GW News

GW News

GW Presents President of The Republic of Korea Lee Myung-Bak with Honorary Degree
by GW News Center
Posted on Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The George Washington University President Steven Knapp today presented His Excellency Lee Myung-Bak, president of the Republic of Korea, with an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from GW. The honorary degree was conferred in a ceremony at GW's Jack Morton Auditorium before an audience of distinguished guests including United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Kathleen Stephens, Republic of Korea Ambassador to the United States Han Duk-soo, and other members of the diplomatic corps, as well as GW trustees, students, alumni, faculty and staff. View Photo Gallery

While presenting the honorary degree, President Knapp noted that President Lee has strong ties to GW, having served as a visiting scholar in 1999, studying and teaching international business. President Knapp recounted President Lee's rise from poverty as a child to his success as CEO and then Chairman of Hyundai, Mayor of Seoul and finally his election as president of the Republic of Korea in 2007. Read President Knapp's Remarks

"You rose from humble circumstances to become a trailblazer in business and a visionary leader of the Republic of Korea," said President Knapp. "From the corporate boardroom to The George Washington University to your country's highest office, you have a demonstrated a global vision, a commitment to education and a dedication to service."

He also spoke of the great historic relationship between the Republic of Korea and GW, which has spanned more than a century. It began in 1892, when Suh Jai P'il received his medical degree from GW, becoming the first Korean to graduate from an American medical school. Dr. Syngman Rhee, the founder of the Republic of Korea, is another famous GW alumnus, graduating in 1907. More than 100 years later, over 800 students--the largest concentration of GW alumni outside of the United States--reside in the Republic of Korea, some of which traveled to the United States for today's ceremony. Over 250 students from the Republic of Korea were enrolled in GW this last academic year.

During his speech, President Lee talked about his strong connection to GW and his experience on campus. He discussed his vision for the Republic of Korea based on Green Growth and educational and economic opportunity, a more peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula and greater engagement in the world community.

Transcript of President Lee Myung-Bak's speech:

The Honorable Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, your students, distinguished guests, professors, alumni, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. It is great to see all of you. I must thank President Knapp once again for personally attending my inaugural ceremony last year. I remember it was one of the coldest days in Seoul. I would like to thank you, sir, once again.

It is a great privilege for me to be given this distinguished honor by one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the United States. This University was founded on the principles set forth by one of America's founding fathers, George Washington, and this was also the place where one of Korea's founding fathers, the late President Syngman Rhee, studied political science. It is also a great pleasure for me to be an alumnus with the future leaders of this world. Thank you.

Today, I humbly and with much gratitude and solemn sense of responsibility, accept this honor. However, what makes me happier than anything else is that now I have become a true George. Back in 1999, I spent a year here as a visiting fellow. The time I spent at GW was a time of deep reflection and quiet contemplation. I took many walks along Kogan Plaza and thought about where Korea must go and what we must do.

During my time spent on GW's campus, I learned about the United States, what it stands for and what we can learn from its people. It's been a decade since, and now as I stand before you as President of Korea to receive this honor, the ideals and dreams I dreamt here are still very much alive in my heart.

My dear fellow students, when someone asks you about Korea, what comes to mind? Some of you may know Korea as the last divided country in the world, or some of you may think of North Korea's recent nuclear testing. Of course, these are not very positive images. However, at the same time, some of you may think of the World's Baseball Classic where you saw many Asian baseball players do tremendously well. Or some of you may think kim chi or Hyundai automobiles or Samsung cell phones. Or how about the 2002 World Cup?

As you can see, there are many images related to Korea. Some of your grandfathers may be Korean War veterans, so you may have heard about how poor and freezing cold Korea was back in 1950. Also, some of you may have Korean friends here, so you may think of some things that are more recent. One of them is the dominance of our female golfers on the LPGA scene. I'm sure some of you have heard of these things and more.

Whatever it is that comes to your mind, as president of Korea, what I can tell you with certainty is that Korea is all that and more. We have achieved remarkable growth. We defended freedom and democracy and espoused principles like market economy.

For your grandfathers and grandmothers, Korea in the 1950s was the dusty and barren land that you read in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Of course, that is no more. Korea is a country whose history dates back more than 5,000 years. What is more striking is that it managed to retain its rich cultural heritage despite challenges that would have broken many nations apart.

