Distinguished guests and youth leaders from around the globe, I warmly welcome you to the 2019 Global Youth Forum!
The theme of “A New Model for Moral and Innovative Youth Leadership Under the Korean Dream” is especially significant because we are on the eve of celebrating the historic centenary of Korea’s Samil (March First) Independence Movement. On March 1st, 1919, more than two million Koreans proclaimed their independence in peaceful mass rallies throughout the country. Inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, the movement unified the Korean people in spirit and became a touchstone for the ideals of freedom and national sovereignty. Most importantly, it expressed the national aspiration to establish an ideal nation based on the Hongik Ingan ideal, to “live for the benefit of all humanity.”
Throughout its 5000-year history, all the dynasties founded by the Korean people demonstrated remarkable longevity. Each dynasty lasted longer than 500 years.
Why is this the case?
The answer lies in moral and innovative leadership rooted in the Hongik Ingan ideal. Throughout Korean history, most rulers practiced the spirit of living for the people, believing that they should govern based on a people-centered philosophy in their attempts to establish a Daedong Segye, an ideal nation. This approach to leadership stood in stark contrast with the absolutist monarchies of both Europe and Asia that were the norm at the time.
King Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty and the most celebrated monarch in Korean history is an exemplar of moral and innovative leadership. Among his greatest achievements was the creation of Hangul, the phonetic alphabetic system that became the basis of the Korean language. For decades, the king personally led the effort to develop a simple and intuitive system of reading and writing to help his mostly illiterate subjects. At that time, literacy and education were the exclusive province of the aristocracy and were not available to the common people. Hanmun, the Chinese system of characters, was difficult to learn and reinforced the social divide between the classes. The creation of Hangul fundamentally transformed the social landscape, offering all citizens, especially the middle and lower class, opportunities for advancement and a chance to better their lives.
This achievement is made even more significant because it defied the widely-held realpolitik view of the Pre-Enlightenment era: educating the masses would lead to uprisings, revolts, and a collapse of the existing social order. Unlike his contemporaries, King Sejong embodied the spirit of Hongik Ingan and viewed himself as a father to his people. Just as parents sacrifice for their children without expecting anything in return, King Sejong gave his people the gift of a common language freely and without reservation.
The precedent of moral and innovative leadership practiced by rulers like King Sejong naturally elicited a long-standing tradition of loyalty to the ruler and nation. Throughout history, Korean people believed that they shared responsibility for the well-being of their country along with their king and his government. This spirit shined exceptionally brightly when Korea was invaded by outside forces. The Sambyulcho resistance that lasted forty years during the Mongol invasion of Goryeo was one such example. The same was true during the Japanese invasion of Korea and the second Manchu invasion of Korea. On each of these occasions, people from across the country formed armies in the name of justice. They stood up to defend the country when the government could not. The strength that sustained the nation of Korea for half a millennium was due to its people’s ownership of Hongik Ingan and the aspiration to create an ideal nation.
Though I was born and raised in America, my parents infused me with the principles and values of Hongik Ingan. These principles and values shaped my world view and became the north star upon which I based my major life decisions. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a major turning point in this regard. I was in middle school when two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center on that fateful day. As a young boy growing up near New York City, the human toll from the horrific act of terror hit particularly close to home: several of my schoolmates’ parents lost their lives in the attack. This experience and the subsequent desire to seek justice drove me to study hard in high school and graduate at the top of my class.
In 6th century AD, the Hwarang system played an important role in unifying the Three Kingdoms under the Silla dynasty. This system selected young noblemen to become leaders of character dedicated to the service of the nation. They left lives of comfort and stability in order to train their bodies in the martial arts as well as to cultivate their hearts and minds through the study of religion, history, and ethics. In that same spirit, I decided to set aside my own personal ambitions and commit myself to living for a higher cause.
I ultimately decided to attend West Point, the military academy that produced leaders whose actions reverberated not just within the United States but throughout the world. Leaders such as U.S. President Eisenhower, General Patton, and General MacArthur are but a few noteworthy alumni. Even today, graduates like U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo play a large role in shaping world events. For four years, I survived a rigorous academic curriculum, a relentless schedule, and harsh military training. In 2011, I earned my Bachelor of Science and received my commission as a lieutenant in the United States Army. A year later, I deployed to Afghanistan as the commanding officer in charge of a platoon of 35 soldiers. Though I wore the stars and stripes of the United States on my right shoulder, I would strive to uphold the noble tradition of my Hwarang ancestors who fought so courageously against foreign aggression.
Upon arrival, my men and I were stationed in the heart of Kandahar, in a sub-district nicknamed the “birthplace of the Taliban.” Our mission was to defend COP Sangsar, a combat outpost deep in the heart of Taliban territory with the eventual goal of transferring control of the outpost to our Afghan National Army counterparts. For nine months, we withstood mortar fire, survived complex ambushes, and overcame the ever-present IED threat that dogged our every step.
