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Change Agents: How Pitt Alumni Are Transforming Modern South Korea

The phone call came like it always did: without any warning.

It interrupted the diplomat’s reading, and when he put the phone down, he didn’t have a lot of time. Government officials were telling him it was time to go. He scurried to pack clothes, shoes, and his hairbrush. He grabbed his attaché case, the one already stuffed full of confidential documents, and rushed off to the airport in the purple glow of the evening.

It was not uncommon in the early ’90s for Byong Hyon Kwon to quickly jet into Beijing or Hong Kong under the blanket of darkness. The South Korean ambassador’s diplomatic missions were of such a sensitive nature that they had to be conducted in secret. Even his wife did not know where he was going. There were times he did not know either.

“I felt like 007,” he recalls of the years of classified discussions and meetings.

Kwon was trying to do what had not been possible for a thousand years—reset and cool down a highly contentious political and trade relationship between the Republic of Korea (commonly known as South Korea) and its neighbor, the People’s Republic of China.

Ultimately, Kwon and his team were successful. When relations were formally established in 1992, people and commerce began to flow more freely between the two countries, fueling growth in Kwon’s homeland and throughout Asia. South Korea’s annual trade volume grew from $4.4 billion to more than $300 billion, with China now its number one trading partner. Before normalization, there were few flights into China; today, there are more than 1,000 each week.

Kwon is one of the many architects of modern South Korea, visionaries who sought paths to a better future. The University of Pittsburgh played an essential role in his way forward.

“Today, I do work for Korea, for China. Because of Pitt, I’ve transcended national interests,” says Kwon. “I’m working for the good of the world’s citizens.”

Continue reading Kwon's story in the latest issue of Pitt Magazine, and learn about how nine other extraordinary alumni from South Korea have harnessed their educations for lives of impact.