South Korean diplomat finds many surprises on his second coming to Uganda
Park Jong-Dae was anxious as he flew to Uganda. He was not only returning to a country where he had lived as a child and had fond memories that he feared could be shattered, he was also returning to take up a position at the Korean embassy in Kampala where his father worked in the 1970s.
Memories of his childhood fleeted before him. Would he find his former home near Muyenga Tank Hill and get in touch with his former classmates at Aga Khan International School, where he did part of his middle school between 1973 and 1975?
As a boy, Park was in Uganda because his father, Park Young Chul, was a diplomat at the South Korean embassy in Kampala. Park and his three brothers made back-and-forth trips between their home in Muyenga to the second floor of Bauman House, where the Korean Embassy was and to School along Makerere Hill Road.
Close to 40 years after he left Uganda as a child, he was returning as a “second generation” diplomat to re-establish the Korean Embassy as his country embarks on an aggressive return to Africa. In 1994, Korea closed its embassy in Kampala in a major downsizing exercise that also affected other African countries as the Korean economy suffered. He was thinking deeply about his mission.
Park was aware that although South Korea was an unfamiliar name to many Ugandans, his country’s automobiles and electronics were quite popular. Products made by Korean companies like Samsung, Kia and LG were household names in Uganda. Park planned campaigns to popularise these further as a means of advancing the interests of his country.
But he also realises that South Korea would be playing catch-up to Asian nations like Japan and China which had more presence through their trade links and international bilateral aid programmes that have remodelled roads, built hospitals, national monuments, and offered health, education, and food relief.
China is probably the leading destination for Ugandan importers of all sorts of merchandise. The country provides aid to Uganda’s military, has built new offices for the president, a hospital at Naguru, among several other projects. A Chinese company, CNOOC, holds a third of commercial oil interest in Uganda.
When Park left Uganda in 1975, his next stop was Ankara, Turkey, where his father had been posted. Park knew he must now compete with Turkey, his “other home”, for space in Uganda’s diplomatic arena. Turkey has made known its ambition to engage more with Africa and has major projects in the works.
But when he finally arrived in Uganda, it was like he had gone to a different country than the one he knew then.
In those days, he says, Sheraton Kampala Hotel was called Kampala International Hotel and Park would go there to swim and play with friends after school. He says the climate was better, with the city greener, traffic jams not much of a problem and he did not see a pothole in Kampala the whole time he was around.
Some changes, like the sight of Ugandans driving posh cars on potholed roads, have impacted Park deeply.
“Why don’t they come together and level out the roads,” he asks.
“There was this spirit of Bulungibwansi (community work) back then,” Park recalls, “I wonder why it cannot be renewed.”
Born in 1960, Park recalls that his country was at a comparable level of development as Uganda. He says, however, that while many attribute Korea’s marked transformation since then to factors like foreign aid from the U.S., no amount of aid can transform a society which is not ready. He says Korea’s success was inspired by Confucius’s teachings and the values of pursuing collective success.
He uses the chairs in his office to explain. When he arrived, he placed an order for locally made chairs for his office. He was disappointed when they arrived. The chairs were all different from one another, he says. “Standardisation is a very basic thing but they (chair makers) don’t seem to care much about it.”
Today the chairs in his office on Acacia Avenue are imported but he still thinks it does not have to be that way. He thinks that just as Korea’s transformation was to an extent enabled by Confucian beliefs of discipline, hard work, and diligence, Uganda can too adopt similar attitudes and transform. Education, he says, breeds a sense of community and gets people to think more of how their community can advance other than just their individual plight.
“Education should be based on the fundamentals,” he says, “It should train Ugandans to survive hardship and breed a sense of urgency.”
He says the common view that people need seed capital to prosper is wrong. Instead, the government needs to do is to figure out a way of motivating the youths to work.
“It cannot be as simple as dishing out money to youths and other groups,” he says.
He says Ugandan society need to change mindset. He says rather than teaching technical education, Ugandans need “human education”. Technical education is important to impart technical skills, but people need human education to change their mindset.
Park can’t believe that he cannot locate the exact place his home was in Muyenga. He has memories of the spacious compound and rooms in which he did a “lot of running around”. But a drive around the place in search of the exact spot did not yield anything. Even Makerere Hill Road on which his school was has been renamed Muammar Gaddafi Road.
He has gone back to his former school in the hope of locating some of the people he used to know – his former teachers and classmates. But his search has so far yielded only two people. And none of them was known to him during their school days. Pleasantly, however, the two are closely connected to President Yoweri Museveni.
Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde, who was for a long time Museveni’s principal private secretary and Kintu Nyago, the assistant principal private secretary to the president, both went to Aga Khan International School. Amelia was Park’s senior and Nyago his junior. He must regard the duo as an invaluable asset in his diplomatic work and his desire to have Museveni visit South Korea for the first time during his 26-year presidency.
If Museveni’s visit to Korea comes soon, it may make Park’s work easier. Museveni has been to the Korean Peninsula at least thrice during his presidency, but only to visit Park’s country’s archrivals, North Korea. The two Koreas have technically remained at war since the end of the Second World War and Park would have pulled off a diplomatic coup if he gets Museveni, who is regarded as North Korea’s friend, to visit Seoul, their capital.
Luckily for him, he has some advantage. His country is one of the few, in fact four, which have transited from third world to first world in the last half century or so. The others are Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. In fact, Park says his is the only country to have achieved the feat of “total transformation” over that period. The lure of what South Korea has to offer to help Uganda’s development should convince Museveni to work more closely with it.
But the league in which Park is playing is more complex than that. From the same region are two giant economies, China and Japan, which have had long running diplomatic and trade relations with Uganda. South Korea wants to change that.
“The potential is in Africa,” says Park, “A huge population; a lot of work to do here. It is a new ground; it is the future.” For this reason, the Korean government is downsizing its diplomatic team in Europe to reopen embassies in a number of African countries.
Park seems to have a plan to advance the interests of his country. He has to ensure that Ugandans consume more products made by Korean companies and he has planned campaigns to popularise them.
He also has to support Korean businesses, like the company bidding to rebuild the bridge over the River Nile at Jinja and another interested in building an ICT master plan to facilitate e-government. He campaigns for cooperation on agricultural development and recently hosted a conference on agriculture and rural transformation. If Uganda imported agricultural technology from Korea, he says, it would produce better cassava.
He talks about more exchanges of people between Korea and Uganda, and has “major” cultural festivities lined up to mark Uganda’s 50 years of independence. He hopes as Ugandans and Koreans mix more, the bonds between them will strengthen.
He hopes direct flights from Nairobi to Seoul, which will start soon, will enable this exchange.
Park sometimes talks to his retired father back home in Korea about these things. Sometimes he is encouraged by the good things in Uganda that have not changed, like Uganda Golf Club on Kitante Road in Kampala. He learnt to play the sport there because his father was a star and was the Uganda Golf Champion in 1974.
Park has been busy since his return. But he is starting to find his way around, has been to the Golf Club a few times, and intends to start playing on familiar ground. “The holes are still the same,” he says, “It is like reliving the past and living in the present.”