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“Paradigm shift isn't easy – but I'm going to try.”Councilor Lee Sunhwa speaks out
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승인 2013.04.09  08:46:09
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Lee Sunhwa has built a reputation as a defender of Jeju culture, old and new. Photo courtesy Lee Sunhwa


Councilor Lee Sunhwa is fighting for a new Jeju – while increasing the value of its traditions.

Lee [New Frontier Party, or "Saenuridang"] has been one of the most active members of Provincial Council since she took office, continuing the “trailblazing” that she began in her earlier career as a production director (PD) at MBC.

She established the council's Special Committee on Women, for which she is chair; helped to establish the provincial government's Haenyeo Preservation Committee and is its vice chair; and, initiated the legal proceedings which led to the formation of the government's Foreign Advisory Committee, on which she serves as a member.

Lee also established and led the Casa del Agua Architectural Preservation Committee, a joint effort of councilors and civic members which, despite numerous attempts, was ultimately unsuccessful in its quest – something Lee cites as her greatest frustration in her career as councilor to date.

There's more. She is also vice chair of the council's Budgetary Committee, member of its Culture and Tourism Committee, and editor and writer for “Dream Jeju 21,” the council's monthly journal for which she has interviewed a number of prominent foreigners as well as citizens.

As if that weren't enough, Lee served last year as floor leader for her party, and as such was the first female floor leader for a political party in all of Korea; she was also vice chair of her party's local election campaign for President Park Geun-hye. She has served as a member of the council's Social Welfare Committee, and as strategy advisor and consultant to the nation's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Lee (52), a native of Jeju and graduate of Jeju National University (Japanese language / literature), now a student in JNU's Graduate Department of Storytelling, is married to a KBS reporter and the mother of two daughters. She is also the granddaughter of a haenyeo.

When asked about her most satisfying endeavor as councilor to date, Lee initially identified her efforts for haenyeo preservation, including formation of and leadership in the government committee and dialogue with the nation's Cultural Heritage Administration regarding UNESCO designation. She is also gratified by her work to improve the lives of some of Jeju society's most vulnerable members: the impoverished, and the disabled and their families. Her latest initiative, to help the many talented but underfunded artists, has also brought her joy.

The failure to save the late architect Ricardo Legorreta's “Casa del Agua” from demolition remains her deepest disappointment – “What can I accomplish, as a council member, if I can't protect this?” – although she strives to remain positive and encourage more artists, both foreign and domestic, to explore their creativity on Jeju as Legorreta did.

Among her numerous awards, Lee identifies as her most cherished the commemorative plaque given to her by the Mexican Ambassador to Korea, Martha Ortiz de Rosas, in gratitude for her efforts to preserve Casa del Agua.

Lee was appointed to her position under a local provision to increase female representation in council, rather than elected by a particular district; as a result, she feels that she must represent the whole of Jeju Island – citizens and foreigners alike.

She wants to make Jeju more attractive to tourists, by supporting an approach to tourism which remains in harmony with the island's natural beauty. She also hopes to help create policies that result in increased happiness and a bright future for the island's residents, and is contemplating what more she can accomplish toward this goal.

When asked about the future of Jeju, Lee expressed some concern regarding the current direction.

“Jeju government is seeking to make Jeju a 'free international city',” she stated, “but civil servants and ordinary citizens don't feel this concept in any specific way.” She contemplates whether this is a valid objective for the island community – or if a focus on ecological and cultural value, instead of ultra-modern and international development, might be the better way forward.

Indicating a preference for the latter, she cited “nature, healing, and happiness” as a primary focus for residents and visitors alike.

Lee doesn't particularly think of herself as a politician, having been in creative work for nearly 25 years prior to her appointment as councilor. She compared her struggle as the first female PD in a male-dominated work environment to her current position in council where she is one of very few women.

“I'm trying to make Jeju a better place and to align with those who have similar ideas,” she relayed. “In my work at MBC, I could help people feel; in Council, I can make things happen.”

Upon completion of her council work, she intends to pursue creative, collaborative projects “and lead a simple, quiet life.” She hopes that people remember her for her continual efforts toward a better Jeju and as someone who, while relatively inexperienced politically, bravely worked for what she felt was right and fought aggressively against what she deemed wrong – giving her best, on behalf of the people of Jeju.

A powerful legacy indeed.


Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju her home.

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