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[INTERVIEW] Kwon opens new era as 1st Korean-British councilor

Kwon Bora, the U.K.'s first Korean-British local councilor standing in the Ravenscourt Park ward, poses during an interview with The Korea Times in Seoul, Oct. 23. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Kwon Bora, the U.K.'s first Korean-British local councilor standing in the Ravenscourt Park ward, poses during an interview with The Korea Times in Seoul, Oct. 23. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Park Han-sol

"I can't separate being Korean and British. It would be saying like 'Are you Korean or are you a woman?' They're integral parts of my identity and who I am," said Kwon Bora as she described herself as a Korean who has lived in the United Kingdom almost all of her life.

With the Asian population still being underrepresented in many English-speaking countries, especially in media and political sectors, Kwon, 40, has explored the intersection of both fields as an editor-turned-politician, becoming the U.K.'s first Korean-British person to become a councilor in the Ravenscourt Park ward.

Arriving in the U.K. in 1982, Kwon grew up in New Malden, unofficially known as "Korea Town." She recalled her life in London as mostly positive as the multicultural city made it natural to see people of different ethnicities despite the innocuous yet repeated question of "Are you Japanese or Chinese?" which reminded her of her status as a minority.

"Being there from a young age helped me feel integrated as there wasn't a language barrier," she told The Korea Times in a recent interview at the newspaper's office in Seoul. "But on the other hand, the lack of role models definitely was an issue growing up because we were so invisible."

She recounted that she originally had no intention to go into politics, separating herself from her friends who were knowledgeable about political theory and actively engaged in the public sphere.

"I didn't naturalize as a British citizen until my mid-20s, so I wasn't able to vote in national elections. As someone who is interested in journalism and world events, I obviously kept an eye on what was happening in politics, but I didn't feel particularly politically engaged."

It all changed when the Conservative Party took office in 2010. As a supporter of the Labour Party, she did not agree with many of the ruling party's policies and began to look for ways to express her voice. A year before the 2015 general election, Kwon joined the Labour Party and became involved in local campaigns as a political activist.

Despite being new to politics, she put herself forward as a candidate to stand in the 2018 local elections for a seat in the Ravenscourt Park ward in West London, where she has lived for six years. Her enthusiasm and willingness to learn throughout the process matched well with the ward's marginal seat, which had remained Conservative for 12 years, because it presented her with the opportunity to work hard with solid campaigning and knocking on doors.

"It was very close; it was one of the closest in all of the wards in that borough," she recalled the night of her win. "I invited my mother to join me because I thought she would enjoy the experience. It became more emotional because she started crying. It was a very long night and probably one of the best experiences of my life."

A skill she gained in her journalism career that became crucial in her political life was the ability to communicate concisely and clearly.

"I've always worked in organizations that would slash words," she said, smiling. "The reason I was never interested in politics is because I didn't feel I understood it. It made me feel like it was for people much more clever and well-read than me when in actual fact, these were things we all care about: economy, health, taxes, and so on."

She pointed out the way politicians communicate often obscure many of the true meanings, making people switch off. Because her local campaigning came from conversations with people on their doorsteps and out on streets, her journalistic effort not to utilize terms alienating the general public has proven useful to her.

The U.K. has yet to see many members of the Korean-British community pursuing politics because of the shorter history of Korean immigrants to the country and the precariousness of a political career, Kwon explained.

"It's much more of a calling than it is a profession. So you serve at the benevolence of the people who elect you. You don't choose to be a politician; other people choose it for you," she said, adding that this can be difficult to reflect upon for the first generation of Koreans, who are more in a survival mode, looking to economically establish themselves and settling down in a new country.

At the same time, she sees a difference in second-generation Korean immigrants who have fully integrated into British society and expressed hope that they will become more involved in the public domain, including politics and the civil service.

