‘Blue-eyed Korean’ tasked with shaking up Seoul politics – FRANCE 24 English

Seoul (AFP) – South Korea-born American doctor John Linton is on a mission no other foreigner has ever undertaken in ethnically homogenous South Korea: trying to shake up the country’s highly confrontational politics.

Issued on: 07/11/2023 – 05:07Modified: 07/11/2023 – 05:53

4 min

Born in rural Jeolla province, Linton is nicknamed the “blue-eyed Korean” and speaks the language perfectly, albeit with a strong regional accent.

He is well-known domestically thanks to his family’s deep-rooted ties to the country, going back four generations.

His great-grandfather first came to Korea as a missionary in 1895, he told AFP, and the family never left — his grandmother, and father were also born in the country.

“I was born in 1959 after the Korean War,” Linton, whose Korean name is Ihn Yohan, told AFP.

“Basically I grew up in the village. So I’m a country boy from Jeollado with a different looking face.”

Linton was born in rural Jeolla province and speaks Korean perfectly, albeit with a strong regional accent © Anthony WALLACE / AFP

Apart from a few years stateside, including for his medical residency in New York, Linton has spent his entire life in Korea, graduating from Seoul’s prestigious Yonsei University and then leading the institution’s International Health Care Center for decades.

But now he’s taken on a new challenge: he’s been put in charge of the ruling People Power Party’s “Innovation Committee,” tasked with revamping the staid institution and making the party more competitive by appealing to younger voters.

Changing Korea

It’s no easy task: two years into his term, President Yoon Suk Yeol is stuck with approval ratings hovering in the low 30s, with both the top leader and the party particularly unpopular with young Koreans.

Moreover, South Korean politics is notoriously adversarial, with many former presidents being prosecuted and jailed for corruption after leaving power — and later pardoned.

Linton is confident he can be a force for change.

Linton's family ties to Korea go back four generations -- his great-grandfather arrived as a missionary in 1895 and his father served in the Korean War
Linton’s family ties to Korea go back four generations — his great-grandfather arrived as a missionary in 1895 and his father served in the Korean War © Anthony WALLACE / AFP

“I have received so much from this country… Now it’s my turn to give back,” he said.

His own appointment “shows you how much Korea changed”, he told AFP.

“We will chart a new direction and make it more pluralistic,” he said.

Stories about the Linton family have long captivated the South Korean public for their century-long contributions and love for for the country.

Linton’s grandfather, William Linton, tried to raise international awareness of the country’s independence movement against Japan’s colonial rule and was later awarded the order of merit.

His father, Hugh Linton, was a Korean War veteran, serving as a captain in the US Navy.

Linton himself acted as an interpreter for foreign press during a civilian uprising for democracy in the city of Gwangju in 1980, which was brutally put down by then military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, with some 200 killed, according to official estimates.

He then became the first foreigner to pass South Korea’s medical licence exam in 1987.

‘American, but Korean’

“I am originally American, but Korean. And I have a lot of love from my home town in Korea and everything in my life is invested in Korea,” the 63-year-old, who was awarded Korean citizenship in 2012 in recognition of his contributions to the country.

After his father was badly injured in a car accident and died while being transported to a hospital in 1984, he has worked tirelessly to bring better ambulances to Korea, designing a much-used domestic model.

His medical work also expanded to North Korea, where he tried to “help eradicate tuberculosis” in the reclusive nation, fondly recalling working with “very knowledgeable” North Korean doctors.

Linton is tasked with making the ruling People Power Party more competitive by appealing to younger voters
Linton is tasked with making the ruling People Power Party more competitive by appealing to younger voters © Anthony WALLACE / AFP

It was “very shocking” for North Koreans to see an American — Pyongyang’s sworn enemy — speak perfect Korean, he recalled.

His work in the nuclear-armed country as a doctor has bolstered his beliefs that geopolitics should not be allowed to trump humanitarian need.

“There should be much less sanctions which stop humanitarian aid. I think that is a mistake,” he said.

Linton first dabbled in politics in 2013 when he worked on the transition committee for then-president elect Park Geun-hye. But he says the stakes are higher this time, calling his new job “the most important thing in my whole life”.

He is a staunch defender of President Yoon, saying the country’s top leader had been misjudged by much of the public. “He’s not a (professional) politician,” he said, adding there was “poor understanding how hard he is working”.

After his two-month stint with the party ends, there is speculation in Korean media he will run for parliament — if successful, he would become the country’s first Caucasian lawmaker.

But Linton refuses to be drawn on the future beyond his desire to serve his country, telling AFP: “Let’s forget about what comes after this.”

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