VANK Staff

VANK Founder and President – GiTae Park

There was only one thing that the young man enjoyed more than his work. It was his involvement in a club devoted to sharing Korea with the world. At the time, incorrect facts such as “Pyeongyang is the capital of Korea”, “the official language of Korea is Japanese”, were numerous on international websites. The young man enjoyed finding and correcting these mistakes. This is the story of the cyber diplomacy organization VANK’s founder and leader for twelve years, GiTae Park.

And thus began the start of Korea’s largest public diplomacy organization, VANK. Park, who’s main focus was previously the correction of historical inaccuracies and the promotion of Korea, has recently become a motivational career counseling mentor for young children. As Park shares his stories with students, parents, and educators in all parts of the country, he has never tried to hide the embarrassing or painful parts of his past. Over 70,000 people have heard him speak.

“Active middle-schoolers with dreams of becoming diplomats started to become much less active when they became college juniors and seniors. They were being faced with the pressures of employment. I thought, ‘This is their biggest point of concern’. I suddenly felt so sorry. After contemplating what I could do for these children, I began my lectures.”

Park is skilled at the art of motivating others. For twelve years, he has protected Korea’s history and cultivated 120,000 cyber diplomats, all under the unifying notion that “all citizens are diplomats”. He also applies the same set of skills in his career counseling.

“There are over 20,000 types of jobs in the world. But if you ask children what they want to be, you won’t hear more than 30~40 different answers. That’s because they’re trapped within the frame of lawyers, doctors, businessmen, etc. made by their schools and parents. I wanted to tell them to break free from this frame. Isn’t it amazing to be able to do something truly unique?”

Park also focuses on instilling meaning and sense of pride about one’s career.

“These days, I hand out a picture of flowers at every lecture. At the very bottom is a flowerpot and a space to write your future job. I have students write a ten year plan for their dreams, how their dreams will change the nation, and how their dreams will change the world. The objective is to have children think about not just their profession as one person but how their profession can positively affect the society and larger world. I collect the flower seeds and ask the student to tape the flowers to their desk. I will return the seeds to them after ten years.”

Park is currently a respected mentor but he previously struggled with a devastating “failed life”. He attempted to find a job after graduation but found that all he had was four major insecurities. The stigma of a night school diploma, difficult family finances, 600 out of 990 on the TOIEC (English profiency exam), and lack of international experience constantly held Park back.

“I’d never been to the airport before the age of 28. It’s quite ironic how my profession is now sharing Korea with the world. (laugts) My resume was lacking but looking back now, I think I had the drive to overcome my flaws. I applied to travel agencies but they looked down on my lack of international experience. So instead, I met foreigners who came to Korea. After translating the informational guide at Deoksugung palace, I offered free tour guides to tourists in my awful English. I did this for months. Eventually, my passion shined through.”

Park found a job but there was something else that truly wanted to do. VANK, his hobby, eventually became his career.

“I started it for fun but I never worked half-heartedly. I devoted my all, as if I were preparing for the BAR. Honestly, telling children to do what they enjoy is such obvious advice. But I’ve added one more thing. ‘Go crazy for what you enjoy’. Students like hearing this. The word ‘crazy’ tends to light the spark in people.”

Park has recently been selected as a mentor member of the Presidential Youth Council. Since 2002, he has been a member in numerous government councils. Park has contributed to projects such as PR for the World Cup, Response to China’s Northeast Project and Dokdo, and National Branding.

“I’ve been on many boards but it stopped after one year of one or two public meetings. I participated with the belief that the government and their people should on the same wavelength but my personal level of satisfaction was disappointing. But this time, it’s quite different. We meet twice every month in person and once a week online. The number of meetings has changed. It feels like they really want to do it right. I really want to help make something that will truly aid our youth.”

Park has recently launched a “VANK 2.0” project. It’s a plan to create 500 “civilian entrepreneur diplomacy organizations” like VANK in various fields such as national diplomacy, history, Korean food, and tourism. He means to expand beyond cyber diplomats and focus on cultivating “young diplomatic entrepreneurs.”

