When speaking with ambassadors over the years, I’ve come to expect a certain level of smooth. Tried and true, practiced and preened, these are men and women of polished prose, telegenic turns of phrase and holstered quips ready to take down any target at the ‘everything is OK’ corral.
As I waited on the other end of the line to be patched through to the Canadian ambassador to Korea, David Chatterson, I expected more of the same, but my preconceptions quickly faded as he opened with talk of the weather and of the coming summer holiday. By interviews end I found him to be an affable man who is quick to laugh and open with his thoughts and ideas.
I briefly met Chatterson once last year during the Busan International Film Festival at the popular Canadian film party, a semi-intimate gathering where film folk talk shop and name card contestants enter drawings for bottles of ice wine and Blackberry phones.
Chatterson was newly minted then, fresh off the boat, stepping into the shoes of the outgoing Ted Lipman, a Brazilian-born diplomat (adopted into the open arms of Canada) who is, arguably, best known for his marriage to Chinese pop singer Dadawa.
Observing Chatterson for the first time, following an ambassadorial post in Saudi Arabia, I imagined his wine tasted especially good that night at the film fest. Combined with the smell of the sea just off Busan’s ritzy Haeundae district, he looked relaxed with his greying, slightly unkempt hair, while his face winced ever so slightly through the profanity-laced speech by Canadian film producer Niv Fichman, whom he had just passed the mic to.
After graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1979 with a bachelor’s in commerce, Chatterson took his first job out of college with the Anti-dumping and Countervail directorate at Revenue Canada, a federal agency that administers tax laws and international trade legislation. Following that he was twice posted to Tokyo, as first secretary in 1984 and then counsellor in 1994; in between he remained in Japan as a manager of research for the Canadian International Trade Tribunal before joining the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 1998. From 2005-2009, he served in Paris as deputy permanent representative to the OECD before taking the ambassadorial helm in Saudi Arabia.
Now he’s landed in Korea, a post that requires he not only serve as ambassador to the South, but the North as well. We talked about that, the troubled FTA, his Green Roof initiative and more in a recent interview from his office in Seoul.
Since coming to Korea, what are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
I have only been here 10 months now, so I am still quite new. We’ve made some progress on a number of different files and, after nine years, we resolved the problem with Canadian beef being denied access to the market. As of January this year it now has access again so that is good news.
I recently read about the Green Roof initiative. Could you tell us about that?
The city of Seoul is trying to encourage a more ecologically-friendly city, so they were encouraging commercial establishments to take whatever measures they could to have a smaller ecological footprint.
We talked with them at length and with people back home and came up with the idea to put a whole series of planters on the roof of the [Canadian] embassy. They cover nearly two-thirds of the roof now. There are some small trees, some shrubbery, small bushes and greenery, and it does several things. One, it absorbs water so you don’t have as much runoff; it cleans the air taking in carbon dioxide; and when I was up there with the mayor [Park Won-soon] about a month ago to inaugurate it, there were birds and bees up there. It was astounding.
Did you leave room for a hot tub?
(Laughing) No no no, in the government we don’t have hot tubs, not that we talk about.
Most Canadians living in Korea are teachers. What are some of the other positions that Canadians hold here that might surprise people?
We have about 25,000 Canadians in Korea, about 5,000 are teachers.
Out of 25,000, only 5,000 are teachers? That’s much lower than I would have thought.
The other 20,000 do all kinds of things. We have people that are importers, builders, engineers. We have quite a few who work in the media that quite often are Korean-Canadian and are not known to be Canadian, but are born and raised in Canada.
There are also several people in the entertainment field, two artists in particular, Tablo and a singer called G.Na, who are quite well known among certain groups. They are Canadian as well, but not known to be. We also have a lot of professors and lawyers that I’ve met all around Korea, some with names like Smith and some with names like Park.
That leads in well to my next question. With the different names and the multi-ethnic groups that make up modern Korea, Koreans are dealing with this for the first time with some difficulty. Canada is very proud of its multi-ethnic culture, so is there any advice you would offer Koreans as they go through this transition?
We’ve been doing this, similar to the US, for a couple hundred years, I suppose. We are both a nation of immigrants and about 25 percent of our current population is first generation so we have learned a lot over the years.
People talk a lot about Canada being a very tolerant society, but I don’t think tolerant is quite the right word. I think it’s more about Canada [being] a society that embraces diversity and differences and respects it. And diversity is not just different ethnic groups, but different religions and genders and all the rest. So it’s not just a question of accepting differences—it’s about appreciating differences.
And I think Korea is on the cusp of it, it’s just beginning. And Koreans are going to have to better under understand and seek out the perspectives and points of view of others—and that’s not an easy thing to do. I mean, effectively, you have to look for people that have different views than you and don’t necessarily agree with you. So it’s a challenge and it’s going to take some work. But I think, first and foremost, it’s going to take a desire to do so.
When Korea—a few years from now, I have no idea how long but I would say a few years—has more experience in this, I think they are going to find that it’s enriching and strengthening to their society immeasurably and then it would become an even more positive and rapid acceptance of the multicultural nature that Korea will become.
So, you see there being a pivot point between tolerance and embracing?
I think tolerance is a big step first and foremost, because tolerance is accepting. And if you can accept differences you’re on the road to embracing them, because differences are really what provide the spice, the variety and the richness of life. The world would be a very boring place if we all liked and did the same things.
The Canadian embassy has recently launched a program to teach English to North Koreans that have emigrated to South Korea. I read an interview where you referred to “integration challenges”. What are some of the challenges that North Korean refugees face when they first come to South Korea?
