San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Seoul Man: Tico Ambassador to S. Korea Big on Faith

SEOUL, South Korea – Fernando Borbón is a man who seems to have little time for negativity.

“Our consul is off for four months with a hurt back,” he says, smiling. “We are only a two-man embassy so I am very busy at the moment. But anyway, I don’t care. I was off with a bad leg and the doctor said I needed to rest for 40 days. I returned after 22.” Pointing toward two walking canes in the corner of his downtown Seoul office, he adds, “And now I sometimes need to use them.”

Borbón, Costa Rica’s ambassador to South Korea, shrugs, his countenance suggesting he deals with such matters as he would everyday obstacles like running to catch a subway or city traffic jams. He quickly turns to subjects clearly dear to him: peace and the presence of God in his life.

We are in his downtown office in the Costa Rican Embassy, a small eighth-floor operation close to the capital’s Han River. For Borbón, there is no such thing as a crisis – only opportunities. That’s also his view, for instance, on the credit crunch. And he says Korea’s tenacity and morality is what made it emerge quicker from its ashes and with fewer industrial casualties.

First, though, Costa Rica. Beautiful country, we agree: two coasts (“Breakfast on the Pacific, lunch on the Caribbean”); former President Rodrigo Carazo (“I love him, I believed in him, I followed him. Parties changed, but that did not matter to me, I still admired what he’d done,”); and the pride of the U.N.-mandatedUniversity for Peace (“For peace, not of peace,” he emphasizes). And life for him here – in a land that couldn’t be farther removed from Costa Rica – is the same: an opportunity. Take Korean food, for instance. Many foreigners in Korea find the local cuisine a love that grows slowly over time, with food from home still prominent in their diets. Not Borbón.

“When I meet other Latin American ambassadors and their wives and we embrace each other, they say to me, ‘Fernando, you smell Korean.’” You know, we (in the West) smell like milk. I don’t have that flavor. I eat only Korean food, so I smell Korean,” he says.

Likewise, he has a car, but uses the subway because he wants to “share with the local people.” He is not fluent in Korean, but he makes efforts to learn words and phrases.

It sums up the overwhelming vibe Borbón, a divorced father of two, exudes: He’s been here less than three years – his first posting to Asia – but South Korea is a country he’s come to love.

Life here is at breakneck speed, a country in a hurry to go places. It’s very different, much more conservative, with foreigners seemingly forever on the outside of a tight circle.

So the ambassador cuts what might seem an odd figure. A Christian pastor – not Catholic like most Ticos – he is the only foreigner of his congregation granted permission to preach in his church on Sundays, he says. Few Asian nations have embraced Christianity as has Korea, which has somewhere in the region of 9 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics.

Borbón believes in hard work. He is a man of the people, he insists.

“I come in to work before 9 and leave after 5. Ambassadors are normally seen as here at the office at 10 and gone after 3. I am a Christian; I cannot do that.”

That attitude seems to have far-reaching consequences. Ticos in neighboring countries where there are no consular services often travel to Seoul – when Singapore or Beijing might be nearer – because Borbón’s door is always ajar, he says.

“Costa Ricans don’t need an appointment with the ambassador. They want to come here. I know how it is because my daughters live in other countries. Many ambassadors just come to make business, but I cannot do that,” he says.

His life is about prioritizing, the most important things first.

“Number one, God,” he says, his outstretched arm motioning to a place on the wall as he stands by the door. “Number two, my daughters, and number three, my job.” At one point he asks for my hand. He is explaining how he greets South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, also a devout Christian.

“I take his hand like this,” he motions, with one hand over my downturned right hand, the other gripping the underside of my palm and wrist. “He understands.”

His name has just graced the cover of a local business magazine called Forca. “‘How? Why?’ people ask me,” Borbón says. “‘That’s an expensive magazine, Fernando,’ they say.

They think I paid. But I did not pay. Latin American diplomats never make the cover. Only Asians and Europeans. Because they know you must understand. … You must know about Korea.”

Professionally, the career diplomat would appear to have a difficult task. Costa Rica can’t be a priority for South Korea; imaginably, neither would South Korea be focus No. 1 for Costa Rica, with the rising might of China. Yet Borbón tells a slightly different story.

According to 2009 statistics, bilateral trade volume between the two countries has increased, and is edging closer to parity, he says.

“The relationship between Korea and Costa Rica is important,” he says, highlighting the digital expertise supplied by Korea to Costa Rica and their shared vision for green policies. “We are very near one another. The morality of the people is very important to us.”

Borbón says he is regularly asked about poverty in his home country.

“I always ask them, ‘What is poor?’” he says. “In Costa Rica, we don’t have los miserables – how do you say (in English)?” Miserable … destitute?

“Yes,” he continues, “like in Honduras or Nicaragua – I don’t think, anyway.” He also points to the propensity for outward shows of wealth – “coffee from Starbucks for $4 or $5” – as needless.

In a parallel kind of way, his reaction to views of the position he occupies in society is succinct. “I may be up high today, but tomorrow I am just the same as you,” he says.

So any plans for retirement? A yearning for home? He glances skyward, with an upward flick of the finger. “At the mercy of God,” he says.

As the interview nears its end, Borbón apologizes. “I speak so much,” he says. “I’ve hardly allowed you to ask any questions.” Truth be told, he traversed a similar path to the one I’d hoped to navigate. Next time, he promises, I’ll get a word in edgewise.

As we shake hands and bid each other farewell, he says, “Come back anytime. You don’t need an appointment.”

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