“The word create has a nice connotation. If you think about it, my job is about creating too. I want to tell children to forget the common, well-known careers and try creating something new. And while you’re at it, create a career that will help people and society rather than making lots of money. Find a career that creates value and dedicate yourself to work that will create careers. Isn’t this a chance for more children to show off their hidden talents?”

VANK Researcher SunHee Lee

When and how did you start working for VANK?

I’ve been with VANK since the very beginning, when I was a senior in college. I was a Japanese major and through VANK, we began a huge pen pal group with Japanese students. VANK members started contacting each other through the internet but eventually began meeting offline as well. In the fall of 2001, we officially started this Cyber Diplomat program.

What is your role in VANK?

During my work at VANK, we continued with the pen pal exchange program and built relationships with close to 100 different classrooms in 56 different countries. A lot of the students kept contact with their pen pals even after the end of the program. Currently I manage the Cyber Dokdo Officer School, Global History Diplomacy Academy, and Global Friends of Korea websites. These sites offer support to students who currently have online pen pals or are looking to make international pen pal friends. We strongly emphasize the facilitation of creating meaningful friendships through our pen pal programs. Through our sites, we want our students to gain a stronger appreciation and interest in their own culture and history as they share this information with international pen pals who ask questions about Korea. We offer lots of educational video clips about Korean history so that the student can be properly equipped to answer many common questions that are asked about Korea. Secondly, we provide souvenirs Korean students who want to send gifts to their international friends. Finally, we encourage Korean students to be conscious of international issues and discuss them with their international friends. We want to develop global leaders who build purposeful relationships with international friends while simultaneously encouraging a global perspective.

Describe your typical day here in the office.
I go through the websites, check my emails, and go through general maintenance. I prepare the monthly newsletters and check up on the different projects on each site that are available for member participation. Most importantly, I check up on the members and try to make sure that they are all doing alright.

What was the most rewarding moment of your time with VANK?

I’m always able to actualize all of my ideas into concrete projects. When I was a Japanese major, I was able to apply my educational background and interests. As I simultaneously began to learn about my own country, I was meeting other people from all over the world who were also interested in the same thing. The best moments now are watching the VANK members talk about their involvement with the pen pal system as they exchange conversation and culture with their international friends. These are children who are forced to study for hours on end without a single interest for learning English but you can really see them come alive and change with passion through these friendships.

There was one middle school student who kept in touch with a US professor for three years. She eventually ended up going to college at the professor’s institution. There was another student who was invited to visit Singapore by her Singaporean pen pal. She had the opportunity to attend school in Singapore for a week and had an amazing eye-opening experience while getting a chance to share the Korean culture with the students there.

Describe some of your short-term and long-term goals.

I just want to continue to support the growth of all the numerous young Korean diplomats. I want to make sure to give my all in helping every single student develop and grow to their full potential.

VANK Researcher JungAe Lee

When and how did you start working for VANK?

I was just a member until the fall of 2001 when VANK became able to financially support full-time staff. I started out by helping Korean students who wanted to have English-speaking pen pals but had difficulties with their English language skills.

 What is your role in VANK?

I handle the education program for VANK members through the ‘World Changers’  program. The process to become an official VANK member involves a small membership fee and one month of mandatory training. Training involves learning how to make friends with international students and go about sharing Korean culture. For example, we examine informational resources or practice writing self introductions in English.

Describe your typical day here in the office.

It usually starts with replying back to emails and answering general questions. I make sure the membership training program for official members and World Changers is going smoothly. I also try to highlight and recognize the exemplary students. Every so often, I coordinate different souvenir ideas that might be interesting for foreigners.

What was the most rewarding moment of your time with VANK?

The most rewarding moments are definitely hearing the stories about the impact VANK has made on the lives of its members. I feel like the average person doesn’t really have a lot of opportunities to think about what they can do to serve their country. Through their experience with VANK, young students are given the chance to start thinking about Korea from an external third-person perspective. Understanding how others may have misconceptions about Korea helps students formulate ideas on how they can increase awareness about their culture or improve their country. This larger perspective really creates a sense of value and empowerment in these student’s lives. You can see them start to grow and develop. In our education program, we have one particiular assignment that asks the students to write about their dreams and goals. The assignment truly helps children take the first step on the path of discovering their dreams. And these dreams all involve giving back to their country.

