On Monday, I was at Cheong Wa Dae to attend a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the founding of World Friends Korea (WFK), Korea’s overseas volunteer service, something akin to the US Peace Corps or the UK’s Voluntary Service Overseas. I was there, along with Michael Hurt, Robert from Roboseyo, Stafford from the Chosun Bimbo and Matt from Gusts of Popular Feeling, as a “power blogger” (don’t laugh) at the invitation of the President’s Council on Nation Branding, to which I’m thankful for the invite. It’s not everyday you get to go to Cheong Wa Dae, after all.

One of the themes the Lee Myung-bak administration — with much sincerity, I believe — has been keen to emphasize is “Korea repaying its debt to the world.” Koreans — and older Koreans in particular — are well aware that during the Korean War and the difficult years and decades that followed, Korea was the recipient of much international good will. In recent years, Korea has boosted its efforts to repay its historic debts by increasing its level of activity in the international community. Korea transitioned from net aid recipient to aid donor in 1995, and in 2010, Korea joined the OECD Development Assistance Committee, the “only time since the OECD was established in 1961 that a country has joined the ‘advanced nations’ assistance club’ after transitioning from an aid recipient to a donor.”

World Friends Korea is part of this effort. Korea has been sending volunteers overseas for quite some time — in 1990, Korea sent its first batch of overseas volunteers with the Korea Overseas Volunteers program. Prior to the creation of WFK, however, Korea’s overseas volunteer program was split between three ministries, each with their own program. In 2009, these programs were brought together under the WFK brand. Two other state-run programs joined in 2010, and this year, several private programs joined up. In 2009, WFK sent over 4,000 volunteers overseas, largely but not exclusively to developing nations in Asia.

The event was largely so that the volunteers — many of them young college kids about to do short-term assignments with the Korea University Volunteers (KUV) program, might meet with Seoul’s diplomatic community, as well as volunteers returning from their assignments. President Lee Myung-bak and First Lady Kim Yoon-ok attended the event, with President Lee highlighting the afternoon with a short-but-to-the-point address to encourage the volunteers. Perhaps remembering that Korea, too, was once an aid recipient — he is of that generation, after all — he also admonished the volunteers to be humble. “By serving, you are receiving more than you are giving,” he said. “I hope you will remember this modesty when you go abroad.”

Also attending the event was US Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, who served in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1975 to 1977. Addressing the volunteers, she imparted some of the wisdom gained from her own volunteer experience. She told volunteers that by volunteering, they could do three things: 1) share their valuable skills and hard work with those who need them very much; 2) be an ambassador for Korea NOW, rather than 30 years from now; and 3) be an ambassador for the countries they’ve experienced for the rest of their lives. Speaking as a person who probably knows, she said, “You’re probably the first Koreans they’ve met, so be a good ambassador.”

Images courtesy of Michael Hurt