South Korean president visits campus

Wednesday, June 17

Just one day after meeting with President Barack Obama, the president of South Korea spoke optimistically Wednesday morning about reconciliation with North Korea and the future of the global economy at Jack Morton Auditorium.

Before a packed audience of University officials, students and diplomats like the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak accepted an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from GW and addressed a wide range of challenges facing the international community such as climate change and the suffering global economy. Lee said he was confident Korea would “one day unite” and spoke at length about the “green growth” technology and jobs that he hopes to create as president.

“Korea was once a nation that just received but now we intend to be a nation that gives,” Lee said, delivering his speech through a translator. “We will work for a united Korea, a safer Asia, and a world where justice prevails.”

The South Korean president spent Tuesday talking with Obama regarding his neighbor to the north, whose nuclear tests and hostile rhetoric garnered additional U.N. Security Council sanctions last week. The two presidents released a joint statement Tuesday that reaffirmed U.S.’s commitment to protecting South Korea and condemned North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“North Korea continues to engage in belligerent activities.that threaten peace and security in South Korea and beyond,” Lee said. “North Korea must understand it is in their best interest to give up [its nuclear program.]”

University President Steven Knapp spoke of GW’s long history with the Republic of Korea and with Lee, who taught international business as a visiting scholar in 1999. Knapp traveled to South Korea in 2008 to witness Lee’s inauguration and the country’s capital, Seoul, hosts more than 800 GW alumni – the largest concentration of alumni living overseas.

“In honoring President Lee this morning, we are welcoming back a true friend to the University,” Knapp said in his introduction of Lee.

The University has also graduated a host of prominent South Korean alumni, including the first South Korean president, a former CEO of Samsung and the first Korean to earn a medical degree in the United States. About 260 South Korean students are currently enrolled at GW, more than any other foreign country besides China, according to the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

Lee comes from humble beginnings, working as a street vendor and collecting trash to put himself through college. Before he turned 40, however, Lee was leading car company Hyundai as chief executive officer and expanding the company into one of Korea’s most profitable companies.

Lee told audience members that Korea was thankful for their “grandfathers’ sacrifices” during the Korean War.

“They came to defend a country they didn’t know, they didn’t even know existed,” he said of the World War II veterans.

He also noted the power of technology, including Twitter, and compared the social media site to Robert F. Kennedy’s “ripple of hope.” After joking that he would need much more than 140 characters per tweet, Lee closed by addressing the students in the audience.

“My dear students, the small changes that you begin will collectively change history,” he said. “I hope you turn the dreams you have into reality and help the world become a better place.”

He added, “It is a privilege to be an alumni with the future leaders of the world.”

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