Korea is the victim of numerous invasions throughout its history. It was brutally colonized, and after it gained its independence, it was soon divided into two. North Korea invaded my country in 1950. It took away millions of lives and displaced millions more. The war left my country in such complete ruin that a U.S. Army General who took part in the war commented, "This country will never be able to recover from this, even in 100 years."

War and subsequent poverty was soon followed by brutal dictatorships and political oppression. Even as recent as the 1980s, one British newspaper quipped that "finding democracy in Korea was like finding a rose in a pile of garbage." Harsh comments indeed. Of course, there were many challenges after that and many more will come, but as a country of resilience, resolve and courage, I can tell you that Korea and its people will endure and overcome.

Today, Korea is a completely different nation. In 1950, our per capita income was less than $50 U.S. dollars. Today, it is close to $20,000. We have the 13th largest economy in the world. We are now part of the G-20 and the current secretary general of the United Nations is a proud citizen of Korea. When you consider that Korea could not even join the United Nations for many years because it was divided, that is quite an impressive feat.

Of all the countries that gained independence following the end of World War II, Korea is the sole country to have achieved industrialization and democratization. Some consider all of this a miracle, but I see it as the result not of a miracle, but of hard work, passion to excel, sheer determination and of course, the help from our friends and allies from around the world.

Many people ask me, "What is the secret of Korea's phenomenal growth?" And my answer to them is: It is our passion to learn. For a small country with almost no natural resources, educating our human resources was always important, and this is best exemplified in our mothers. I can assure that you will not find people more dedicated to and have a passion for learning and education. There are many people who immigrated and came to the United States to provide a good education for their children. They were the ones who sacrificed all they had so that their children could have what they themselves could only dream of.

To share a personal story with you, I would not be here if not for my mother and her passion for education. Our family was too poor to send all my siblings to school. Being the youngest, my turn would have never come, but my mother never gave up on her quest to send me to school and neither did I. My mother's tireless determination enabled me to enroll in high school, but I did not stop there. I wanted to study more so I applied to universities and got accepted. I paid my way through university by collecting garbage and all kinds of odd jobs.

Life was certainly never easy, but it was this type of determination that drove my country forward. Even to this day, what sustains Korea is its passion for learning. Just as President Obama made history by working and studying hard, I stand before you because I went to school and did my best. As President Obama mentioned in one of his speeches, passion for learning is what sustains Korea. Just to give you an example, over 80 percent of high school graduates in Korea go to college.

Another factor that has helped Korea achieve its dramatic development is, of course, the assistance from our friends and allies. During the Korean War, 33,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives defending my country. They came to defend a country many of them never knew even existed.

The Korean War Memorial is not far from here. It is in front of the Arlington National Cemetery. For those of you who haven't visited this beautiful memorial, please do so. There you will find what your country stands for and what your grandparents did for others. If you visit the Korean War Memorial, you will see what real courage and sacrifice means. You will be proud of what your country did and understand how grateful we are and that when we say thank you, we really mean it.

Likewise, in my message to the American soldiers in Korea commemorating Memorial Day, I said that we will never forget the selfless sacrifice that was given to us by the young American soldiers to defend the freedom and peace of Korea.

When my country was completely in ruin following the war, the generosity of others gave us hope. Many Peace Corps volunteers came to Korea to teach young children and provide medical services. They helped us and visited all sorts of places in Korea. One of these female volunteers would later become a diplomat, and of course her name is Kathleen Stephens. She is here today. She is now the ambassador to Korea. A young girl from Montana volunteered her youth to helping others and that led her to a distant land called Korea, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and now, 30 years later, as the highest government official representing the United States in Korea.

As many of you know, Korea is the only country that is still divided. We will one day achieve unification, but until that happens, it is important to maintain a peaceful relationship with our neighbor in the north. However, North Korea continues to engage in belligerent activities. They recently conducted another underground nuclear test and test long-range rockets, threatening peace and stability in Northeast Asia and beyond. Under no circumstances will we allow nuclear weapons.

Recently, on the 15th, the U.S. House of Representatives and Congress unanimously passed a resolution calling for peace on the Korean peninsula. Yesterday, during my talks with President Obama, as well as with the House and Senate leadership, we reaffirmed our firm commitment to achieve this goal.