I also get to meet really great people all the time. I am given the freedom to pursue any new projects as long as they fit within the parameters of Korean culture. It’s a lot of fun and I can focus on all types of ideas because I believe I can help people.

Describe some of your short-term and long-term goals.

‘World Changers’ currently isn’t divided by age groups but I want to create a separate space for younger students, elementary and middle school children. You know it’s funny because I never particularly had a soft spot for children (laughs) but now I truly want to create as many opportunities as possible for them. I want the give them a vision, empower them to dream big, and help them grow. Back when I was a regular VANK member, I wrote on my membership training assignment that my dream was to become a “giant tree” that provides shade and gives back to others. I just want to continue to contribute in any way that I can.

VANK Researcher WonJung Kim

When and how did you start working for VANK?

 I started around October or November of 2007. I was working for the design team that managed projects like VANK’s English site, their Flash PR materials, and CDs. We had been working with VANK since they created their first poster in 2002. However, my background wasn’t really in design, it was in web management. So when I wanted to pursue a career that was more closely tied to my interests, VANK invited me to hop on their team as the official webmaster. I had liked VANK and the work that I was doing with them so I was more than happy to accept the opportunity.

What is your role in VANK?

I manage the 21st Century Gwangaeto the Great’s Dream Wings Project site. I’m the webmaster for all of VANK’s websites so I answer all the questions that are sent to the main email address. I’m also the official photographer and in charge of anything that involves multimedia such as editing parts of any of the websites.

Describe your typical day here in the office.

I check the email and go through general administrative duties. I also assess the applications for our PR kit. Our PR kit first started because Koreans with friends abroad or those who were planning on going abroad wanted to take cultural souvenirs or materials to share Korean culture but they couldn’t find anything or everything they found was too expensive. Applicants have to answer a couple of questions on the reasons behind their request and the applications are reviewed based on their length, effort, and depth of thought. If they are younger students, I give them some leeway and mainly take their effort into consideration.

What was the most rewarding moment of your time with VANK?

When I was searching for jobs, it occurred to me that I wanted to work somewhere where I could have a larger perspective on life. Usually it’s difficult to find a job that you find meaningful, and profit is the main motive. However, that’s never an issue here at VANK. Through my work here, I’ve been able to gain insight on my position within the larger global community. I feel like I’ve been given a responsibility to plant dreams in the VANK members and give them the motivation to pursue those dreams. I meet really great people every day and I’m partly jealous that I didn’t have these opportunities when I was young. I’m excited to know that I can do great things for these amazing people and I’ve definitely become more interested in global issues that failed to interest me in the past.

Describe some of your short-term and long-term goals.

Since 2008 until now, we’ve given away PR package sets to 18,000 people, around 4000 people per year.  All people want are simple ways to share Korean culture without resorting to incredibly expensive, cheap quality, and overly touristy souvenirs. A lot of people make requests for more than one kit but we currently don’t have the funds to fulfill those requests. I hope that we will eventually have the funds to share more of our materials with everyone as desired. Also, I hope we will soon have the means to directly send these packages to people who request them from outside of the country.

VANK Researcher Bokyung Kim

Please give us a brief self-introduction. 

I hope to one day become a professional in enhancing my understanding about Korea and becoming a professional in international cooperation who helps create a world that can be properly shared with friends even in 3rd world countries. Ultimately, I want to be someone who is a positive influence on the world!

When and how did you start working at VANK?

I started interning during the winter break of my sophomore year in college and interned for nearly two years. I began my position as a researcher in September of this year.

There was a VANK club at my high school. It was a club that did VANK activities at a high school level. I had regularly been very interested in issues such as historical distortion and the Dokdo territorial dispute but I felt dispirited about my inability to do anything. However, after seeing the VANK club flyer about introducing Korea to foreign friends and working to correct incorrect historical data, I remember how I had often though, “What can I do about this?” and I signed up right away. Exchanging culture with foreign friends and introducing Korea also seemed exciting. When I was younger, I had wanted to travel abroad and have varied experiences so I thought making international friends was a good opportunity to have those experiences indirectly.

