South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in emerged from the April 15 legislative elections stronger than ever placing his party in a position to set the country’s political, educational and diplomatic agendas as it emerges from the threat of COVID-19, according to John Endicott, the former Georgia Tech professor who currently serves as president of a Korean university and vice chancellor of its business school.
Dr. Endicott shared his views April 20 on the current state of South Korean affairs and its relations with its neighbors Japan and China during a Zoom conference call from his home in Daejeon with members in Atlanta of the Southeast U.S. Korean Chamber of Commerce.
In 2007 he moved from Atlanta to Daejeon, located an hour by high-speed train from the capital, Seoul, in what is known as Korea’s “Silicon Valley,” to assume the positions of co-president of Woosong University and vice chancellor of the newly founded, all-English SolBridge business school, one of Woosong’s six colleges.
A decade later, Woosong opened its seventh college, the Endicott College of International Studies, bearing Dr Endicott’s name in recognition of his development of a liberal arts and political science program at the university. The Endicott College is housed in a building built from cargo containers, which he said represented a new, innovative form of architecture, greatly appreciated by the students.
While handling the administrative responsibilities, he has continued to teach. “Everybody can read the lines,” he added, “but I also need to read between the lines.” To do that, he said he had to remain in close touch with his students. “We learn from them, they learn from us.”
His positive personal relations with his students have been revealed in several ways. How many university presidents are honored with bobble headed mementos or how many reach the status of being named a “special ambassador” to the professional Korean baseball team the Han Wha Eagles, a much appreciated honor by a baseball fan who has supported the Cincinnati Reds from his childhood on.
When asked how South Korea had been able to emerge from an impoverished nation in the 1950s into the economic powerhouse it is today, Dr. Endicott quickly declared that “education” had been the key, calling it “the gorilla in the room” with the Ministry of Eduction wielding enormous power and Korean mothers closely overseeing their children’s academic achievement.
In addition, he pointed to the universal draft requiring all students to spend roughly two years in military service following their sophomore year. Once they have completed their educations they join, what he called, “a great workforce.” “They all know what their mission is. How to do it and that they must work as one.”
“Skillful and trained individuals who know how to take discipline is a powerful model.” he added saying that he felt the country’s Confucian heritage also is an important ingredient.
Yet, he said, universities are under tremendous pressure to survive today because of the country’s declining percentage of school age children. Fortunately Woosong has been designed a “self autonomous university,” the government’s highest designation, but those that are less highly ranked fear the chopping block.
Of the country’s 202 four-year universities, 86 have been designated as needing help and 36 are to be eliminated next year. “This is a tough place to play,” he said. “Collegiality is a thing of the past.”
Explaining the government policy, he said the Ministry of Education in the past estimated that there would be 650,000 freshmen entering each year, but that number has decreased to 400,000 with the decline in the general population.
Consequentially, the government has limited the number of South Koreans that Woosong or other universities can admit. In Woosong’s case, admissions are limited is 2,100 a year, but each university is different depending on circumstances. Woosong has nine applicants for every space, the lead number of applicants in the region. There is no limit, however, to the number of students that can be admitted from abroad, which results in a highly diverse student body.
Woosong University’s seven colleges have a total of 13,500 students, with 2,500 from 64 different countries. The largest percentage is from South Korea, with Russian-speaking students from both Russia and the “Stans” in Central Asia and China following. Only a few Americans attend, he said despite the relatively low $11,000 tuition (not including travel costs). “It’s hard to get Americans out of their comfort zone,” he added.
He cited his graduate assistant from Uzbekistan as an example of an outstanding student at SolBridge. This student passed the Korean language exam with a five out of six ranking, an almost impossible achievement for a foreigner, he said. In addition, the student speaks perfect English, Russian, Turkish and his native Uzbek.
While all of the students at Woosong are not so gifted and some do have to struggle to learn English, such a diverse students body makes for “extremely interesting” classes, he said.
During the Zoom session, Dr. Endicott also reviewed South Korea’s parliamentary elections in which President Moon’s ruling Democratic Party won an absolute majority, showing a landslide victory propelled by successes in the country’s efforts to contain the coronavirus. In South Chungcheong Province where Daejeon is located, there had been no deaths by the time of the Zoom conference. “So, to date, Daejeon has been blessed,” he said.
The election was followed around the world as one of the first nationwide votes since the global pandemic began with Korean authorities disinfecting more than 10,000 polling stations and requiring voters to wear masks, have their temperatures checked, use hand sanitizer and plastic gloves and maintain a safe distance from others.
He recalled that the Democratic Party was originally that of South Korea’s president, Kim Dae-jung from 1998-2003 who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “sunshine policy” towards North Korea. An empowered Mr Moon, he added, would seek to further improve relations with North Korea as it sought to enhance its role as global power.
Although he acknowledged Mr. Moon’s policies to support closer relations with North Korea, he said that predicting future relations between the North and South would be difficult until North Korea supreme leader, Kim Jong-un’s circumstances were clarified. Mr. Kim failed to attend the April 15 birthday of his grandfather, Kim il Sung, the North’s founder, known as the Day of the Sun, which has led to speculation about his health.
Dr. Endicott also said that he felt Mr. Moon would seek to maintain positive relations with China, while frosty relations with Japan would continue as the two countries struggled over Japan’s colonial and World War II occupation of the Korean peninsula.
As examples of China’s economic importance in the region he described a road trip he made headed west in China on a six-lane highway where on his right were fields of solar panels and windmills and on his left a high-speed train. When he arrived at his destination even on the edge of Inner Mongolia, he said that the modernization of China was clear.
Concerning Japan, he said that he expected Japanese companies to bring back home some of their operations currently based in China under a new policy limiting globalization in the face of China’s inability to deliver vital parts on a timely basis.
Dr. Endicott indicated that at age 84 he was preparing to retire and would return to Atlanta at a still to be determined date in 2021 with his wife Mitsuyo to whom he has been married for 60 years. He joined the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1989 where he founded the Center for International Strategy Technology and Policy and was among the first professors to teach at The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
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