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An alpha female chalks up another first

Dr Kang Kyung Wha checking out an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter during a visit to Camp Red Cloud at Uijeongbu yesterday. There are hopes that South Korea's new foreign minister, who has successfully balanced work and family, will also break new gr
Dr Kang Kyung Wha checking out an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter during a visit to Camp Red Cloud at Uijeongbu yesterday. There are hopes that South Korea's new foreign minister, who has successfully balanced work and family, will also break new ground for women in the country.PHOTO: REUTERS

S. Korea's new foreign minister is UN veteran used to blazing trails

With her signature silver mop of hair, career diplomat Kang Kyung Wha stands out in image-conscious South Korea, where hair colouring is a norm for greying women.

She admitted once that even her own mother was embarrassed by her natural hair colour, but she said she "didn't want to cover up my true self" anymore.

Dr Kang, 62, is one who dares to go against the norm, and she has built a solid career scoring many firsts. "I'm not an ambitious person but I'm a very curious person interested in all matters," she said at a 2013 talk by the Korea Society in the United States.

"I always go for new experiences... the newness of the challenge is what motivates me."

Deemed an alpha female in a male-dominated society, she carved out an illustrious career in the civil service and eventually became the first South Korean woman to assume a senior position at the United Nations, handling human rights and humanitarian issues.

The mother of three has just added one more feather to her cap, becoming her country's first female foreign minister.

Her controversial appointment was confirmed by President Moon Jae In on June 18, despite strong protests from the opposition bloc over her past wrongdoings - which included using a fake address to enrol her daughter at her alma mater - and media allegations of corruption and tax evasion. She has since apologised for her daughter's wrongful enrolment, but denied the other allegations.

BEST CHOICE FOR THE JOB

Kang is a confident and great woman, and her abilities as a diplomat have already been recognised in the UN and international community.

SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT MOON JAE IN, on the country's first female foreign minister, Dr Kang Kyung Wha.

THRIVES ON CHALLENGES

I always go for new experiences... the newness of the challenge is what motivates me.

DR KANG KYUNG WHA

Critics had warned that her appointment, which was delayed for weeks, could risk paralysing Parliament if opposition parties rallied together to oppose major Bills proposed by the President. There were also concerns that she lacked experience in dealing with the belligerent North and the delicate diplomacy between the US and China.

But Mr Moon refused to back down, insisting that she was the best choice for the job.

"Kang is a confident and great woman, and her abilities as a diplomat have already been recognised in the UN and international community," he said.

Supporters have also spoken up for her. Most notably, 10 former foreign ministers issued a statement to say Dr Kang is the "right person to resolve pending diplomatic issues facing our country".

Moreover, a Realmeter poll showed that 62.1 per cent of the 505 respondents wanted her to be the nation's top diplomat.

A week into office, Dr Kang has been busy reaching out to various foreign counterparts to establish ties. In a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, she explained the need to delay the deployment of an anti-missile shield that has triggered economic retaliation from China, because of demands locally for due process, including a review of the environmental impact. Mr Tillerson said they "respect a diplomatic process".

She also spoke to Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and they agreed to work closely to end North Korea's nuclear programme.

All eyes are on how Dr Kang will perform when she accompanies President Moon to Washington for his first summit with President Donald Trump, to be held later this week, and whether she can help reconcile Mr Trump's "maximum pressure and engagement" North Korea policy with Mr Moon's conciliatory approach.

In a speech after taking up her new post, she stressed the need to respond sternly to North Korea's provocations, while keeping open all options, including sanctions and dialogue. She also said Seoul needs to reset ties with Beijing, and advance relations with Tokyo while "looking squarely at the past".

She urged South Korea to contribute more to global issues such as climate change and human rights, and "expand our diplomacy beyond four major powers", namely, the US, China, Japan and Russia.

Observers have voiced hopes that she will break new ground for gender equality in the country, especially given her strong track record.

The former broadcast journalist and university lecturer was one of the few women deemed capable enough to enter the Foreign Ministry mid-career in 1999, without having to pass the notoriously tough state exam for aspiring diplomats.

Dr Kang used to be involved in women's groups in South Korea, and has reached out to disadvantaged women as part of UN humanitarian work. She counts a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2010 to help wartime rape survivors as one of her most memorable.

The University of Massachusetts alumna, whose doctorate is in intercultural communications, is also a shining example of a working mother, with support from her husband, a computer science professor.

"We knew from the very beginning that I would have a career, that I would want a career and that he would be supportive. He's been very good keeping his end of the bargain on that," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'An alpha female chalks up another first'. Print Edition | Subscribe