An emerging force in Israel’s efforts to engage with East Asia is Ami Orkaby, honorary consul general to South Korea and Mongolia and now the sole legal advisor to the government of Japan in Israel.
An all-star guest roster attended Orkaby’s appointment as honorary consul general of South Korea, hosted at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel on Monday, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Ayalon, a former ambassador to the US, praised Orkaby as a “wise choice as honorary consul general... he is good for Israel, Korea and the relationship between the countries.”
Orkaby, 37, says there are many similarities between Israel and South Korea: “Both countries developed rapidly, and both countries did it with one hand on the gun and one hand on the computer.”
South Korea also proclaimed its independence in 1948 and, like Israel, faces a constant security threat from its neighbor in the North. South Korea is an economic powerhouse, having grown tremendously in the latter half of the 20th century, in what is called “the Miracle on the Han River.”
Apart from the children’s choir, Orkaby was one of the youngest people at his appointment ceremony. He says he is the youngest honorary consul general for Korea worldwide, out of some 150 people holding the position in other countries.
In Israel, Orkaby was named number 42 on Forbes
’s “300 list” of Israel’s most influential young people last year.
“The position of honorary consul general is usually for people 60 years old, with $60 million in the bank,” he says. “It’s the story of my life – always the youngest. Youngest honorary consul general [for Mongolia, and]... when I was working in the Prime Minister’s Office, I was the youngest.”
Orkaby’s focus on Asia started during his studies at Oxford, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1994. He then earned a law degree at Buckingham University.
“I read a lot of predictions that Asia will be the next big thing,” Orkaby says. “I was pushed into that, and it became the center of my interest.” It would seem to have been a good investment,” he says.
At Buckingham, Orkaby specialized in Japanese studies while studying law. He speaks fluent Japanese in addition to English, Hebrew and Arabic. He says his Korean and Mongolian is very limited, although he’s taking lessons in Korean to improve.
Orkaby then earned a master’s degree from London Guildhall University, followed by a stint at the Brookings Institute in Washington. He then received an Eisenhower Fellowship to represent Israel and was able to network with future leaders from the US and around the world.
Orkaby calls the Eisenhower Fellowship a sort of early, prestigious social network – like Facebook.
“Six hundred out 1,600 Eisenhower fellows have reached cabinet-level positions in their countries. I guess I am a failure in comparison,” he jokes.
Orkaby originally served in the IAF during his military service, and today his reserve duty is as liaison officer between the IDF Spokesman and the Foreign Ministry.
As an independent partner in the Meitar law firm, Orkaby specializes in international business law, commercial law, business development and transnational entrepreneurship, besides his expertise in Asian law.
He also acts as the sole legal advisor for the embassies of Korea, Mongolia and Japan. This can entail consulting on “local laws, employment law, contract law. Basic things,” he says.
Orkaby is occasionally called on to perform more complex tasks, such as legal adviser for a NIS 30 million land purchase for the new Korean Embassy in Israel, which he supervised “from negotiations to signature.”
The position of honorary consul general is typically a volunteer one, sometimes to supplement existing embassy functions, such as the South Korean appointment.
In other cases, such as Orkaby’s Mongolian position, the honorary consul general is the only representative of that country in Israel and is responsible for all consular functions, many of which take place at his own house. Orkaby once hosted Mongolia’s president and his entourage of 30 people.
“We made recommendations to headquarters and reviewed several candidates,” said South Korean Ambassador Ma Young-Sam , one of Orkaby’s close friends and mentors. “There was a long approval process up the levels, finally approved by the foreign minister.”
On the Israeli side, the appointment was approved by the Foreign Ministry’s chief of protocol.
Orkaby says that among Asian countries, reputation is paramount. Countries like South Korea and Japan prefer almost exclusively to conduct business with people they known and trust.
“I have thousands of hours of experience [as a lawyer] – specific to Asia,” he says. “In this territory, your name and integrity is one of the most important things.”
But the consul position takes it to a whole different level, Orkaby says, adding, “By being the honorary consul general of Korea, that crosses a barrier which can be very difficult at some points. They feel like I’m one of them.”
Led by large conglomerates called chaebol
– Samsung, Hyundai, LG – the South Korean economy was ranked No. 15 in the world by nominal GDP in 2009. South Korea is currently the chair of the G-20 nations and will host the economic summit in November – the first Asian country to do so.
Orkaby cautions that Asian countries have a much different way of doing business than is common in Israel. Koreans, he says, are perhaps somewhat brasher than their Asian cousins, but they are very different from Israelis in business style.
Orkaby describes the Koreans as “aggressive, targeted, professional. They take things very seriously.” In Israel, he says, “people will say, ‘Get me the CEO of the company.’ In Korea, it doesn’t work like that. Everyone in the chain of command must be familiar with your business, and you must have the acceptance of everyone all the way up to support your business.”
Israel’s famously brash and irreverent manner might be as opposite to Asian customs as could be, Orkaby says.
“People will give business cards in Asia with two hands and a lot of respect,” he says. “In Israel, people will grab one and just put it in their pockets. They don’t think so much of business cards.”
When Ambassador Ma was recalled to Korea, he left his family in Israel so his children could finish their schooling here. He returned again as ambassador in 2008.
“It’s a very comfortable life they were leading here,” Ma says. “They have many Israeli friends. [My son] speaks Hebrew.”
“There’s no better way to express how comfortable you are with this
country than with leaving your family here,” Orkaby says. Especially
among Koreans, he adds, for whom children’s education is so important,
to leave them to study in Israel was a great compliment to the country.
South Korean Minister-Counselor Chungnam Park says Israel is “the holy
land for Korean diplomats,” because every recent Korean ambassador to
Israel has been promoted upon his return to Seoul. South Korea’s
foreign minister, deputy foreign minister and US ambassador have all
been former ambassadors to Israel.
Orkaby says a number of initiatives are in progress.
“The very first thing we’re going to do is to set up an Israeli-Korean
chamber of commerce, he says. “We also plan to set up a Korean culture
center in Tel Aviv... a place where students of Southeast Asian studies
can come to learn.”
Korea’s largest company, Samsung, has partnered with Israeli startup
Time to Know, which aims to improve basic education by introducing a
digital teaching platform. Samsung will provide the hardware for the
company, which has more than $100 million invested so far.
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