▲ Mark Lippert, the US ambassador to Korea - Photo by Cho Myung-joon
It’s not hard to see why United States Ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert has become so popular among the country’s people.
Since taking on the US envoy role in October 2014, Mr Lippert’s charm coupled with he and his wife’s Robyn’s efforts to integrate themselves in Korean culture has won the hearts and minds of Seoul residents.
Even their basset hound Grigsby has been competing in the popularity stakes with a Twitter account boasting more than 2,400 followers.
It’s a willingness to embrace the culture which perhaps explains the envoys popularity.
“If you are interested, if you are open minded, there is a warm, welcoming environment in Jeju and Korea at large and that’s what makes being an expat here very special,” Mr Lippert told The Jeju Weekly during a recent stay on the island.
He added: “We are people that like to go out, like to meet people, like to be intellectually curious and so I think if this job prevented me from being myself I think I would have a hard time continuing to do it. You fundamentally have to be yourself in this job. You have to be true to yourself and you have to be true to the relationship.”
Mr Lippert’s visit coincided with the first Jeju Food and Wine Festival, held in part at the Haevichi Hotel in May. His enthusiasm for culinary delights is evident when he speaks animatedly about the Korean and locally produced Jeju food served up at the inaugural event.
▲ Photo by Cho Myung-joon
“It’s fantastic. What you have here is really a burgeoning culinary scene akin quite frankly to Seoul. It really is making this an attractive place.” he said.
While Mr Lippert’s endorsement of the Food and Wine Festival may bode well for its future, it wasn’t the sole reason for his visit to the island. He was officially in Jeju to mark the 30th anniversary of the Jeju-Hawaii sisterhood agreement.
Jeju is famously known as the Hawaii of South Korea and Mr Lippert sees similar qualities in both islands.
“You see a likeness for a couple of reasons. First, in terms of the atmosphere. I’ve been to Hawaii many times and I’ve been to Jeju now twice. You land here and you just feel that unique atmosphere.
“Hawaii has an international mindset and Jeju has that esprit de corps that is also very international in nature,” he said.
It is this international scene that he says is attacting business investment opportunities. The island was already attracting "strong interest" from the US and other overseas investment, he said.
He added: "Jeju has a very strong set of economic incentives for companies wanting to set up. It's got great infrastructure, it's got strong human capital.
"The things that are making businesses in Seoul move down here are the same things that are appealing to Americans.
"Now it's a matter of getting the word out. There is some strong interest from US companies. You are starting to see US educational institutions move down here and you have seen seen major tech relocation down here - that's very appealing."
Aside from any business duties, the ambassador's visit also saw him diving with the island’s haenyeo women divers, an experience the former US Navy Seal relished.
“It was great. It was just a lot of fun. It’s just amazing to watch the women work.
“They are on the surface, scanning and then three or four meters in murky water they are able to with eagle eyes find a small crustacean, dive down on a blink of an eye and using this hook tool instantly capture the prey. It's really amazing to watch."
▲ Photo by Cho Myung-joon
While the Lippert’s willingness to embrace Korean culture has been largely received positively, the envoy has on occasion borne the brunt of anti-American feeling.
In March 2015, a knife attack by a Korean nationalist left him requiring 80 stitches to his face.
Yet despite the harrowing incident, Mr Lippert says he remains as keen as ever to continue the job.
He said: “The outpouring of support from the Korean people and Americans in the US was amazing. From that response we do feel that it is incumbent upon us to continue to do what we are doing - to continue to be open and to be ourselves and to continue to embrace this great, warm open culture.
“As I said at the hospital, all this incident did was reaffirm our strong belief that there is an unbreakable bond between the US and the RoK at a government level and from a personal level.”
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