Embassy Seoul Information Specialist Jun Sang-woo gazes at the serene scene on one of the many dedicated bike trails on the Four Rivers Restoration Project. Photo by David Jea
By Jun Sang-woo
On a muggy June evening in Seoul, Public Affairs Minister-Counselor Anneliese Reinemeyer encountered outgoing U.S. Consulate in Busan Principal Officer David Jea riding his bike on the tree-lined streets of the Yongsan housing community. She said, “Hey, you should bike down to Busan. Ha ha…” The next day an email followed, “I was not kidding.”
So started a unique public diplomacy program and a very “green” permanent change of station. Even as the Republic of Korea reluctantly ramped up social distancing in response to the arrival of the Delta variant of coronavirus, this program to ride and familiarize was able to reach new Korean audiences and advance strategic objectives.
In ultra-modern South Korea, one can take the Korea Train Express (also known as KTX or high-speed train) from Seoul to Busan in under three hours—with the landscape outside whirring by in a blur, punctuated only by the darkness of deep tunnels burrowing through South Korea’s mountainous terrain to find the most efficient path through to its destination. There is another, however, more old-school way to get to Busan—a less efficient way to traverse the expanse of the peninsula adjacent to Seoul.
Ten years earlier in 2011, then-President Lee Myung-bak declared his signature infrastructure project, the Four Rivers Restoration Project, complete. After almost $20 billion spent and amid murmuring controversy, the former chief executive officer of Hyundai Construction, who had acquired the nickname “the bulldozer,” was true to his namesake and had completed a huge earth works project. Despite its detractors, the project was universally acclaimed as a boon for bikers—a network of dedicated bike trails along Korea’s major rivers and tributaries that branched out to the edges of the peninsula.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021. These trails rolled out beneath bikers and nature enthusiasts alike, even as the hazy July sun beat down, punctuated occasionally by monsoon rains. The extreme weather was an extra challenge but also added a spotlight to Oori Earth (our earth), Mission Korea’s environment and climate change awareness program that their bike ride to Busan was meant to promote. Over the course of six days and more than 350 miles, five riders covered varied terrain and paused at locations steeped in history.
One spot on the trail where river roads fail to help riders is a place called Mungyeong Saejae, literally meaning a place birds struggle to pass. The rain that falls on one side of the saejae becomes the waters of the Han River that pass through Seoul, while water on the other side of the ridge joins the Nakdong River as it flows to Busan. From the time of the Joseon Dynasty, traders, scholars, and government officials took that pass, a natural dividing point on the roof of Korea, to move from one side of the peninsula to the other. This natural division is why this high pass features so prominently in the Netflix hit “The Kingdom” as a failed point of containment for the advancing fictional zombie plague. The bikers too would not be contained, they surmounted and pressed forward.
One new member of the biking team, assistant editor of the leading Busan newspaper Park Jin-gook half-jokingly said, “I experienced the power of the alliance, without it I would have never made it up those long climbs.”
Amid all the pedaling, the riders’ targeted stops along the way aligned with mission goals. To underscore the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Alliance, the principal officer laid a wreath to honor the American fallen soldiers at the 1950 Battle of the Nakdong Bulge, a brave stand that kept the advancing Chinese and North Koreans from pushing allied forces into the sea. The team met with student leaders in Daegu, which helped underscore the priority the U.S. mission places on hearing, understanding, and communicating with Korean youth. Highlighting the pro-environment element of the trip, they met a local climate change NGO at one of only three public clocks in the world counting down to the point of unsustainable climate change. They also met with a local environmental hero who has developed an institution to educate local youth on the importance of preserving estuaries and to urge governments and institutions to protect them.
Images and videos of these engagements were captured and posted by the Mission social media team in an interactive social media campaign. ROK public responses to the postings ranged from awe to agreement, from incredulity to inspiration. National broadcast and print media also covered the ride, especially the final leg as the group rolled into Busan City Hall accompanied on bike by a National Assembly member representing the city.
This adventure harkened back to successful bike diplomacy from the past. Previous Ambassador to the ROK Kathleen Stephens—a former Peace Corps volunteer to Korea and a much-loved U.S. figure in Korea—had made headlines during her bike exploits. In fact, three of the five team members on this ride had also ridden with the ambassador on her meandering bicycle journeys throughout Korea. Stephens, who is currently retired, was gracious enough to commiserate and congratulate the current team by video conference at one of their evening stops. The crew acknowledged they were riding in her tracks, which was both similar and different in that a global pandemic raged. One silver lining: A diverse new demographic was now entering the sport she loves and for which she so successfully advocated.
This group included public diplomacy locally employed staff Jun Sang-woo who organized this alliance ride, harnessing know-how from his experience from 11 years ago. Another rider, Kim Jung-min, who joined the former ambassador as a youth winner of an essay contest on the meaning of the Alliance, now rode again as a citizen diplomat for youth and female leadership in sports.
This effort at fun, creative public diplomacy, in the age of the COVID-19, had unexpectedly long staying power. Generous media coverage of the trip shared how the U.S. mission delegation on wheels experienced the beautiful natural landscapes juxtaposed with the ROK’s engineering prowess, crested the mountains to roll into the consular district, and appreciated the subtle changes of Korean cuisine every few dozen miles (which reflected varying local tastes and customs despite being connected by world-class transportation and communication infrastructure). Even now, new contacts of Consulate Busan often lead off meetings by saying how impressed they are that this U.S. group took the time and effort to enjoy a part of Korea that many Koreans only whiz-by on their daily commutes.
Jun Sang-woo is a public diplomacy assistant at Embassy Seoul.