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Jan. 27—During a visit to Hawaii this week, the U.S. ambassadors to Japan and South Korea — who have had very different careers — gave a talk to students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel is a longtime Democratic political operative who has been a congressman, White House chief of staff and mayor of Chicago. He had little experience in diplomacy before his appointment as ambassador by President Joe Biden.
By contrast, Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg is a career Foreign Service officer who has been stationed around the world, including as ambassador in the Philippines, Bolivia and Colombia. Nevertheless, Goldberg praised Emanuel, saying, "He proves the point that there is a reason that we have politically appointed ambassadors, as well as career ambassadors — although I prefer the latter much more of the time."
At the Monday event, which was hosted by the East-West Center, the two ambassadors discussed their role in efforts to strengthen trilateral relations among the United States, Japan and South Korea. But they also encouraged students to get involved — both in Hawaii and around the world.
"There's a lot of different ways to serve," said Emanuel. "I think whether it's in foreign service, whether it's with a climate change NGO, whether it's working on international trade across boundaries, you have an obligation as a citizen, to give something back."
During the question-and- answer portion of the visit, UH student Monica Orillo moderated. Orillo is on the cusp of receiving her master's degree and has already been accepted into the Foreign Service.
"For someone who's about to go do, hopefully, what they're doing, it was a really cool experience, kind of being able to connect my academic career to my professional career," she said. "It was really cool to kind of experience moderating an event, which is something that I'm sure I'll be doing kind of a lot of as a public diplomacy officer."
Hawaii lawmakers have been working to build up foreign policy institutions and education programs in the islands as the U.S. hones its Pacific strategy. Regional leaders have increasingly held meetings in Honolulu.
In October the EWC hosted officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development along with senior officials from Japan's and South Korea's international development agencies.
"Hawaii is not only a travel hub for the Indo- Pacific, but your state's rich cultural diversity also gives you unique insights into the region, particularly when it comes to Japan and Korea," said Goldberg. "You have that entry point into the region for students and scholars that provides proximity but also familiarity with the issues."
But Hawaii's growing importance as an international hub has as much — if not more — to do with the military. Oahu is the home of U.S. Indo-Pacific command, which oversees all operations across the region.
The islands have also seen an increase in international military exercises — with Japanese and South Korean military service members regular visitors to Hawaii. Closer trilateral relations among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have been spurred along in no small part by tensions with China and North Korea.
"I was excited that this event happened," said Nikhil Stevens, a junior at UH studying religion and political science. "I think I was sort of wanting a little bit more perspective on the trilateral military (relations and operations) and what that means in terms of the security dilemma on China's side. But I also understand it was incredibly short engagement, and they might not want it to open up like Pandora's box."
The ambassadors touted economic ties among the three countries. According to the most recent data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, as of 2022 Japan is Hawaii's No. 1 international export market; South Korea is now Hawaii's No. 1 source of international imports.
Educational ties also are strong. Hawaii hosts more than 1,000 students a year from Japan and Korea who choose to study in the islands. Meanwhile, students from Hawaii also are pursuing studies in Japan and Korea.
"(It's) important to remember that our diplomatic partnerships are not just about dialogues and summits. Instead, they're really about all of you, about how you'll work across borders with friends and partners to navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world," Goldberg told students. "I know the concept of 'global' is not all that popular in many quarters these days, but we are interconnected regardless of movements to try to disconnect."
After the event, Goldberg stuck around to talk to students at a career fair for those interested in getting involved in international issues.
"I used to think that studying in Hawaii, I was really worried about being a little bit too far removed. I couldn't have been more wrong; I think this is a really great place to be studying Indo-Pacific international affairs," said Orillo. "I think having more students from here go into places like Washington, D.C., and then being able to serve as a voice for their community in those spaces that might not have a lot of knowledge about Hawaii otherwise, is really important. I noticed that when I did my summer internship in Washington, it was something that was very desperately needed."