Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018 - 23

BIKE DIPLOMACY IN KOREA
KATHLEEN STEPHENS

I

bicycles were more common than cars
on rural Korea's mostly unpaved roads,
but also that I spoke Korean. And I was
eager to get out of the chauffeur-driven,
armored car, and to see contemporary
Korea in all its changes and challenges.
So I brought a couple of bicycles with
me to Seoul, and I started riding. Soon
I met others, first at the embassy and
then in the broader Korean community,
who shared my love of riding. Korea is
a mountainous country, and there was
plenty of mountain biking to do. At the
same time, the Korean government was
investing heavily in restoring its major
watersheds, many recovering from pollution associated with rapid industrialization and urbanization, and along with
that, building biking/walking paths to
bring Koreans back to the riverside from
the tall high-rise apartments where most
live now. In the years I lived in Seoul as
ambassador, cycling went from being an
"old person's activity" to something just
about everyone wanted to do.
Outside of Seoul, Koreans introduced
me to the joys of road cycling on undulating - and sometimes just plain steep
- secondary paved roads through a
countryside where I could still glimpse
the old rhythms of Korean rural life I

had known in the '70s - the seasons of
rice and barley planting and harvest, the
vegetables and grains spread to dry roadside (don't ride over them!). I could stop
and talk to people as they worked in the
fields or rested in the shade; getting off
a bicycle instead of out of a car was an
immediate help in starting a friendlier,
franker conversation.
Our cycling groups became more
diverse and more adventurous, and we
began to organize rides where we could
delve into Korea's recent history as well
as its economic and environmental progress and challenges today.
In 2010, to mark the 60th anniversary
of the start of the Korean War, which
devastated the entire peninsula and almost eradicated the Republic of Korea,
I spent a week with Korean university
students retracing the "Nakdong Perimeter" in southeastern Korea, where South
Korea, US and UN forces from many
nations defended the Republic of Korea. These students were born decades
after the war and knew only prosperous,
modern Korea. Many said they did the
ride in honor of their grandparents, who
had suffered so much in the war. Seven
years later, I still hear from these young
people, who tell me how that experience
PHOTOS COURTESY US EMBASSY PUBLIC AFFAIRS, SEOUL

was an American diplomat for thirtysix years, living and working on three
continents (and a few islands). I've
been an American cyclist for much longer than that, starting with my daily ride
to school as a six-year-old first-grader
in El Paso, Texas. Today, as a sixty-fouryear-old, I still commute to school every
day by bicycle, this time to my office at
Stanford University.
Over the years, I've seen how a love of
bicycling transcends culture, age, gender,
class, and just about every other divide
you can think of. I've seen the range of
ways in which bicycles shape communities throughout the world, and how that
continues to change over time.
But it was during my time in South
Korea that I discovered what a powerful
tool for diplomacy a bicycle can be.
When I arrived in Seoul in 2008 to
be the new American ambassador to the
Republic of Korea (South Korea's official name), I was returning to a country
I had known decades earlier, as a Peace
Corps volunteer in the 1970s. Although
I was the first (and to date still the only)
woman to be the American ambassador
in Seoul, Koreans were more interested
in the fact that not only did my connection to Korea go back to days when

WINTER 2018

BICYCLE FRIENDLY AMERICA 23



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018

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Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018 - Cover1
Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018 - Cover2
Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018 - 1
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Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018 - Cover3
Bicycle Friendly America Winter 2018 - Cover4
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Summer2018
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Winter2018
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Fall2017
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Summer2017
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Winter2017
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Fall2016_GatewayDemo
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Fall2016
http://www.nxtbook.com/mercury/bikeleague/BFA_Spring2016
http://www.nxtbookMEDIA.com