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How Startups are Becoming Key to UN’s Sustainability Efforts : Interview With the Leader of WFUNA in S. Korea

Jinny Kim
May 15, 2024

The keywords "UN" and "startup" might seem unrelated at first glance, but they have been gaining attention recently. This is because there is a growing consensus that the innovation of startups is necessary to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs, adopted in 2015 by the UN member states, consist of 17 goals aimed at achieving sustainable development globally by 2030. These goals include ending poverty, promoting education, advancing gender equality, and addressing climate change, and aim for global equity, prosperity, and environmental protection.

(Credit : SDGs)

To achieve these goals, the UN is focusing on startup acceleration. This involves supporting entrepreneurs who offer innovative solutions to social problems, have a social impact, and create economic opportunities.

The Seoul office of the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) is known for its unique and effective approaches.

WFUNA has been recognized for focusing on global citizenship education. However, the WFUNA Seoul office has gone beyond typical campaigns and educational efforts, engaging in community-based programs and impact startup acceleration

Notably, through the ‘Citypreneurs’ startup support program, it has consistently focused on entrepreneurs who address urban issues and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals.

(Credit : wfuna)

Why and how does the WFUNA Seoul office spotlight and support entrepreneurs tackling social problems? What message do they want to convey to future generations?

Asia Tomorrow met with Yong-Jae Kim, the Chief Regional Coordinator for Asia-Pacific in the WFUNA Seoul office, to delve into his career dedicated to international relations cooperation, the diverse initiatives of the WFUNA Seoul office, and the background of their engagement in startup acceleration.

(Credit : wfuna)

Q. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hello, my name is Yong-Jae Kim, and I am the Chief Regional Coordinator for Asia-Pacific in the Seoul office of the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA).

WFUNA aims for 'sustainable development' and maintains offices in New York, Geneva, and Seoul. The Seoul office oversees the Asia-Pacific region. The significance of Asia was recognized during Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as UN Secretary-General, leading to the establishment of the WFUNA office in Seoul in 2015.

I originally studied political science, specifically East Asian international relations and cooperation, and majored in Chinese Political Philosophy. 

I have always had a deep interest in history and believed that for a country to develop, it is crucial to grow in peace and cooperation with its neighbors. This interest led me to a career in international organizations, where I have been working for the past decade.

(Credit : Yong-Jae Kim)

After graduating with a master's degree, I served as an associate professor at the Air Force Academy for three years, teaching cadets. Then, I worked for more than five years at an intergovernmental organization called the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, which focuses on cooperation between Korea, China, and Japan. 

Following that, I spent a year as a research project manager at the National Research Council for Economics, Humanities, and Social Sciences, under the Prime Minister's Office of South Korea, before taking on the role of overseeing the Seoul office of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

Q. Could you explain exactly what the World Federation of United Nations Associations is?

The World Federation of United Nations Associations was established in 1946, the year following the founding of the UN.

While the UN was set up as a union of global nations to address common human issues and held representative authority, it had limitations in directly connecting with civil society, being closer to an intergovernmental organization that communicates with governments. 

During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then the First Lady and served as a U.S. Ambassador to the UN, founded the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

Since then, over 100 UN Associations have been established worldwide, creating a network that connects these associations with civil societies in various UN member countries. WFUNA has played a significant role in conveying unified messages and building consensus through these global associations.

(Source : wfuna)

Fostering Harmony and Diversity in East Asia

Q. What prompted your interest in political science and international relations among various fields of study?

I personally think international relations are much like growing plants. The best results are achieved when harmony is created based on diversity.

I have been growing plants since middle school. Plants thrive best when they contribute to and maintain overall ecological balance. The key to successful gardening lies in coexisting with weeds, pests, and aphids, but not excessively so.

The keyword 'harmony' also resonates with my experiences during a debate competition I stumbled upon in high school. Although social sciences may not have definitive answers like arithmetic does, I was attracted to the idea that through intense clashes of opinions, a vibrant and harmonious consensus can be reached.

Harmony and diversity were also key themes during my university years from 2004. At that time, most students nearing graduation were studying for exams like the judicial examination. I felt a need for 'other options' and organized international conferences involving students from Korea, Japan, and China, among various other initiatives.

This conference still meets annually. It has become a regular event where undergraduates from political science and international relations departments of universities such as Seoul National University, Peking University, the University of Tokyo, Fudan University and National Taiwan University gather to discuss issues and the future of major countries in Northeast Asia.

Q. It seems that in the early stages of your career, you were particularly interested in the political situation in East Asia, including Korea, China, and Japan.

The question 'How can we all develop harmoniously in East Asia?' was significant for me.