I think they face several challenges. North Korea is a very closed state with most people denied basic human rights and access to information, with very few abilities to make their own choices. So much of their own life choices are decided by others or decided by the state. When they come to South Korea, they all of the sudden have all kinds of choices, they are spoiled by choice; I mean, just for mobile phone covers you could have 500 in the store. So this is really quite a challenge for them, and they are somewhat overwhelmed.
We can’t obviously address all those things. We thought what we could bring to the table is two things: one, the experience, as you mentioned earlier, of our very multicultural society; and two, essentially leveraging or utilizing this large population of Canadian English teachers we have.
We have highly qualified teachers who have volunteered to teach very small class sizes of North Korean defectors. Teaching English, one, but also, through teaching English, [opening] a discussion of the outside world, the world beyond North Korea. In fact, the world beyond the Korean peninsula.
And we’ve had very positive feedback. One of our students, in fact, just received a scholarship to study in the US.
We are going into phase two, doubling the number of students through the summer, then we’ll look at it again and see how we can run it in the fall.
Being posted here means that you are not only ambassador to South Korea but to North Korea as well. Could you compare and contrast some of the differences in working with the two? Any diplomatic nuances between them?
Well, I can’t actually because I haven’t yet been to North Korea.
Oh, I wasn’t sure whether you had to present your credentials there or not.
I haven’t yet presented credentials for a few reasons. The biggest reason, frankly, is that since I’ve arrived we’ve had more provocations from the North and we have had missile tests. And until we think we have somebody on the other side that we can at least have a conversation with them, we thought the time is not quite yet ready.
So it’s a matter of establishing a tie on the other side first?
Yes. So, maybe next year you can ask me that question, or later this year.
As far as Korean-Canadian FTA, the two countries have been trying to put that together for quite awhile. Some would say the general public in Korea is wary of free trade agreements. What would you say to them as far as the benefits of having an FTA with Canada?
A few things. I am not sure that [Koreans] oppose free trade agreements per se. I think they look at them and are trying to see how they benefit from them. They look at them critically, because they do have an impact. In our estimation, there is no doubt that both Canada and Korea would benefit from a free trade agreement and studies on both sides have shown this.
We launched negotiations in 2005 and we made a lot of progress, but then [the negotiations] kind of foundered on the rocks of beef in 2009.
The dreaded beef.
The dreaded beef. And it just became politically too challenging to move forward given that US beef had been let back on the market but not Canadian beef.
So we had not really progressed very far for the past three years. Prime Minister Harper met with President Lee at the G20 summit 10 days ago [in mid-June] and agreed to re-engage and move these negotiations forward.
So you feel optimistic about a future FTA between the two countries?
Yes, I think that our economies are broadly complementary, as opposed to being directly competitive. So there are really natural fits there. For example, we have a surplus of oil and gas and today we basically sell it all to the US. With assured demand, we’ll be building pipelines to the coast and shipping it to Asia. So, there is a natural relationship there on energy, for example.
Another big point is that Canada has done rather well through all the financial and economic turmoil over the past several years. We had the highest rate of growth in the G7 for the past four years, I think it is, and we have the 10th largest economy in the world. And the World Economic Forum each year for the past three years has called our banking sector the strongest in the world. So there is a lot of stability there in Canada in a very uncertain world.
Coupling that with resources, two mid-sized economies that are very complimentary, I think that consumers on both sides will win and I think that both countries will win.
Alright, now for an easy one. What do you like to do with your free time here in Korea?
Free time? (Laughing) It’s a full-time job, I must say, because in my first year what I want to do is get out there as much as possible and meet as many people as I can to get an understanding of the country, the people and their needs and desires. So I am out both day and night. There hasn’t yet been a lot of free time.
When I do have some free time, one thing I really enjoy doing is going to contemporary art galleries here in Seoul. I used to come to Korea quite often in the 1980s and 90s, probably 20 times. I lived in Japan for 10 years and the work I was doing then covered several countries in Asia including Korea, so I would come to Korea for a week or two at a time.
It was a very different Korea then. I don’t remember any contemporary art galleries, in fact very few art galleries, there was not a lot of excess wealth in the economy. But now I am stunned by how creative and how interesting the art scene is here in Korea.
I guess the other thing I like to do is go out to the countryside and out to the coast. I really like the coastline in Korea and the mountains.
Of course there’s the obligatory questions for all expats in Korea: What is your favorite Korean food and how’s your Korean?
Well, my Korean is not as good as my Japanese or my French. I just started on it, I can say pleasantries.
As an ambassador I imagine pleasantries are important.
Yeah, I say a lot of those.
What about food?
I don’t think I have a favorite food, you know bibimbap, noodles and all the rest. I think my favorite is the fact that there is such a variety. It’s the variety of food rather than a [particular] favorite.
Have you had the live octopus yet?
No, I haven’t had that yet.
It’s very good; you dip it in sesame oil. Just make sure you chew it well.
Does it wiggle as it goes down?
It does and it’s a bit unsettling at first, but that is where the soju comes in.
(Laughing) Before you eat it.
Exactly… Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time. Anything else you would like to add?
Well, if most of your readers are teachers I would just like to say hello to them and extend to them my appreciation for the work they’re doing. I think it is a great experience-slash-adventure for many of them. For others, it’s a profession. But for all of them I think they are really contributing a lot to bringing Korea into the world and allowing Korea to better access the world, and I think that is very important and very noble.
The Canadian Embassy Korea Website is here.
Photos of Ambassador Chatterson and Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, provided by the Canadian and Korean embassies.
Related article: Ambassador Chatterson Calls Korea’s Working Holiday Program ‘Biased’ (Korea Times)