South Korea's international volunteer program is one way this bustling Asian nation is marking its emergence as one of the world's most industrialized nations.Mr Glionna's article also raises doubts about the sincerity of the effort:
Founded in 2009, the World Friends Korea program consolidated several smaller volunteer efforts under one umbrella. The organization now has 3,000 volunteers working in 40 countries, a number second only to the 8,000 enrolled in America's Peace Corps, officials here say.
Not all volunteers are young — many are retired, members of a generation that lived through the 1950s conflict with North Korea and the subsequent hard times. By 2015, the program is due to expand its ranks to 20,000.
"South Korea's development as a nation is due in part to the generous contribution of the international community," said Lee Chan-buom, coordinator of the program's launch. "We can empathize with the nations we assist because 50 years ago, there was widespread famine in Korea. For many volunteers, that starvation is a childhood memory."
But in a nation obsessed with success and ranking, some question the altruism of programs such as World Friends Korea.Who exactly are these doubt raisers? Frankly, I think it's a tad overly cynical to call into question the motivation of people who are putting themselves out there like that when the general public (perhaps including the author) have not done or would not do the same.
In a spin on the line from President Kennedy's inaugural address, some chide South Korean volunteers for having the attitude: Don't ask what you can do for the world, but what the world can do for your resume.
Many volunteers do see the program as a way to sell themselves in a downsizing job market, analysts say.
"Overseas volunteer activities are considered a special [resume builder] you cannot earn domestically," said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "They are valued highly, so that is why people prefer those activities."
And realistically, does all volunteerism have to be purely altruistic? Do volunteers stop thinking about what will happen after their two-year or vacation-long stint is done? Do all their financial needs and physical wants magically get met when they volunteer such that they needn't think about how this might be a good résumé builder or how they will clothe and feed themselves when they return?
Sure, a CV with volunteering on it might be an attention grabber, but surely there are easier ways to get ahead that don't involve so much discomfort, time away from friends and family, and no small risk to one's personal safety. Why not question the whole of World Friends Korea in general as just a way to make Korea look good, regardless of who is getting helped?
I can't say it's a universally held feeling, but I know a lot of KoKos who feel that South Korea really owes much of the world a debt of gratitude for coming to its aid in 1950 or later, and this is one way to pay it forward. If something like that is the primary reason for doing this, I don't give a rat's ass if there are also secondary benefits of career enhancement.