His Excellency

Mr Yoon Yeocheol

Ambassador of the
Republic of Korea

The Republic of Korea’s new Ambassador His Excellency Mr Yoon Yeocheol declares: “I have spent 39 years with the foreign service so far, and 16 of those in the United States. As I am a little Americanised, I was curious to see how different the UK would be from the US.” He’s delighted to have observed that “people in the UK are globalised and open minded – I see that from their kindness to foreigners. Having lived in both New York and Washington DC, London pulls together the political capital in terms of politics and international diplomacy, but at the same time is the centre of economic activity and international culture. I’m fascinated by all that London has to offer. The UK is also a country where tradition and innovation successfully coexist.”

The Ambassador arrived in the capital on 22 October last year. A truly international family, his wife remains in Korea caring for her mother, and their daughters are working in Korea and New York. A huge fan of music – both pop and classical – movies and literature, Ambassador Yoon notes that “London is a treasure trove to enjoy these things. You have all the creative arts that are so accessible here. I am happy to have that luxury on top of my important work as a diplomat.”

Growing up in an ordinary family, he found himself drawn towards diplomacy after reading about the history of Korea. “Somehow, we Koreans have the impression that throughout our modern history our country was influenced by external powers. I was also affected by the charm of Western culture, so I harboured a yearning for international life, which helped define my career path.”

Various postings including stints in the Embassy in Washington DC, at the UN in New York, and as Director of the North American Division of the foreign ministry meant Ambassador Yoon became known as an expert on Korea-US relations. Then came what he describes as “a surprise gift” in 2007. He was invited to become Special Assistant to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, staying eight years. “I was fascinated by how different it was being a diplomat dealing with bilateral issues and then working on multilateral issues inside the Secretariat. Your mindset and perspectives are quite a contrast. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and hugely rewarding.” 

After 10 years in New York, Ambassador Yoon was appointed Deputy Minister of Protocol in the foreign service. “I linked up with other chiefs of protocol from other countries to make it more of a political  job,” he recalls. Then he was recruited by the office of the Korean President to work as Chief of Presidential Protocol. “I had huge respect for former President Park Geun-hye. She had exceptional charm and was highly respected on the global scene.”

Then came an interesting posting as Republic of Korea’s Ambassador in Egypt (2018-20), “an important country with over 100 million people in a strategic location. Historically, Egypt has an interesting relationship with South Korea because diplomatic relations were only established in 1995. I concentrated on helping large Korean businesses like Samsung and LG with various bureaucratic issues, so they had better access to the market. I also had the vision to make Egypt a hub for Korean businesses to penetrate the Middle East and Africa by making an FTA with Egypt.” Then came the pandemic in 2020, which meant there were various missed opportunities, including the Korean President’s visit to Egypt that couldn’t take place.  Accordingly, the Ambassador concentrated his efforts on safely evacuating the Korean diaspora. “My network with heads of mission from other countries – especially the UK – really helped in this regard. We pooled our resources and Koreans were able to join European charter flights. At this point, these friendships became very rewarding.”

Then came a role back home as Ambassador for International Relations for Gwangju Metropolitan City, in the southwest of Korea. “During this COVID period, there were no exchange of visits, or interaction with other local bodies, so I spent much of my time on video conferences, giving lectures online, and speaking on English radio stations.” He recalls one event that really enhanced the profile of the city. “During this time, there was a coup in Myanmar. Gwangju city is known for its democratisation movement that took place against the then Korean military junta in 1980. Gwangju City strongly sympathised with the people of Myanmar and wanted to rally both local and international support for them. So we organised a conference to highlight these events, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, Michele Bachelet, also former Chilean President, who I knew from the UN days spoke at the event.”

Ambassador Yoon explains “it is a great honour to serve as the Republic of Korea’s Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, especially during this important year, when we celebrate 140 years of diplomatic relations.” He is keen to highlight “an important cornerstone of our bilateral relations: 73 years ago, the UK and South Korea joined hands in defence of our shared values. The UK came to our rescue and defended our freedom and democracy. Over 1,000 soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice. I sometimes think about those young soldiers in a land they never knew. They fought shoulder-to-shoulder, making a huge contribution and sacrifice.”

Last year, the Korean government announced its foreign policy mission: “to become a Global Pivotal State (GPS) that contributes to the expansion and promotion of freedom, peace and prosperity in the world by protecting and upholding our universal values like democracy, human rights and rule of law. As Ambassador, I believe the UK is the best partner for Korea’s aspiration to become a GPS, as it is the birthplace of these values and their main champion.” He continues: “There is already a robust exchange of trade and cultural events. But I’d like to strengthen our partnership, consultation and coordination on foreign policy and defence policy, and then we can work together on the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt. At the same time, Korea enjoys good trade with the UK, but beyond that, we also have science and technology cooperation, which can go further in quantum and AI and life sciences, which are some of the UK’s great strengths and Korea also has advanced research institutions in these areas. We can work with each other to enhance our strengths.”

The Ambassador is confident that Brexit “has provided an occasion for both countries to recognise the importance of the bilateral relationship. After Brexit, Korea and the UK – as major trading countries – concluded our individual FTA away from what we had with the EU. For the rest of this year, we will work on updating our new FTA, which will be focused on energy and supply chain, and will deal with the new rules on digital trade and digital services. We will increase our synergies and utilise the complimentary nature of our two economies.”

Looking ahead to COP28, Ambassador Yoon notes that “like so many other countries, Korea has experienced extreme climate conditions this year. Our hope is that COP28 will provide a forum to share and address the issues, so humanity can avoid major disaster.” He continues: “Korea has come a long way to become the tenth largest economy in the world, and we are making our contributions in the fight against climate change, and to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. Korea has been hosting two important international organisations on this front: The Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and the Global Climate Fund (GCF). But we need to do more.”

The Ambassador also wants to remind colleagues that “Korea has bid to host Expo 2030 in its second largest city, Busan. This wish was inspired by our commitment to make a better future in the fight against climate change and shape sustainability in the world. We will try to host and organise this event in the ‘greenest’ way possible and be Net Zero. I hope the countries around the world who are with us for this Net Zero goal should also support our bid for Expo 2030.”

What does he think is currently South Korea’s greatest diplomatic challenge? “With GPS in mind, Korea joins the international community in protecting our vision of shared values: democracy, free trade and many important principles that are under threat. Closer to home, the biggest threat in our immediate region is the nuclear and missile programme from North Korea. The Korean President has recently announced the ‘Audacious Initiative.’ We are ready to talk to them about a peaceful resolution; our door is always open to dialogue, but we will also make efforts to deter their provocations and dissuade their weapons development. But once they take positive steps, there will be many goodies in our pocket- that’s the audacious part. In that regard, we will need the cooperation of our friends and allies from around the world. We need a closely coordinated act to make North Korea see that their threats and provocations are in vain. We are working closely with friends and allies, including the UK to create a strategic environment to dissuade North Korea from the wrong path, and to come back to dialogue.”