After graduating, I began to understand the broader East Asian context from a security perspective while working as an associate professor at the Korean Air Force Academy. I studied the military deployments of China and Japan, and how their combat forces and fighters were prepared strategically, from a national security standpoint. 

It was a period that further solidified my view that peace in East Asia is essential. Later, starting in 2013 and 2014, I began to focus more on the international relations of Korea, China, and Japan, and the political situation in East Asia while working at the then-recently established Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat.

(Credit : Yong-Jae Kim)

Q. What have you learned from working at an East Asian international organization?

I learned firsthand that while individuals can make concessions, nations often cannot step back, which complicates international cooperation. The difficulty arises because a nation’s honor cannot be voluntarily lowered.

Nevertheless, one of the most significant lessons I gained during my five years at the East Asian international organization was learning through various cases how to negotiate with mutual consideration for East Asian international cooperation.

I also realized the importance of understanding global international relations, not just those in East Asia. 

The relationships among Korea, China, and Japan cannot be resolved solely through the interests of three countries. Moreover, a major catalyst, similar to the reunification of East and West Germany, would be needed to significantly change the dynamics in East Asia. Expecting an event like the reunification of North and South Korea seemed far-fetched at the time.

Q. So, that led you to consider a career at the World Federation of United Nations Associations next?

No, not immediately. In 2019, I was planning to go to Germany for a PhD program to gain new perspectives and expertise. However, the global spread of COVID-19 completely changed my career plans.

The Changes Brought to International Organizations by the Pandemic

Q. With the sudden onset of COVID-19, does that mean you weren’t able to go abroad for your studies?

Yes, that’s correct. I suddenly found myself unemployed in 2019-2020, which led to a lot of uncertainty about my career.

Fortunately, my mentor, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Yoon Young-kwan, suggested that I work on a research project to develop Korea’s foreign strategy and plans in preparation for the US-China hegemonic competition.

This project was managed by the National Research Council for Economics, Humanities, and Social Sciences under the Prime Minister’s Office. It involved gathering about twenty political, security, and economic experts who studied the United States, China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and North Korea. 

We produced a research report analyzing how these countries might respond to Korea’s strategic decisions, which was then provided to various government agencies including the National Security Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, and the National Intelligence Service.

At the time, the trade and diplomatic tensions between the US and China were intensifying. Working on this project for a year allowed me to expand my perspective beyond East Asian international cooperation between Korea, China, and Japan to include other major neighboring countries.

As this project was concluding, I coincidentally received an offer to take charge of the WFUNA Seoul office. After an online interview with the Secretary-General in Geneva, I started working there in 2021.

(Credit : wfuna)

Q. Starting your role as the Chief Regional Coordinator of the WFUNA Seoul Office during the pandemic must have been challenging given the circumstances.

Indeed. International exchange and cooperation fundamentally rely on frequent in-person interactions to maintain momentum and ensure smooth operation of initiatives. 

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many international organizations were forced to close their offices. The pandemic made exchanges difficult and significantly reduced related budgets. The WFUNA Seoul Office was also feeling the crisis brought on by COVID-19.

Despite these challenges, my team and I felt we couldn't just sit back. We made several innovative attempts to adapt, including launching a virtual UN office on the Naver Zepeto platform to host meta-verse events that anyone could attend from all over the world. 

We also organized online gatherings for students studying peace research to discuss issues related to peace on the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, we actively adopted a virtual office-based remote work model.

Transitioning our operations online allowed us to unexpectedly create new value. Previously, our activities were primarily conducted through programs that involved flying hundreds of students to international locations for physical exchanges. By embracing online platforms, we were able to connect with more students without the constraints of time and space.

Q. Now that the pandemic has subsided, how is the WFUNA Seoul Office being operated?

The Seoul Office operates around three main pillars:

The most important core is education. We focus on global citizenship education to foster young people who can contribute to global cooperation, and we provide various internships to help them develop their careers.

Additionally, the Seoul Office selects university students at least twice a year to present their research on UN agendas in front of current UN professionals. The experience of receiving direct feedback from individuals who work in the field at the UN has a significant impact on the growth of these young people.

Another pillar is building an agenda around 'peace,' which is a critical issue given the regional characteristics of East Asia.

Lastly, focusing on entrepreneurial spirit through impact startup acceleration to solve urban problems remains a core focus of the WFUNA Seoul Office. Each pillar is supported by internal teams that plan and implement a variety of programs and events.

(Credit : wfuna)

Why the WFUNA Supports Entrepreneurship

Q. Why would an international organization focused on global cooperation spotlight entrepreneurship?

Over the decades, the UN has highlighted various universal agendas crucial to humanity. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, the emphasis was on human rights. The World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) played a significant role in transforming the global resolution on human rights into a worldwide public opinion movement.