North Korea must fully give up their nuclear weapons ambitions and become a member of the international community. North Korea must understand that it is in their best interest to fully give up their nuclear weapons ambition. When North Korea takes meaningful steps toward peace and dialogue, Korea, as well as the rest of the international community, will stand ready to extend a helping hand.

The UN Security Council resolution 1874, which was unanimously adopted, is another effort by the international community to bring peace. The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is only 40 miles away from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. That's less than the distance from here to Baltimore. However, Koreans will not be intimidated and our quest for peace will not be deterred. With firm conviction and yearning for permanent peace, we will seek peaceful unification of the peninsula.

Distinguished guests, professors and dear students, the world that we are living in is becoming more and more interconnected, complex and uncertain. Information can be accessed almost instantaneously, but it is becoming more and more difficult to accurately predict what will happen, let alone make a timely decision. Indeed, there are no clear-cut issues. The way we communicate has been forever altered with new gadgets and new technology.

A recent edition of Time magazine talks about Twitter and how this is changing how we communicate and connect to one another. I have not joined Twitter yet, but I will certainly think about it. However, asking a president to say things in 140 words or less is asking a bit too much. So when I do join, I will ask the people at Twitter if they can extend it to 200 words just for me.

During times like these, it is imperative that we adhere to our core values and our principle beliefs. It is important for us to make decisions based on such core beliefs. This is value-based governance. The values that we must continue to uphold and pursue in the 21st century must be protecting freedom, promoting peace and preserving the environment. We must consider doing all that we can to promote human rights and freedom for all mankind, and this must be espoused at all costs.

I consider the current global economic and financial crisis not just as another crisis to overcome, but an event with deep and long-lasting historical significance. It is a transformative moment for mankind.

Those who invest in the future, those who are ready for change, those who are willing to take that courageous leap toward the unknown are going to be the ones who shape the future. We must cease from dismissing the calls for more decency and for exercising more responsibility in our governance.

We must pursue a world where human beings and the environment coexist in harmony. One issue of urgency is global warming. This issue cannot be put off or delayed. The major causes may have begun in the advanced economies, but we must now collectively address it because this problem will never be solved by a handful of countries.

Korea will become an early mover, and this is why I have announced our vision for the future, which we call "low carbon green growth."

Mr. Thomas Friedman, whom I met recently, stresses the importance of code green in his book, and calls this far more valuable than 50 Kyoto protocols combined. Green growth is about sustainable growth that will promote environmental protection and vice versa--such positive cycle will transform our economy. It is about responding creatively to climate change and our energy needs. Fusion between high tech and green tech will reduce our over-reliance on fossil fuels and increase our usage of new and renewable energies.

Green growth seeks prosperity and well-being, not only for the current generation, but the generations to come. And let it be clear that this is not a matter of choice, but a decision born out of necessity. The basic law on green growth has already been submitted to our National Assembly, and once this is passed, we will be in a better position to comprehensively tackle global climate change and become a true green nation.

We will vigorously implement various measures, such as reforming our transportation and electricity grids, retrofitting buildings, realigning our energy infrastructure, as well as our education sector. Korea has established the East Asia Climate Partnership Initiative that will develop new and renewable sources of energy, joint forestation projects and eco-friendly technology with our international partners. During the last G-20 Summit in London last April, I called on all leaders to pursue green growth. The incredible amount of fiscal expenditures that are being invested in our economies should and must be geared toward planting the seeds for a greener future. Such call was duly reflected in the final joint statement. Like I said, this century calls for us to be bold. We cannot forever keep walking on the same path, headed towards the same destiny. We are called upon to explore and open up new paths. Such spirit is what made our nations great; it is what will keep us strong.

Recently, a famous Korean mountain climber pioneered a new path to Mount Everest. It has been officially named the Korean Route. He paved this way through uncharted and fierce, virgin territory. We do not yet have a leader in this area. And what makes green growth attractive is that it is a continuously evolving concept, and like I said, we do not yet have a leader in this area of green growth. It is a concept that will readily adapt to the needs of each individual country. We intend to chart a Korean route of green growth. And shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners, we will work toward this vision.

