Go to contents

[Op-Ed] Korean-style Peace Corps

Posted June. 04, 2009 08:20,   


People wishing to join the U.S.-based Peace Corps have soared in number. The volunteer organization has received an estimated 25,000 online applications this year, up 40 percent from the same period last year. The rise is attributed to the “Obama effect,” as U.S. President Barack Obama has urged Americans to perform public service and frequently mentioned the Peace Corps. The organization was established in 1961 by then President John F. Kennedy to improve America’s image abroad through overseas volunteering by youth. Over nearly four decades, 195,000 Peace Corps volunteers have worked in 139 countries in agriculture, education, environment and health.

Between 1966 and 1981, 2,068 Peace Corps volunteers worked in Korea, the fifth-highest number in Asia (the Philippines had the largest number of 8,300). Korea is what it is today thanks in part to foreign aid in difficult times in the past, and it is time for the country to repay its debt to the world. The Korea International Cooperation Agency, Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, and a collegiate volunteer unit previously operated independent programs of their own. Last month, volunteer organizations that had been managed by different government agencies were merged into World Friends Korea.

The Korean government plans to double the number of overseas volunteers to 4,000 in three years to raise the country’s world rank in the number of overseas volunteers to second. Overseas volunteer activities are often thought of as college students helping people in other countries, but this is not necessarily the case. Retired people with professional skills in medicine, information technology and agriculture, can also go abroad as senior volunteers. In the U.S., the number of people aged 50 or older who signed up for Peace Corps increased from four percent of all overseas volunteers to seven percent this year, mainly due to the decline in overall employment.

U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens recalled her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea back in the 1970s. She said, “The annual per capita income in South Korea was about 600 U.S. dollars in 1975. Students were struggling amid poverty, but the subzero temperature classroom was full of expectations for a new hope.” Stephens taught English at Yesan Middle School in South Chungcheong Province. Koreans who grew up knowing hard work are spread out in many parts of the world, including Peru and Egypt, to build new hospitals and vocational schools. Korean volunteers have promoted the New Community Movement in the name of "Korea villages" in countries such as Vietnam, Tanzania and Uganda. Given the horrendous job market in Korea for young people, the counseling center for Korean overseas volunteers (1588-0434) has reportedly received a flurry of applications.

Editorial Writer Hong Kwon-hee (konihong@donga.com)