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Asia

South Korea’s favorite German

Charm Lee stands out, not just because of his height, but also because of his job. The native German is South Korea’s head of the Korean Tourism Agency. The first non-native to attain such a high political rank.

Charm Lee

Charm Lee was born by the name of Bernhard Quandt

Charm Lee is at least a head taller, or most of the times even two, than most South Koreans, who by now have gotten used to their unusual tourist office chief. Charm Lee was actually born as a German by the name of Bernhard Quandt in the citiy of Bad Kreuznach in 1954.

"I’m a real Korean," Charm says laughing. He claims that he only looks German, "because plastic surgery is very advanced in Korea and you can do anything you want with your face." But in reality, Charm Lee’s life is actually a thousand times more exciting than plastic surgery.

Love at first sight

People playing Korean boardgame Go

The people and culture of Korea fascinate Charm Lee

In 1978, after finishing his studies of romance languages and theology, Bernhard Quandt received an offer to go to Korea for six months to organize church events. He was 24 at the time. Quandt immediately fell in love with the country that was still run by a dictatorship at the time. However, Koreans regarded foreigners somewhat skeptically.

"I didn’t know anything about Korea and it was an opportunity that I just took at a week’s notice," Charm says. He explains that at first he just wanted to learn the language. But the Korean culture, history and people captivated Quandt and he decided to stay there.

At the beginning Quandt was an exotic phenomenon that attracted a lot of attention. "People wanted to touch my skin and my curls," he remembers and laughs. It must have been the same laugh that has bewitched the Koreans.

From language student to TV star

To make sure that Korea really accepted him, Quandt, who had always picked up languages easily, learnt Korean. He joined a language competition on a Korean TV show and won straight away. After that he took part in singing competitions for foreigners and many other television shows. The tall German became a media favorite.

Buildings in South Korean capital Seoul

South Korea has worked its way up to one of the world's industry nations

In 1986, after living in South Korea for eight years, Quandt took Korean citizenship. He is the first German to become a Korean. To emphasize his love for Korea, he changed his name from Bernhard Quandt to Han-Woo Lee, that means "friend of Korea" or "helper of Korea".

Later on Han-Woo fell in love to a Korean woman. That was uncommon and not accepted by many in the country in the 1980s. But Han-Woo’s popularity opened up the door for mixed marriages.

In the beginning of 1990s, the story of his life was even made into a soap opera "the house of the many daughters". He, of course, played the main part himself. The series got record ratings of up to 70 percent. Beside his television career as a host and an actor, Han-Woo also worked as a language teacher in the Goethe Institut, schools and universities. He has also acted as consultant for South Korean companies.

From Han-Woo to Charm Lee

In 2001, Han-Woo changed his name again, and ever since the he has been known as Charm Lee, which means "participant". "I wanted to signalize that I am no longer a helper who comes from the outside. I am a real Korean who has a firm place in society," Charm says.

Even though he had repeatedly rejected political office, President Lee Myung-bak managed to persuade him in 2009 to head the Korean Tourism Organization – a position that has the same standing as that of a vice minister. Thus Charm Lee became the first non-native Korean to occupy such a high political position.

Next big project: Tourism

The king's palace in Seoul

For a long time tourism has stayed at the bottom of the country's priority list

But it takes more than mere popularity to do the job. The task to make Korean tourism as successful as its industry seems is an uphill task. Charm Lee says too much has been neglected in the last few decades. "That is our mistake. Korea has worked its way up from one of the world’s poorest nations into one of the leading industrial nations. But tourism always stayed at the bottom of the list of priorities," Charm complains.

Meanwhile the Korean government has realized not only that tourism can be an important source of income, but it can also be used to push sales for Korean products. "When people come to us and see the history and culture of the country where the products come from, then the image of the product will also benefit," he says.

The winter Olympics in 2018 could - if given to Korea - also provide the tourist industry with a big boost. Charm, as the vice president of the Korean ski federation, has made a significant contribution to Pyeongchang’s candidacy. It doesn’t bother him that he might just annoy his old home country by doing so. Munich is also in the running to host the winter Olympics.

It is very possible that one Korean man will stand out on the day the venue of the games is announced in the South African city of Durban on 6 July. People might think that he belongs to the German delegation but if he is cheering, he will be cheering only for the Koreans.

Author: Taufig Khalil (ag)

Editor: Grahame Lucas

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