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제목 [한국알리기 국내외 행사] [INTERVIEW] Top Korea promoter sets sight on BTS [코리아타임즈 2019-06-04]
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Professor Choi Jung-wha speaks during the interview with The Korea Times on Friday at the Grand Hyatt Seoul. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Choi Jung-wha's self-given mission is to get the world to know more about Korea. For the past 16 years, the professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies has devoted herself to this mission, with the Corea Image Communication Institute (CICI) the vehicle. The list of CICI awardees reads like a who's who for prominent Koreans and foreigners who have made great contributions to her cause. Choi believes this could help Korea "find its standing commensurate to its potential." The following is the gist of her recent interview with The Korea Times. ― ED.

By Dong Sun-hwa

Q. Who are the candidates for the 2020 CICI Korea Image Awards, which recognize figures who have contributed to promoting Korea? 

A. CICI has not yet created the roster of the candidates for the next year, but K-pop boy band BTS is one of the most mentioned figures. We have asked people from diverse backgrounds about the possible candidates and dozens of them recommended the seven-piece band to us. It is always surprising to see how different people share similar opinions. 

We will confirm the candidates in July or August and conduct a survey of approximately 4,000 Koreans and foreigners to single out the winners. The foreign voters, however, are required to have at least some experience in Korea. 

K-pop boy band BTS. Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

Q. For you, who is the most memorable previous winner?

A. Several acts come to my mind, such as pianist Cho Seong-jin and jazz singer Na Yoon-sun. The 2019 winners "Korean Englishmen" are also special to me ― Josh (Joshua Daryl Carrott) and Ollie (Oliver John Kendal) boast over 3 million subscribers worldwide on YouTube for introducing diverse Korean dishes. They have helped me understand the YouTube world better. I met them twice after the award this year and threw a swarm of queries about the channel, which I am not so familiar with. But the pair and Josh's wife Gabie Kook answered all the questions frankly and sincerely. I was so impressed. 

Q. The CICI awards have distinctive names such as "Korea Image Stepping Stone Bridge Award." Where do they come from?

A. At first I named the award by intuition. But later I was inspired by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, the 2008 awardee of the Nobel Prize in Literature who received our "Korea Image Stepping Stone Bridge Award" in 2009. He said he was fond of our award name because it has "stone," just like his real name. He added he loved stone's eternity. After hearing this, I decided to add "stone" to other awards too ― we also have the "Korea Image Cornerstone Award."

Q. Why did you establish the CICI in 2003?

A. I landed in France in 1978 to study simultaneous interpretation and lived there for 10 years, but nobody had ever asked me, "Are you from Korea?" I also interacted with myriad foreigners after becoming an interpreter, but none of them knew much about my mother country. They asked me if I hailed from Japan, China or Thailand. 

Hence, I was enraptured when I first encountered a man who knew about my country. In 2003, my husband and I visited a temple in Indonesia to celebrate the New Year. There we bumped into a Dutchman who greeted us and asked me, "Are you from Korea?" 

He said he was from "Guus Hiddink's (former head coach of the South Korean men's football team) country" and that he knew Korea since he visited Seoul during the 2002 World Cup. 

I could not forget the joy I felt at that moment ― it was more than happy to get recognized. Thus, I decided to promote Korea and its culture by myself after returning home and had meetings with people who might share the same interest. Fortunately, they all said they would do their bit if I took the lead, so I did. I prepared the documents and registered the CICI with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Q. How was your life in France? Did you experience anything special as an interpreter/professor? 

A. I headed for Paris to study simultaneous interpretation after graduating from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. My professor urged me to go there, saying I had "suitable" characteristics ― such as agility ― to learn the new field of study, which did not exist in Korea then. The field was fascinating to me because it could help remove language barriers among people. 

I could receive a scholarship from the French government since Korea was a developing country back then. I was accepted to ESIT Universite Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3, and studied interpretation and translation for 10 years to land a job as a professor. While I was on my Ph.D. program, I also kicked off my career as an interpreter. 

As an interpreter, I was very lucky to seize opportunities to witness history on the spot. In 1986, the French government scouted me to provide interpretation for the former French President Francois Mitterrand, who had the first summit with the former Korean President Chun Doo-hwan100 years after two countries signed for bilateral ties. 

As an interpreter, I interpreted for several former Korean presidents until I became a civilian committee member of the council on national branding that aimed to promote Korea's national image. From then on, I decided to quit providing paid interpretation. I wanted to be on an equal footing with other committee members such as the president and the prime minister, instead of being a paid interpreter who provided a service for them.

Professor Choi Jung-wha. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Q. Could you tell us about your husband? 

A. I cannot run CICI without my husband Didier Beltoise, president and CEO of hospitality consulting firm Cs. He is my biggest supporter who makes up for my deficiencies. For instance, I have a strong drive but lack sensitivity ― hence my husband helps me with the details. 

He always listens carefully to others and treats them sincerely, saying he could only have reached this point thanks to their help. I have learnt such features from him and "upgraded" myself. 

Q. What was your most rewarding moment as you run the CICI? 

A. Myriad members said joining the CICI was the best thing they did in Korea. They said they could interact with Koreans and learn about Korea's charms thanks to the institution. Even after they leave Korea and move to another country, they dub themselves members of "CICI London" or "CICI Tokyo."

Many of them have become supporters of Korea too. They have published books and made films about Korea after experiencing our country. Since they are opinion leaders who can influence people, their works have created massive ripple effects in promoting Korea. 

Q. What challenges have you faced? 

A. As a non-profit organization, the lack of financial resources has been the greatest challenge. We mostly resort to sponsorship to host the events, but most of them are quite costly. For instance, we spend about 200 million won ($167,000) to hold one forum. But fortunately, a significant number of people who share our cause have been giving a hand to us.

Q. What further steps are you planning to take? 

A. So far, CICI has been striving to promote what Korea excels in, but now we want to grasp the needs of foreigners. We plan to provide "tailor-made" guidelines on Korea to satisfy their curiosity about us, instead of merely showing off what we are good at. Our second goal is the globalization of Koreans. Until now, we attempted to make foreigners friendly to Korea, but this is not enough. Koreans should play more active roles in the world and become citizens of the world. They need to harmonize with others more, so that other parties will be more willing to interact.

CICI will also focus on the mobile world. People aged between 30 and 70 are quite familiar with our institution and are aware of our goal and vision. The younger generations, however, are different. To target them, we will seek ways to utilize channels such as YouTube and Instagram. In fact, our next forum deals with content creators.

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