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South Korean sees glimmer of hope in unlikely dream

Call Lee Kwan-young a South Korean Don Quixote -- he’s chasing an unlikely dream of having a faraway U.S. president and his wife wear jewelry he crafted specially for them.

Some people may be laughing, but Lee isn’t listening.

The 42-year-old amateur artist says he became inspired by President Obama’s message of hope when he uttered the word three times in his inauguration speech.

In a burst of inspiration, Lee thought: Why not turn Obama’s “hope” into a permanent commemoration of that spirit?

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Lee consulted with sound experts and art designers to create a configuration of Obama’s voice waves when he said the word.

The resulting design slightly resembles a graphic representation of seismic waves.

The set, which Lee has titled Obama’s Hope, includes a diamond- and pearl-studded necklace, earrings and a brooch for First Lady Michelle Obama; and a set of cuff links and a necktie pin for the president.

For Lee, a bespectacled man with wavy black hair, the set is a heartfelt thing of beauty -- not that he’s had much encouragement.

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Even in his own country, offering gifts to the president requires much bureaucratic red tape and lots of time.

Why, many asked, would a president halfway around the world accept a gift from a total stranger in a strange land? “My friends have told me that I’m not realistic,” said Lee, a public relations officer for a local company.

He wanted the Obamas to wear the jewelry on the night of the president’s 100th day in office. But Lee knew he had only a few weeks to achieve such an unlikely goal.

First, he contacted the United States Embassy in Seoul to see if officials there could serve as a conduit to the president. Don’t call us, we’ll call you, was the response.

As the days went by, Lee began working some of his limited social channels, asking friends and business associates to intervene on his behalf with both U.S. officials and the South Korean Embassy in Washington.

Then Lee’s fledgling efforts at international diplomacy began to show a ray of hope -- to everyone’s surprise but his.

Emissaries whispered that the Americans were considering the idea. Then a Seoul newspaper ran a story on Lee’s quest, saying that the U.S. Embassy was “showing a positive reaction.”

This week, Lee has been invited to an art reception hosted by U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens in Seoul. Officials sent word that they want him to bring his jewelry to the event.

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But Lee’s quest is no slam dunk.

“We are still in contact with Washington,” said Aaron Tarver, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “We will have to wait and see for the next step.”

Lee says he has used voice-imprint design to make jewelry on two other occasions: He created a brooch using the iconic sentence from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. He later designed a necklace using former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s voice waves saying “Live Earth.”

But he never tried to reach the King family or Gore with his work. With the Obama collection, he wants the subjects of his inspiration to wear the final product.

Lee used part of his retirement fund to pay for the set, which he says cost $7,500. For three months, he kept his project a secret from colleagues and even his wife and two children.

“I haven’t made any jewels on my wife’s behalf,” he said. “She feels a bit jealous now.”

Lee realizes that it is too late for the Obamas to receive his gift in time for the 100th day in office.

But he says he hopes the famous couple will wear his jewelry soon as a symbol that South Koreans and people around the world are rooting for the U.S. president’s success.

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If he doesn’t soon see results with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Lee hints of a last-ditch strategy to realize his dream:

He says he’s going to send the set directly the White House, by overnight mail.

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Park is a staffer in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.


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