The Volunteer Who Ran the Table on Foreign Service Appointments — Kathleen Stephens (South Korea)

A Profile in Citizenship


by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)

Kathleen Stephens holds a B.A. in East Asian studies from Prescott College and a M. A. from Harvard University. She also studied at the University of Hong Kong and Oxford University before becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea from 1975-77, where she taught in the Yesan Middle School. Of her Volunteer experience, Kathleen said: “this is where I learned the qualities I needed to be a diplomat; I learned how to endure hardships and convince others.”

Kathleen Stephens (South Korea 1975–77)

Thereafter, when joining the U. S. Foreign Service in 1978, through hard work she earned major agency appointments — all the way up to serving as Ambassador to South Korea under two different U. S. presidents, and charge’ d’ affairs to India. She was well equipped to meet these professional challenges, speaking fluent Korean, Serbo-Croation, and Chinese.

Early on in her remarkable  career, she began running the table on Foreign Service appointments by serving in two missions in the People’s Republic in China, 1980-82; in Trinidad and Tobago 1978-80;  her tour in South Korea included roles as Internal Political Unit Chief at the U. S. Embassy in Seoul 1984-1987;  Principal Officer at the U. S. Consulate in Busan, 1987-89; afterwards, Kathleen worked as a Political Officer at the U. S. Missions in Belgrade and Zagreb, 1991-1992; senior Desk Officer for the United Kingdom in the Bureau of European Affairs, 1992-94; Director for European Affairs at the U. S. National Security Council, 1994-95; Principal Officer at the U. S. Consulate as the U. S. Consulate General in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1995-1998; Deputy Chief of Mission at the U. S. Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal 1998-2001; and—finally, as Director of the Office of Ecology and Terrestrial Conservation at the U. S. Department of State, 2001-2003.

She then assumed her duties as Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs on December 5, 2003. Her primary responsibility was policy oversight and management of relations with the countries of South-Central Europe. Following that, Kathleen assumed her duties as Principal Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in June 2005. In that capacity, she was responsible for a variety of bureau-wide issues, including post management. She had particular responsibility for the management of U. S. relations with Japan and South Korea.

Kathleen was nominated to be the U. S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Korea in 2008, earning Senate confirmation in August. In October of that year, she presented her credentials to President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, speaking to him often in fluent Korean during parts of their meeting.

In September 2015, she was named William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Her many awards also include the Presidential Meritorious Service Award in 2009; the Sejong Cultural Award; the Korea-America Friendship Association Award in 2013; and the Kevin O’Donnell Distinguished Friends of Korea Award in to 2016. She is a Trustee at The Asian Foundation and is on the Boards of the Korea Society and the Pacific Century Institute; and is a Member of the American Academy of Diplomacy. As of September 2018, the Board of Directors at the Korean Economic Institute of America announced that they approved Ambassador Stephens as the next President and CEO.

Most assuredly, Ambassador Stephens’s highly commendable professional career in the U.S. Foreign Service was emblematic of the expectations we hold for its officers, often serving in harm’s way, meriting her a Profile in Citizenship.

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