Another important aspect that we must keep in mind as we seek to effectively tackle climate change is that we must remember to share newly acquired technologies with developing countries. We must make new and renewable sources of energy and its related technologies accessible to them. Korea will become a link between the advanced and emerging economies, as we trek the new path forward. Because if we fail to do so, not all countries will take part and the consequences of that is too great.

Distinguished guests: another agenda which I will continue is to make Korea a global Korea. This is our diplomatic Korean route. Korea was once a nation that received, but now we intend to become a nation that gives. Korea seeks to become a rule maker and not a rule taker, a nation not on the peripheries but on the center of events. Shaping the future with a lofty vision and a positive outlook, we will work with the international community and cooperate with the international community. We will work for a safer Korea, a more prosperous Asia and a world where justice prevails. We will carry out our responsibility to make this happen--not just for us--but for all of us. As the world goes through this crisis, many governments are deciding to freeze or even cut back their official development assistance, but we will continuously increase our share. We will share with others--not just sharing the fishes but teach them how to catch the fish. We are also committed to sharing our experience with many of our partners and friends in Asia and in Africa.

Recently, Korea consolidated the various volunteer agencies and institutes in Korea under one, and we named it World Friends Korea. It sends out volunteers to all parts of the world. Young volunteers like you make up the bulk of this pioneering group. Currently, we have approximately 1,500 volunteers in 43 countries. Every year, we will send roughly 3,000 volunteers. Young Korean volunteers are joined by brave soldiers who are out in various parts of the world and are undertaking actions and peacekeeping operations in countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. They take part in peacekeeping operations and also peaceful reconstructions. They help build schools and hospitals. Their doctors provide critical medical services and engage in vocational training. These young soldiers help them fix their roads and bridges.

Last March, our Korean Navy dispatched a frigate to patrol the shores off Somalia to take part in the international effort to eradicate piracy. And it is good to know and heartening to hear whenever they tell us they are being very much appreciated for the service that they render. Korea will be contributing to tackling these problems, the immediate ones, as well as long-term goals. Like I said, the Republic of Korea will continue its cooperation with countries like the United States and contribute for the good of mankind.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are going through an unprecedented economic and financial crisis. I know that families have been hit hard all around the world. Young graduates are having a hard time finding jobs. Parents are worried about their pensions and their future. As factories close, our fathers are losing hope. But let us not lose hope. Let this be another opportunity for us to renew ourselves.

I believe that the center of the global economy is the U.S. economy. I believe in their resilience, and I believe that their innovative and creative minds will transform this crisis into an opportunity. The global economy will recover, but it is imperative that the U.S. economy recovers, and I believe it will. As the U.S. economy recovers, you will find the jobs that you want and be there to lead this nation to a higher plateau. As president of Korea, my urgent concern is to create more good quality jobs so that we can provide jobs for you. My dear students, history has presented us with a challenge that we are destined to carry forth. We are at an epochal moment. We are called upon to change, and we must change.

Robert Kennedy spoke of the tiny ripple of hope that will change the world. He called upon the young people to take the lead. He warned against timidity. And President Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons--a world where we have religious harmony, where tolerance prevails and a world where we respect one another. This is about going from conflict to harmony and on to peace. And few of us will be able to single-handedly bend history, but collectively, we can make a difference. Right now with one click, we can access the world.

Any small change that happens in one remote part of the world will have tremendous impact on the world halfway across the world. My dear students, the small changes that you begin will collectively change history. I hope that the hopes and dreams and the visions that you have will turn into reality and help the world become a better place.

It is a great privilege and an honor and a pleasure for me to be able to talk with you today and to have a chance to share with you some of my thoughts. I would like to thank President Knapp again for giving me this precious opportunity and the members and the professors at George Washington University. And now as a new GW alumnus, I will do my very best and that I hope that you will treat me as one of your own. I thank you once again for taking part. I wish you the very best. And God bless you in all that you do. Thank you very much.

© 2022, The George Washington University
1918 F Street, NW; Washington, DC 20052. Phone: (202) 994-GWGW (4949)
Site Maintained by GW Information Technology
GW is committed to digital accessibility. If you experience a barrier that affects your ability to access content on this page, let us know via the Accessibility Feedback Form.