How did you become an intern and what were your duties?

During my junior year of high school, I went to a VANK camp for club leaders. At the event, my club had promised to make an so its incompletion at the end of my club involvement weighed on my conscience. Yet I forgot about that promise until I happened to attend another VANK event in my sophomore year of college. I was asked to give an impromptu presentation about my high school involvement and in that moment, I thought of the unfinished promise. I started interning at VANK that winter in order to keep that initial promise. However, ironically enough, my projects did not have anything to do with my promise. I was the coordinator for an exhibition at the National Museum of Korea and the program co-hosted with the KOICA Global Village.

What is your current role in VANK?

I am currently in charge of the correcting historical errors project, Jikji education project, and SNS management. I also coordinate online and offline training on how to correct known historical inaccuracies.

What are the most rewarding moments with VANK?

I think I’m able to find new meaning each and every day. Of course there have been difficult times starting from my first internship to my position now but there has never been a time that hasn’t been worthwhile. VANK trusted me, a lowly college student, and allowed me to be responsible for many duties. As an intern, my first program was connected with KOICA. I think I was able to become a researcher because those experiences were meaningful to me. VANK is an organization that trusted me as an amateur and a place where I was given a chance to grow.

What have you gained through your experiences with VANK? How have you changed?

First of all, I think I gained the belief that “nothing is impossible.” I especially felt this during my fan dance performances. The other researchers and I decided to perform a fan dance for our cultural exchange programs abroad. Like most people, I’ve never learned fan dance beyond what little I learned during my elementary school arts festival. Although we aren’t professionals, we did best and managers to perform a beautiful fan dance that was easy for audience to understand. Do you know how I felt after the fan dance? I felt that if you throw always all excuses about things like age, money, or time “nothing is impossible”. Additionally, there are many who believe that there are many limits to civilian action and there isn’t much that they can do. But that’s not true. It may not be possible to make a huge change at once but I’ve seen the people around me change one by one. VANK taught me that the moment you realize that nothing is impossible, you can do anything.

The second might be the most important… but through VANK…  I came to the realization that getting first place, receiving awards, and getting your name out there are all definitely valuable things but that might not guarantee that my life would become the best possible life.

I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family while receiving private education so I worked pretty hard. As a young child who hated the prejudices of being raised in a single parent home and burned with the determination to prove that one could succeed from a low income family, I always believed that getting first place and receiving attention was a successful life and the best life possible. However, VANK helped me realized that constantly struggling to get first place according to the standards set by society did not directly correlate with a meaningful and rewarding life.

Of course before I realized this, there was a gap between the activities I did as specs (resume-builders) such as focusing on grades, English, and competition awards, and the activities I enjoyed for fun. Like everyone else, I only had 24 hours in a day and I knew I couldn’t excel in both spectrums. I am a perfectionist so my interest leaned towards one side, I couldn’t stand neglecting the other. Then I began to think about what defined a meaningful life. I began to believe that if I am able to learn and grow, even if it isn’t according to the “specs” of society or didn’t place first place, that had its own value and that life could become the best possible life. Even if my choices do not seem like the most valuable experiences in the future, I don’t think that I will regret it.

I believe that giving my all and trying my best in every moment for something that I believe is right, gives meaning to my life. I wish that other college students would also stop forcing themselves to blindly do things and make up resume builders. Instead, they should make the best of every opportunity that is given to them and persistently devote themselves to it. I didn’t start my involvement with VANK with any expectations but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after persistent dedication, I had amazing experiences and opportunities such as participating in a Korean culture expedition in Zimbabwe and a historical conflict conference in America.

I think I was able to have these opportunities because I continuously gave my all and grew within those experiences. If I dare say so, I believe it’s true that you have to make your own opportunities. This is the realization I gained through VANK.

-VANK Story 2013-