The serenity of the South Korean ambassador, Han Sung Joo, is almost unnerving. But ultimately, his composure and calm in the face of the many storms he has weathered since arriving in Washington last year come off as admirable and inspiring.
Han, who runs an embassy staff of 150, learned his motto in life from his mother: "Be gentle to a gentle person and tough to a tough person. Be firm with superiors and kind to subordinates."
His diplomacy is a balancing act between pride and pragmatism, strength and sensitivity, as he contemplates the fallout from his country's participation in Iraq and the anger of students back home who have demonstrated against the continuing U.S. troop presence there.
"The young generation," he said, "does not understand the reasons for the alliance, much less remember them."
During the Korean War, Han, 63, was wounded by shrapnel, and a bullet fragment the size of a coffee bean remains lodged in his lower back. To escape the bombings in Seoul, he and his family fled to a house in the countryside.
In another evacuation during the war, he was crammed with four other people into the front seat of a truck. The door of the moving vehicle flung open, and he was almost hurled under the wheels. He narrowly pulled himself out of the way to safety.
Well into his thirties, he endured nightmares about not being able to get out of areas coming under Communist control.
Difficult days awaited Han when he arrived in Washington in April 2003.
It was just weeks into the war in Iraq. South Korea had contributed hundreds of troops to the U.S.-led coalition, despite opposition by most of its citizens. Shortly before that, South Koreans in several cities had staged demonstrations after a U.S. military court acquitted two American soldiers of negligent homicide after their mine-clearing vehicle hit and killed two South Korean schoolgirls.
The relationship between the United States and South Korea was also tested by tensions over how to deal with North Korea's nuclear threat. No one knew whether President Roh Moo Hyun "would be able to stop that slide," Han recalled.
To complicate matters, Roh was impeached and lost his constitutional powers in March. This was frustrating "because key decisions had to be postponed. Not the best set of circumstances, but we lived with it," Han said. Roh was restored to power two months later.
But the worst day came on June 22, when a 33-year-old translator for a South Korean contractor was beheaded in Iraq by militants described by U.S. officials as having links to al Qaeda. A video had shown the man pleading for mercy, which whipped up anti-American sentiment in the streets of Seoul.
"We tried to get as much information as possible. We never got to find out where he was held," said Han, who said he is still tormented by thoughts of whether more could have been done to save the man.
Despite the difficulties, Han declared the U.S.-South Korean relationship quite healthy. Encounters between President Bush and Roh, including one at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, have gone smoothly, he said. And a recent visit to Seoul by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- during which she expressed thanks for South Korea's resolve to dispatch more troops to Iraq -- also went well, he said.
A decision by South Korea's parliament to dispatch an additional 3,000 troops was intensely debated. But "we had this ironic advantage," Han said. "Most of the opponents to sending more troops were the ones who had voted for the president's party."
Han's own great advantage is access to his president. Roh devotes "big chunks of time" to him when he visits Seoul, Han said.
Han has studied and taught at an impressive list of universities, including Seoul National University, where he was an undergraduate; the University of California at Berkeley, where he obtained his doctorate in political science in 1970; and the University of New Hampshire, where he graduated in 1964 with a master's in the same field. He has also taught as a visiting professor at Stanford University, Columbia University and Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is a recipient of several diplomatic service awards and honors.
Self-effacing despite his reputation as a brilliant academic and negotiator, Han insists that things have always come easily to him. "I still don't understand why or how they made me foreign minister," he joked 10 years after the fact.
To unwind, Han enjoys reading, listening to classical music and driving around on the weekends without his chauffeur. His favorite reading material in English is by Frederick Forsyth, a former journalist and author of political action thrillers such as "The Day of the Jackal," "The Dogs of War" and Han's favorite, "The Fist of God," which is about Saddam Hussein's possession of a powerful weapon.
It took Han and his wife, an art historian, some time to warm to the huge and impersonal ambassador's residence, and his responsibilities have been huge. But he is grateful for the opportunity to put his abilities to good use.
"It's all part of the deal," he said, smiling. Like all seasoned survivors, he has learned to be "outwardly soft and inwardly strong," just as his mother taught him.