|The ambassador directly and indirectly supports bilateral cultural exchanges as well as diplomatic negotiations in the countries dispatched based on authority granted by the head of state. The ambassador's words are regarded as the most reliable source of information about the country because the ambassador in the host country has the same symbolism. As part of the 'Reading Korea' campaign, the Reading Newspaper have prepared a time to learn about each country's culture and arts through foreign ambassadors stationed in Korea.|
Germany, ranked fourth in the world economy, is an advanced country in name and reality. It is also the country with the greatest influence in the EU. British diplomat Paul Lever, who served as the ambassador to Germany, wrote in his book 『How Germany Dominates Europe』, "German views will play a decisive role in determining which country will become an EU member over the next 20 years. The same is true of deciding what the EU will do," he said.
It is no exaggeration to say that Germany was in ruins more than 70 years ago. It seemed to have exhausted all of its national power by fighting World War I and II in a row. However, as The Miracle on the Rhine and German reunification were achieved, it became one of the developed countries. The country is even playing the role of a housekeeper who helps neighboring countries. By dealing with its past and continuing to live up to its responsibility of having caused the Holocaust, Germany has gained trust of the countries and its people that have suffered under the Nazi regime.
Not only is it an example, politically and economically, but it is also unrivaled in the academic field. From famous philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche to great writer such as Goethe and Herman Hesse, all came from Germany. Two years ago, the German company BioNtech played a big part in developing the BioNtech-Pfizer vaccines against Covid-19. On top of this solid academic background, Germans are almost never excluded from the annual Nobel Prize candidates.
Wouldn't there be another positive trait of Germany that we don't know besides beer, Mercedes, and a country that comes to mind when we think of soccer? How does Germany view South Korea? In January, at the German Embassy in Seoul Square, I met the German Ambassador to South Korea Michael Reiffenstuel and asked him about Germany.
Q. It has been three years since you were appointed as German ambassador to Korea. How does it feel?
"I was appointed as an ambassador to Korea when COVID-19 was in full swing. Thus, perhaps I am experiencing Korea differently than other German ambassadors who have come before me. Although the whole world is still suffering from a pandemic, it is most impressive to me that Korea is developing through innovation despite all difficulties."
Q. What was your first impression of Korea? What is the difference in your impression of Korea from the first time you felt it compared to now?
"When I first came to Seoul, I didn't have a car yet, which is why I took the subway a lot during that time. Once I took the subway in the direction of Seoul Station, but it was difficult to know what station I was currently at. So, I went close to the information board and looked closely trying to decipher the words. Then, suddenly, a madam came up to me and offered me the glasses she was wearing so that I could read the information clearly. This incident has become a scene that symbolizes the kindness of Koreans to me. Until now, the impression of Korea has not changed in this regard. Koreans are kind people who want to help others a lot."
Q. I heard that your wife is the German ambassador to the Philippines. What do you tell her about Korea when you meet your wife?
"First of all, we try to never talk about our work. It can be really dangerous for couples with the same job to only talk about their work and nothing else. Instead, we talk on the phone every day to share our impressions. For example, which places in Korea I went to, what impressed me, and what each of us experienced. Especially, we talk a lot about Korean food as it is very different from European food, so I think eating Korean food is a big adventure in a positive sense."
Q. What kind of food did you encounter? What is your favorite food?
"It is a great joy to eat various kinds of noodles in Korea, barbecue such as pork belly and ribs, and various seafoods. In particular, I have never eaten abalone as delicious as in Korea. I've tried abalone a lot in other countries, but it was never that fresh and tender. Thus, if I go to the Korean fish market, I can eat fresh, soft, and delicious abalone. I can even eat grilled clams at restaurants every day without getting tired of them. Once, I went to a fish market on the east coast, and it was impressive that octopus and other seafood were in really good quality."
Q. What was the most adventurous food in Korea you have tried?
"It's Samhap. I heard that Koreans either like or dislike Samhap. I think that was the most unusual food for me. I've tried it a couple of times now, and I think that's enough. (Laughs)"
Q. Germany reminds me of beer. I heard that the love for beer is so great that there is a saying that beer flows through the German body. Have you ever drunk Korean beer?
"So, what flows in the body of Koreans?"
"Perhaps Soju? (Laugh) I like Korean beer, too. Korean beer is good because it is very diverse. I know there are many beers representing Korea, and I have tried local beers in Jeju Island, and they were very delicious."
Q. For Koreans, Germany is often regarded as an object of envy. This is the case because it achieved reunification, deeply apologized for the Holocaust committed by the National Socialist Party in the past, and produced historically famous scholars. Is there any other charm of Germany that we don’t know?
“First of all, Germany has a well-equipped family welfare policy. Germany has created an environment in which couples can have children without financial burdens and women can steadily build careers. With these efforts, the birth rate, which was negative in the past, has now risen to around 1.53. Germany's migration policy is also worth noting. Germany has long accepted migrants. Even now, more than 25% of Germany's total population has a migration background (this includes people who don’t have German citizenship upon birth and their children). These migration policies are helpful in many ways, typically being able to bring in competent people from abroad and providing various opinions to German society through cultural diversity.
Q. Even in the 2015 refugee crisis, Germany boldly accepted refugees, and it was surprising how such a decision was possible. Was Germany not reluctant for refugees to come?
"I'd rather ask a question about that. Why do you think Germany would be reluctant to accept refugees?"
Reporter: There seems to be an atmosphere in Korean society that doesn't like unfamiliar things. I also think that strangers might harm us... So, from the perspective of Koreans, accepting refugees in Germany - or in fact in any country - can be problematic and might face opposition from the society.
