For Eric Walsh, it must have felt like quite a step up in the world to awaken one morning knowing that you’re officially an ambassador. Even more so knowing that your first appointment is the Korean Peninsula – one of the world’s most talked-about geopolitical hotspots.
There are, of course, other, more modest considerations to which one must adjust.
“Every time my name is somewhere, it always begins with ‘His Excellency,’ says Walsh, “but, on the bright side, it’s easier for people to remember my name, because they can just call me Ambassador. There’s that.”
Sitting across the table from Mr. Walsh, who graduated from McGill University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in Russian, I am immediately taken by how young he looks – far younger than his 42 years let on. Perhaps with time the ambassadorial air will envelop him, but for the moment His Excellency seems every bit the ordinary guy who just minutes before walked into the hotel lobby unaccompanied, wheeling his own suitcase, sans anything remotely resembling an entourage.
Mr. Walsh, a London, Ontario native is, of course, all but ‘ordinary.’ His dues have all been paid, his boxes all checked and his experience well-earned on a 20-year path to the position of His Excellency – a title he was given in the spring of this year.
After stepping into the suit of public service in 1995 with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Mr. Walsh spent three years working and training in various DFAIT divisions. This was followed by assignments in Ankara and then Bucharest, before landing in Geneva, where he was assigned to the team negotiating the Ottawa Convention, which banned the production of antipersonnel mines.
Most recently, before accepting his assignment on the Peninsula, replacing the outgoing Excellency David Chatterson, Mr. Walsh served four years as minister and deputy head of mission in Berlin.
Looking at the list of countries on his resume, I am curious if, considering his study of Russian, he had hoped to eventually work there.
“My degree was actually in political science with a minor in Russian, but when I started at McGill I had been learning German and French in high school and it was just the time. It was 1990, the Wall had fallen the year before and things were opening up in Eastern Europe, and Russian was a language that I hadn’t had the opportunity to learn before.”
And it helped when he was an aspiring entrant into the job market.
“It actually served me very well, because when I then went to apply to join the Foreign Service, the qualification that allowed me to take the exam at the time was the fact that I spoke Russian. Since then, I have served in Turkey, where we covered Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – which were three countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union – so at least there were people there that spoke Russian.”
My first time meeting Ambassador Walsh was at the celebration of the signing of the Korea-Canada FTA, here in Busan back in the spring. He had literally just arrived that day and, after presenting his credentials to Korean President Park Geun-hye, was whisked away to FTA festivities in both Seoul and Busan with a brigade of Canadian business leaders.
I asked about some of the changes we could expect to see here from the signing of the agreement, which marks Canada’s first FTA with an Asian country.
“On Canadian products that are already available here, in many cases, the prices will improve. Whether it’s Canadian agricultural products, wheat, meat,” says Walsh, adding that “a lot of Canadian seafood, in fact, a lot of the lobster here, actually comes from Canada.”
Considering he is just getting started in the position and there is of little much yet to ask, the conversation turns to personal life. Is there a Mrs. Excellency? A junior Excellency perhaps? Who came to Korea with you?
“My wife and our two cats.”
In America we refer to kids who follow their parents from country to country as ‘Army Brats.’ The Walshes are apparently raising Army Cats.
“The cats are very well-traveled. We found them in Turkey in our first posting. We lived with them there for two years, we lived in Romania for two years, Ottawa for two years, Geneva for two years, Ottawa for three years, Berlin for four and a half years, and now they’re here. They’re both turning 16, so I think they’ll be very happy if we stop moving them around the world.”
I am curious if, before arriving in Korea, he had conferred with any of his predecessors about serving here. Understandably, he didn’t want to betray the confidence of those with whom he spoke, but there was a perk passed down by those here before him.
“What’s very interesting is that every single former Canadian ambassador to Korea is now retired in some state. None are any longer active Foreign Service officers. Some of them continue to be active, whether it’s in think tanks or in foundations, but all of them have left the department. So, in that respect, I have an advantage, because there’s no big brother or great uncle looking over my shoulder, saying, ‘When I was an ambassador in Seoul, we never did things that way; we always did things this way. What’s this guy trying to do?’
According to Ambassador Walsh, a typical service period in a country lasts about three years, and, though he arrived early for the FTA handoff, he expects a productive engagement. I asked if he had any personal goals he wanted to accomplish during his time here.
“My goal is to start doing things early on,” says Walsh. “I don’t wanna think, ‘Well, there’ll be time for that later.’ So, a personal goal, then, is to get to know the people and the country – not just the work that I have to do but also the culture and the whole place, and not just in Seoul, which is, obviously, important but around the country.
And what about adding Korean to his list of spoken languages?
“I do have a goal to become – I won’t aim too high and say ‘fluent’ – but develop some competency in the Korean language, so that I can understand the gist of a conversation, maybe follow a report on the news, maybe talk with people.”