Amidst the trials and tribulations of war, I never forgot my roots as a young Global Peace Foundation volunteer. In high school, I spent my summers leading small groups in overseas service projects in Mongolia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea. These early formative experiences proved to be crucial for what came next. While living with and interacting with the local populace, I identified a serious problem. Every time my men and I would enter a village on our daily foot patrols, we would be mobbed by children begging us for “qalam,” the Pashto word for “pen”. A few months into the deployment, I realized that the root cause for this was that there were no schools in the entire district. Children who were too young to work the fields were left to their own devices. Without the structure and the stability—not to mention the education—that a good school provides, children often ended up as collateral damage in the ongoing guerrilla war between coalition forces and the Taliban. Moreover, these same children would grow up and follow in the footsteps of their fathers and older brothers by joining the ranks of the Taliban. Lack of education contributed to a vicious cycle of ignorance leading to hate and violence.
Even though this was not part of our original mission, I resolved to build a school in Sangsar, the “birthplace of the Taliban.” Over the next few months, I drew upon my experience working with NGOs to organize donation drives to acquire enough supplies to start a school. I convinced my Afghan Army counterpart to become a sponsor of the school. I received permission from my commanding officer to utilize the American-owned building which we used to hold meetings with village elders as a school during the weekdays. At my interpreter’s recommendation, I recruited one of his friends from Kandahar University to serve as a school teacher. Lastly, I traveled down IED-infested roads to meet with each village elder in the district to receive their approval for the endeavor. This last part proved to be the biggest hurdle. The elders were in favor of allowing boys to attend the school but were vehemently opposed to allowing girls to attend.
I refused to back down. In my mind’s eye, I would conjure forth a memory that was seared into my mind from one of the first patrols I led. While navigating through the muddy streets of a small village, I passed by a young seven-year-old Afghan girl who was holding her infant sister in her arms. At first glance, she appeared malnourished, barefoot, and covered in dust. However, her brown eyes shone with fearlessness and intelligence. Despite the bleak future that lay ahead of her in a land ravaged by decades of civil war and ruled by murderous extremists, she exuded an inner strength that I could not help but admire. For her sake, and for the sake of all the girls in the district, I would make the dream of a coeducational school a reality.
I stretched the limits of my creativity by negotiating with each village elder over the ensuing months. From carefully studying the political situation in my assigned sub-district, I deduced that the elders were deathly afraid of the prospect of an armed youth uprising within their villages. Thus, I threatened to establish an Afghan Local Police (ALP) chapter within the sub-district if my demands were not met. The ALP program armed local youth and gave them license to form their own militias if they agreed to fight against the Taliban. Of course, as a mere second lieutenant, I lacked the authority to follow through on my threat. Thankfully, as I would later find out through my interpreter, the elders failed to call my bluff because of my apparent conviction. Ultimately, after months of jeongsong—sincere devotion to my mission—the elders relented and allowed girls to attend alongside boys. In the final few months of my deployment, I had the distinct honor of opening Sangsar School to the public. Passing notebooks and pens to eager children as they embarked on their educational journey was one of the proudest moments of my life. Among the first to receive their school supplies was that same little girl who inspired me to bring this dream to life.
I emerged from the crucible of war with two core convictions. First, I believe that all people – regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic status – are all members of one human family. And we are one family because we all share a common origin, the Creator God. This core conviction can be encapsulated in a single statement: One Family under God.
This simple, but powerful vision statement captures the essence of what idealistic young leaders from all over the world and throughout history have sought to achieve. One of its greatest strengths is its applicability across all fields of human endeavor. While I implemented this vision within a military context, subsequent years of military service have led me to a single conclusion: you cannot achieve lasting peace with military might alone. Instead, it will take energetic, committed young leaders from all over the world and from all fields to come together in a conference like this to plant the seeds for a more peaceful world.
Second, I believe that young people, with our ingenuity, idealism and passion, can have an extraordinary impact on the world. My father and the chairman of the Global Peace Foundation articulated the vision of “the Korean Dream,” a movement to unify the divided Korean peninsula. Unlike the failed attempts of the past, the Korean Dream is a grassroots movement where the Korean people draw upon the Hongik Ingan ideal to seize the reins of their own destiny. This ideal transcends mere politics; it captures the long-dormant national aspiration to live for the greater benefit of all mankind. Inspired by Korea’s illustrious shared history and extended family tradition, the Korean Dream, once realized, can unleash the floodgates of innovation and creativity for a brighter, more prosperous future. It will be incumbent on us, the youth, to be the engine that drives this process.
I believe that the issue of Korean unification will be the geo-political event that defines our generation. Throughout this conference, as we share inspirational leadership models and create youth-led initiatives to be implemented in Korea and beyond, let us remember one thing. We must use our God-given ingenuity, passion, and idealism to keep our leaders accountable and to guide a unified Korea towards the Hongik Ingan ideal. Let us become exemplars of moral and innovative leadership. Let us be the generation that realizes the Korean Dream!
Thank you very much.