"Maybe it's 'fear of the unknown'. It is difficult to say anything about Korean history, but in the European history, we have seen migration for centuries. So in a way, the phenomenon of migration may be considered natural. Anyway, the most important question is how to eliminate the fear of those with this fear. I think this is something that all citizens should do together. The government should provide all systems such as language courses and vocational recruitment education so that immigrants can be integrated into society. From the perspective of local governments, it is necessary to provide a place for opportunities for natives and migrants to get to know each other. The role of civil society is also great. In the case of Germany, citizens came forward and did a lot of work to eliminate such fear of the unknown. For your information, it's not that we didn't have fear either. However, it is interesting to note that the place where the fear was greatest during the last refugee crisis was the place with the least foreigners. One of the reasons why people are reluctant is because they only think of threatening images that are seen in the media but they are not actually meeting migrants."
Q. On the contrary, what is worth learning in Korea from the perspective of Germany?
"Korea is a cultural powerhouse with world-famous BTS, idol groups such as BLACKPINK, Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho, and various dramas that made headlines on Netflix. It is notable that works dealing with socially critical topics such as "Parasite" and "Squid Game" have been so successful. This may be because people are inspired to think critically through these cultural contents, and then the exchange of thoughts can eventually become an element that further develops a country. I think it's important that there is content that helps to spark critical discussions in society."
Q. You mentioned famous figures earlier, but do you know a lot of historical great men? Who are some of the historical great men of Korea in your opinion? ?
“The first person I want to mention is King Sejong. I think King Sejong, who created Hangeul, has achieved tremendous achievements because he laid the foundation for the public to learn about writing. I also want to talk about Admiral Yi Sun-shin. I've seen a movie about Admiral Yi Sun-shin, and if the great operations he did are really true, I can see that he is a smart and creative person. I cannot help but mention Former President Kim Dae-Jung. He is an important pioneer who presented the way to Korean democracy. Korea has made a tremendous achievement by being reborn as a true democracy coming from a military dictatorship. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to restore democracy in South Korea and to improve relations with North Korea. Furthermore, there is the artist Paik Nam-joon, and the former UN President Ban Ki-moon, who is greatly respected."
Q. Some of the Germans include famous philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche, and Great writer such as Herman Hesse. There are many geniuses with outstanding thoughts, so do you think there are any characteristics of German society that were able to produce these people?
“I think one of the reasons Germany was able to produce so many philosophers and writers is due to the atmosphere that fully guarantees freedom of thinking. In Germany, freedom of thinking is guaranteed not only by the Constitution, but also practiced in reality.”
Q. What books do German people choose at bookstores recently?
"German bestsellers are divided into ’non-fiction’ and 'literature'. First of all, books on pandemics are popular these days. And German people are interested in socio-political topics such as social integration issues and hate speech towards minorities. On the other hand, in the case of literary works, Germans like mystery and crime novels. In fact, it is the same whether it is a book or a TV program. In Germany, mystery novels have been bestsellers for decades, and these days, Nele Neuhaus' 『Taunus』 series and Sebastian Fitzek's 『Eyeball Collector』 are the most popular. Social themes are also contained in these mystery novels. Bernhard Schlink, famous for 『The Man Who Reads Books』, is also a writer who started as a mystery novelist."
Q. Many Koreans love Herman Hesse's 『Demian』. I wonder if there are many people who love Hesse in Germany, and what do you think of the Hesse craze in Korea as an Ambassador?
"I also read a lot of Herman Hesse's works such as 『Demian』 and 『Siddhartha』 from the age of 18 to 20. Questions asked by Hesse appeal to teenagers and encourage self-reflection – as they did to me.
Q. Introduce a book that helps to understand German society a little more.
"I recommend the novels of the Thomas and Heinrich Mann brothers. Thomas Mann of the two brothers is a little more famous as he wrote several excellent works against the Nazi regime. In addition, he developed his own awareness of problems by accepting various trends such as literature, art, philosophy, and politics of the time. Although Thomas Mann passed away for quite some time, the thoughts from his works he left behind still resonate within our society. Meanwhile, in the case of Heinrich Mann, he wrote a very critical novel about the German regime of the time. A typical one is a novel called 『Der Untertan』 Also, if you want to know more about the Holocaust issue during World War II, it would be recommended to read Günter Grass's works."
Q. What book that you read impressed you?
"I read a novel called 『The Discovery of Slowness』 by Sten Nadolny about seven to eight years ago. The protagonist in the novel was much slower in thinking or acting than others. So, the main character has not been able to play soccer with other children since he was young. But he didn't take his slowness negatively. He was slow to think, but when he did something, he was patient and accurate. Later, as the captain of an expedition, he had to pass through the frozen sea, and with his own slow and accurate judgment, he overcame all kinds of trials and crises faced by the expedition that other people who are considered ‘normal’ may not have been able to do. This book seems to convey the message that people should not be evaluated by the common standards of the world. What one may consider a weakness can also be considered a strength in other circumstances. Wouldn't our society be able to take a step further if we acknowledge that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses?"
Q. Finally, if you return to Germany after your term of office, is there any Korean book or object you want to take home with you?
"I've been traveling to many different countries over the past 25 years through travel or business trips, so I'm not obsessed with things from my travel destination. Instead, what remains in my memory is very important. In my memory, Korea will remain a fascinating country. Korea has jumped into an economic powerhouse over the decades and has developed from a dictatorship to democracy. And Koreans quickly do well when they try something new. I will always remember the enthusiasm of these Koreans. And the warm and kind treatment of the madam mentioned earlier, I think it will be a scene that keeps coming to mind when I think of Korea."
[Readersnews Ahn Ji seop]