With her term ending in two years, Kwon expressed her ambition to run again to be a councilor in 2022. She plans to submit her applications soon and map out different methods of campaigning as knocking on doors will not be feasible amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


Kwon Bora, the U.K.'s first Korean-British local councilor standing in the Ravenscourt Park ward, poses during an interview with The Korea Times in Seoul, Oct. 23. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Kwon Bora, the U.K.'s first Korean-British local councilor standing in the Ravenscourt Park ward, poses during an interview with The Korea Times in Seoul, Oct. 23. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Park Han-sol

"I can't separate being Korean and British. It would be saying like 'Are you Korean or are you a woman?' They're integral parts of my identity and who I am," said Kwon Bora as she described herself as a Korean who has lived in the United Kingdom almost all of her life.

With the Asian population still being underrepresented in many English-speaking countries, especially in media and political sectors, Kwon, 40, has explored the intersection of both fields as an editor-turned-politician, becoming the U.K.'s first Korean-British person to become a councilor in the Ravenscourt Park ward.

Arriving in the U.K. in 1982, Kwon grew up in New Malden, unofficially known as "Korea Town." She recalled her life in London as mostly positive as the multicultural city made it natural to see people of different ethnicities despite the innocuous yet repeated question of "Are you Japanese or Chinese?" which reminded her of her status as a minority.

"Being there from a young age helped me feel integrated as there wasn't a language barrier," she told The Korea Times in a recent interview at the newspaper's office in Seoul. "But on the other hand, the lack of role models definitely was an issue growing up because we were so invisible."

She recounted that she originally had no intention to go into politics, separating herself from her friends who were knowledgeable about political theory and actively engaged in the public sphere.

"I didn't naturalize as a British citizen until my mid-20s, so I wasn't able to vote in national elections. As someone who is interested in journalism and world events, I obviously kept an eye on what was happening in politics, but I didn't feel particularly politically engaged."

It all changed when the Conservative Party took office in 2010. As a supporter of the Labour Party, she did not agree with many of the ruling party's policies and began to look for ways to express her voice. A year before the 2015 general election, Kwon joined the Labour Party and became involved in local campaigns as a political activist.

Despite being new to politics, she put herself forward as a candidate to stand in the 2018 local elections for a seat in the Ravenscourt Park ward in West London, where she has lived for six years. Her enthusiasm and willingness to learn throughout the process matched well with the ward's marginal seat, which had remained Conservative for 12 years, because it presented her with the opportunity to work hard with solid campaigning and knocking on doors.

"It was very close; it was one of the closest in all of the wards in that borough," she recalled the night of her win. "I invited my mother to join me because I thought she would enjoy the experience. It became more emotional because she started crying. It was a very long night and probably one of the best experiences of my life."

A skill she gained in her journalism career that became crucial in her political life was the ability to communicate concisely and clearly.

"I've always worked in organizations that would slash words," she said, smiling. "The reason I was never interested in politics is because I didn't feel I understood it. It made me feel like it was for people much more clever and well-read than me when in actual fact, these were things we all care about: economy, health, taxes, and so on."

She pointed out the way politicians communicate often obscure many of the true meanings, making people switch off. Because her local campaigning came from conversations with people on their doorsteps and out on streets, her journalistic effort not to utilize terms alienating the general public has proven useful to her.

The U.K. has yet to see many members of the Korean-British community pursuing politics because of the shorter history of Korean immigrants to the country and the precariousness of a political career, Kwon explained.

"It's much more of a calling than it is a profession. So you serve at the benevolence of the people who elect you. You don't choose to be a politician; other people choose it for you," she said, adding that this can be difficult to reflect upon for the first generation of Koreans, who are more in a survival mode, looking to economically establish themselves and settling down in a new country.

At the same time, she sees a difference in second-generation Korean immigrants who have fully integrated into British society and expressed hope that they will become more involved in the public domain, including politics and the civil service.

With her term ending in two years, Kwon expressed her ambition to run again to be a councilor in 2022. She plans to submit her applications soon and map out different methods of campaigning as knocking on doors will not be feasible amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr

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