Robert Ogburn: “Tales from the Motherland: Korea and the Power of Small”


On November 16, 2017, GWIKS and the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication co-sponsored an event to welcome Robert Ogburn, former Minister-Counselor for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, and to hear his experience working in South Korea. He shared how the U.S. and South Korea’s perceptions of each other have changed over time and what he meant about “power of small” regarding South Korea. The U.S. view of South Korea has come a long way since “M.A.S.H.” and South Korea’s inward focus of the 1980s has given way to a global outlook in the 2000s. This transformation was driven by failure, flexibility, and fuel. By embracing the idea of “glorious failure,” Koreans bounce back after taking risks and develop new ideas, fueled by their strong work ethic.

During his most recent tour in Seoul, Mr. Ogburn’s message was to embrace failure while being resilient. Examples include the a man who created a prosperous leather goods shop after losing his first store and becoming homeless, the Seoul National University Professor who encourages young women and North Korean defectors to study engineering, and the female leaders of Daum and Naver blazing a trail for women in business.

Mr. Ogburn noted that Koreans are very focused on their identity, and while Americans find their identity in what they do, Koreans find their identity in just being Korean. Korean identity is changing and expanding, as Koreans embrace immigrants and people like NFL player Heinz Ward. During the question and answer session, GWIKS Director Jisoo Kim noted that the idea of Korea as “a shrimp among whales” is not ancient but emerged in the 20th century, and Mr. Ogburn said this is even more reason for South Korea to see its small size as a strength.

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