By Ryan Ryu ’25
On December 27, 2022, I had the honor to interview and dine with the Ukrainian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Dmytro Ponomarenko, who was very gentle, approachable, and friendly.
Ambassador Ponomarenko received his B.A. and M.B.A. from the Kyiv National Trade and Economic University and found his way into diplomacy after getting a master’s degree from the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine. He has extensive experiences in the field of diplomacy, previously serving as the Director General in the Department of Economic Diplomacy, Consul General of Ukraine in Shanghai, Ambassador at large in the Department of Russian Federation, Deputy Director General in the Department of Economic Cooperation, and more.
Coincidentally, his tour began alongside Russia’s immoral invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In regard to this, he said, “I was surprised and devastated by the invasion news, but it (the invasion) is not the first time they (Russia) invaded Ukraine. It goes back to 2014.”
Further extending the topic of the Russian invasion, Ambassador Ponomarenko pointed out a serious problem that at least 20,000 Ukrainian children have been “kidnapped” to Russia and are getting “brainwashed.” He shared his childhood story of growing up under the Soviet Union government for relevance. He described how the government “brainwashed” children to believe that the Soviet Union was the best country, that they were best at everything.
The problem with this “kidnapping” issue will likely result in innocent Ukrainian children getting brainwashed by the Russian government to believe that Ukraine is an enemy, justifying Russia’s actions and potentially making the children fight against their own country. A few more casual conversations went on back and forth until I asked pre-written questions to Ambassador Ponomarenko.
#1. After 10 months as ambassador to Korea, how is your career going?
“I’m really impressed by this country (South Korea). I, as an Ambassador, learned a lot from a lot of great Korean historical examples and from the region of South Korean leadership on how to rule and lead the country in such an area with high tension. As well, we (the Ukrainian Government) have considered, and all understand, that Korea is the leader of the economic country, leading medical country…so there is a lot to learn from here for me as an Ambassador. Also, developing steady mutual cooperation between our two countries is my job and goal”.
#2. What is the purpose of a diplomat? How is being a diplomat? What does it mean to you to represent your country in other nations, including your previous experience in China?
“So first of all, it’s to represent the country around the globe…to have other nations better understand my country and present my country’s vision along with your country. When I say to understand better, it is apart from the cliche part, like what the news media shows, even if the country you are traveling to is far away. For example, when people think of Ukraine, many people see it as a formal Soviet Union country, a country that suffered from Chernobyl, and a country that has great soccer players and pretty-looking girls. But we, as diplomats, try to explain and promote the blindside of our country. In this case, we would promote something like our great technological fuel, the deep and old culture of Ukraine, and such stories as Kyiv was one of the biggest European cities hundreds of years ago, outsizing modern big cities like London. So it’s truly an honor to create a solid relationship with other nations and further promote our cultures.”
#3. Coincidentally, your career as an ambassador to Korea began with this tragic invasion. What does this war mean to you, and what should the world do about it?
“I came to Korea on the 16th of February (2022), and one week later, on exactly the day I was presented to the vice minister of foreign affairs, it was around 10 am KST when the war hadn’t been started. And I did not know about the war that was about to begin. I was going downstairs from the second floor of the ministry building to my car after being presented and saw the Russian Ambassador (to Korea) going up (stairs) with what I think is the message that Russia is starting a war operation on Ukraine in his hand. But it means a lot to me that my career as an Ambassador started with such a terrible fall of the country, which created many great challenges and opportunities for me to work forward. My job from the day it started was so active than any other ambassador could experience here (in Korea), meeting after meetings with the presidential candidates and president, leaders of the parties, and a lot of negotiations, to work on how this country (Korea) can be involved. It is complicated for Korea to step in when your own war isn’t even over. But Korea should be careful to preserve its democratic values to help Ukraine and not to give a chance to Russia to accuse you of its involvement in this war. It is also essential as an ambassador to communicate with the government and find the real way of compromise to real peace. Is the help from the world enough or not enough? Of course, it’s never enough, although we really appreciate all the help. We as a country are now on the frontier of the war between the future and the past, between democracy and autocracy. Ukraine actually is now the shield of all of Europe from the Russian invasion. And definitely, being the frontier and the shield for Europe, we more support the help from the world continuously.”
#4. Can you give any advice to students who dream of becoming diplomats?
“The job of diplomat gives you the opportunity to not to be only concentrated deeply on one topic, but rather have to work on a variety of issues. So if you dream of becoming a diplomat, you should be a specialist in many topics. Being a diplomat is definitely a challenge, so your vision should be very wide and profound and well-developed in policies, geographics, economy, finance, religion, and so on.”
#5. Do you have any advice you would like to give to growing young adults around the globe?
“My advice is very simple. You are the generation who, fortunately, live without an understanding of what war is like in reality. When the people who suffer from the war reach peace, they will try their best in the future to preserve at every price and not be involved in the war ever again. But the generation who never suffers the consequences of the war and the reality of the war might imagine that it might be like a movie or a fantasy. But in reality, war is very, very dangerous, and the worst thing that can happen to someone is to go through a war. So my advice to you young adults is to preserve the peace. Try to make every effort not to be involved and fight for peace.”
My takeaway from this interview is that peace is not free, and war makes everyone pay the price. The world should not, and cannot be ignorant, but rather should be responsive to create peace. Our youth should also stand up to preserve world peace as it is the only way to a steady and brighter future.