South Korea volunteers aim to help world’s poor

On a solo trip to Laos in 2008, Lim Keon-yeob’s well-mapped career plans took an unlikely detour. All around, he saw social outreach programs run by Americans and Japanese.

Where, he asked, were the South Koreans?

Back home, friends pressed the 24-year-old on his goal to become a soldier or teacher. But Lim suddenly had other ideas.

He volunteered for World Friends Korea, a newly formed South Korean version of the U.S. Peace Corps. Rather than hitting the club scene and eating home-cooked meals, Lim currently works as an athletics coach in a Cambodian village without electricity, at night listening to Korean pop music on his short-wave radio.

“I have a dream to build a school on a small island floating in the Mekong River in Laos. Kids now go to school by taking a dangerous ferryboat and walking on a dangerous unpaved road,” he said. “To achieve the goal, I am studying hard and making plans.”

South Korea’s international volunteer program is one way this bustling Asian nation is marking its emergence as one of the world’s most industrialized nations.

Founded in 2009, the World Friends Korea program consolidated several smaller volunteer efforts under one umbrella. The organization now has 3,000 volunteers working in 40 countries, a number second only to the 8,000 enrolled in America’s Peace Corps, officials here say.

Not all volunteers are young — many are retired, members of a generation that lived through the 1950s conflict with North Korea and the subsequent hard times. By 2015, the program is due to expand its ranks to 20,000.

“South Korea’s development as a nation is due in part to the generous contribution of the international community,” said Lee Chan-buom, coordinator of the program’s launch. “We can empathize with the nations we assist because 50 years ago, there was widespread famine in Korea. For many volunteers, that starvation is a childhood memory.”

But in a nation obsessed with success and ranking, some question the altruism of programs such as World Friends Korea.

In a spin on the line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address, some chide South Korean volunteers for having the attitude: Don’t ask what you can do for the world, but what the world can do for your resume.

Many volunteers do see the program as a way to sell themselves in a downsizing job market, analysts say.

“Overseas volunteer activities are considered a special [resume builder] you cannot earn domestically,” said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “They are valued highly, so that is why people prefer those activities.”

One World Friends Korea veteran said the experience provided an opportunity to help himself as much as it did others. Volunteers usually enlist for two years, but students can do shorter stints during university breaks.

“If you are part of a volunteer project led by a company or big enterprise like Hyundai, your first goal could be a PR job for that company,” said Seo Ki-tae, 27, who volunteered to work one month each in Indonesia and Paraguay during school vacations. “For some, the pure motive of voluntary service comes as a secondary issue.”

Seo sees no conflict. “Of course, these activities help me with career-seeking,” he said. “It was not my primary goal, but for self-management, it’s not a bad thing. While you are doing voluntary service, you can build your own career.”

Still, he had a warning for volunteers who see the program as an easy way to earn bonus points on their resumes: “It’s not romantic or exotic. You should imagine a life where you only have dirty rainwater to drink.”

For his part, Lim acknowledges having fretted over his choice. “I was worried even on the plane because overseas volunteering is very dangerous,” he said. “But my concerns all slipped away when I saw the smiles of local officials.”

Lim became so committed that he recently signed up for a second year in Cambodia. When the time comes, he knows the hardship will pay personal dividends.

“I now want to work in the field of international development, so how do you get that kind of experience?” he said. “It’s like mountain climbing. There’s a shortcut, and even a cable car, so to speak. But either way, we reach the goal.”

Last fall, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak articulated the goal of the program he helped shape, saying Koreans sought to “share our ambition that served as one of the major driving forces behind the nation’s transformation into one of the top-tier economic powerhouses from one of the world’s poorest nations.”

As the program’s volunteers fan out across the globe, World Friends Korea officials hope President Lee will one day have inspired the same level of altruism Kennedy did half a century ago.

Said coordinator Lee: “That’s something for the world to decide.”

Park is a researcher in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.