from six years ago?
A. Cheonggye Stream feels a little artificial but it marks a tremendous improvement from the old days when an overpass ran along it. It was also quite impressive to see the streets of Samcheong-dong connected with Insa-dong, home of the unique Bukchon (“Northern Village” referring to a neighborhood of traditional Korean houses) culture. I get drunk on the scent of makgeolli and coffee from the hanok houses, seeping out into streets steeped in traditional Korean culture.
On Korean politics, Beck did not bother to mince words. “It is in utter chaos,” he said, using Korean words as he said he failed to find an English equivalent that would better sum up the situation. Most of all, he was horrified and disappointed over how electric saws and tear gas were deployed as drastic means of confrontation.
Beck has a 10-year-old daughter named Julia (whose Korean name is “Ae-ri”) with his wife; they met while he was teaching English on the side at a language institute in Seoul. Beck will be on his own as a so-called “wild-goose father” until June, when Julia`s school term ends and the family can reunite in Korea. Beck`s home in Seoul is in Okin-dong, in Jongno district. Flashing a picture of his two-story home on his smartphone, Beck gave it two thumbs up. “It`s wonderful,” he said.