On September 16th, Dalhousie University welcomed the Republic of Korea’s Ambassador to Canada Cho Hee-Yong, who was visiting Halifax as a part of the Korean Embassy’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Those in attendance included a healthy mix of students, professors, and citizens both Canadian and Korean, who were eager to hear the perspective of an individual that holds such high office as he lectured on Korean-Canadian relations past, present, and future.,
After introductions and the like had completed, Ambassador Cho began his speech by highlighting the shared history of the two countries. While many are familiar with Canada’s important involvement in the Korean War, the Ambassador made a special point of highlighting the pre-war contributions of Canadians on the Korean peninsula. Among those highlighted were Dr. Oliver Avison and Dr. Frank Schofield, who were active in the country during the period of Japanese occupation.
While these two individuals are not so well known within Canada itself, the Ambassador spoke highly of their roles in assisting Korea in the early 20th century, and a Korean student asserted that their stories are taught in history classes to this day. Dr. Schofield was a Canadian university lecturer in biology, yet became mostly known for his efforts to support Korean independence from Japanese occupation. Dr. Schofield not only taught his students about the importance of self-determination, but also openly opposed the Japanese regime in both local and international venues. To this day, Dr. Schofield remains the only non-Korean to be buried in Korea’s National Cemetery.
Dr. Oliver Avison, on the other hand, is seen by many as one of the pioneers of modern medicine in Korea. He not only worked in Korea during an era when doing so was uncommon and at times difficult, but was also instrumental in founding Korea’s first modern medical university, and his statue can still be seen at the esteemed Yonsei University in Seoul. During the course of Ambassador Cho’s lecture, a woman had entered and sat next to me along with a gentleman I assumed to be her son. At that time I did not know it, but these were the descendants of Dr. Avison himself. Once the Ambassador realized they had arrived, history came alive as they were introduced with genuine warmth and emotion.
As for the business of current Canada-Korean relations, Ambassador Cho oft repeated his mantra of ‘cautious optimism’ regarding current trade talks, as well as future relations. Special attention was paid to not only Korea and Canada’s shared experience as middle powers, but also to the fact that closer economic ties would improve what seems to be a natural partnership, as Canada’s primary strength lies in raw materials while Korea’s is in manufacturing. The exchange of human capital was also discussed, as the number of citizens living abroad in each other’s country is increasing every year.
Finally, during the question period that followed the lecture, Ambassador Cho fielded questions on a range of topics. Of particular note were his belief that increased global trade by China was a positive development, which will not only serve to further moderate the country politically, but also open the doors to vast new markets. Also of note was that when asked if Korea worries about falling into an economic and demographic slump similar to that experienced by Japan, Ambassador Cho frankly stated that yes, of course that is a concern. However he also expressed optimism that it could be avoided, and suggested that the reunification of Korea could be a factor in doing so – an event that the Ambassador stated was simply “a matter of time, not a matter of choice.” Indeed, I think I can speak for most in the world that we all hope to see this occur in our lifetime.