During the Cold War, ‘peace’ emerged as a vital common challenge. In the 1980s and 1990s, WFUNA collaborated with artists like Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol to promote the importance of peace through lithographs and stamps.

Entering the 2000s, ‘sustainability’ became the new global agenda. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) took center stage, and with the establishment of the Seoul Office in 2015, the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globally became the focal point of discussion.

Q. As the agenda has evolved over time, the approach of international organizations must have changed as well.

Before the advent of social media, campaigns were the primary method of garnering societal consensus

From the UN's perspective, it was crucial to educate youths in various countries to cultivate a global citizen mindset. For example, aligning with the keyword 'SDGs,' the Seoul Office has planned campaigns, programs, and international forums as part of its educational efforts.

Additionally, WFUNA Seoul Office is supporting impact startups that contribute to solving urban issues and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a startup competition program called 'Citypreneurs'. 

Since 2017, we have identified and supported approximately 250 startups in major cities of the Asia-Pacific region, including Seoul, Singapore, and Ho Chi Minh. In 2024, two rounds of the program are scheduled to take place in Ulsan and Gyeonggi Province, South Korea.

Q. Is there a particular reason for incorporating impact startup acceleration into the WFUNA programs?

To be honest, the ‘era of campaigns’ is waning. Campaigns that appeal to individual emotions to solicit donations are no longer enough to motivate people. Nowadays, people (from my perspective) prefer 'sustainable' solutions or alternatives rather than just contributing a fixed amount each month.

I believe that entrepreneurship meets the demands of this era effectively.

(Credit : wfuna)

I am teaching a course on entrepreneurship to freshmen in university. During this course, I define entrepreneurship as follows:

"A person who clearly understands the problem they want to solve and finds solutions to address it, or someone who is paving a way towards such solutions."

Therefore, if the problem defined by the entrepreneur and their solutions lead to social impact, then it can be included in the category of entrepreneurship that aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Consequently, I suggest that impact startup acceleration is significant because it promotes entrepreneurship that uses public funds to solve social problems. This means that entrepreneurs are effectively addressing the issues our society faces, with everyone contributing to their solution.

Q. What impact startups have been nurtured through the ‘Citypreneurs’ program?

In the first year of the program, student founders who won the award developed an app called "DoBrain", which aims to provide educational services for children with developmental delays. In 2023, they raised 21 billion KRW in a Series B investment round and recently changed their brand name to "Dobu."

Another impact startup, "Yolk", proposed a solution to enhance educational opportunities for children in Africa. 

They focused on the structural issue that prevents many African families from sending their children to school due to socio-economic poverty. In families barely managing daily sustenance, the priority might be to gather more firewood rather than sending a child to school.

To shift this perspective, these entrepreneurs developed "SolarCow", a solar panel shaped like a cow, installed at schools. After attending classes, the children can take home batteries charged by solar power.

For parents, this provides both an education for their child and the essential electric batteries they need, eliminating reasons not to send their children to school.

Over the past seven years, the Citypreneurs program has attracted approximately 1,200 startups from 88 countries. About 200 of these have been provided with acceleration services. 

This November, we plan to hold the World Impact Startup Ecosystem Conference (WISE Conference) in Geneva, Switzerland, to highlight global social entrepreneurship.

(Credit : wfuna)

Why We Need to Pay Attention to Entrepreneurship in Asia Now

Q. It's impressive that the Seoul Office first focused on entrepreneurship to solve humanity's common problems.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, it is estimated that at least $135 trillion will be required. This mission cannot be solely supported by donations or sponsorships. 

Therefore, it is increasingly crucial to 'teach how to fish' by widely promoting entrepreneurial skills so that entrepreneurs can solve societal problems and foster sustainable growth.

Particularly, Asia, having experienced complete destruction due to war and then rebuilding industrially and socially, is expected to be a new birthplace for entrepreneurial thinking. The unique diligence of the East Asian cultural sphere aligns well with the entrepreneurial spirit of defining and solving problems.

Q. Are there any recent trends in Asian entrepreneurship that you have been paying attention to?

I am particularly focusing on developments in Japan. 

Traditionally, Japan has been perceived as slow in innovation, challenging for foreigners to settle, and not easy for startups. However, the societal atmosphere is rapidly changing as the Japanese government is now fully supporting open innovation and entrepreneurship.

Importantly, the heart of these changes in Japan is centered around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Even the largest startup event in Tokyo, SushiTech, incorporates 'Sustainability' in its name, highlighting the Japanese startup ecosystem's focus on the SDGs.

As the office overseeing the Asia-Pacific region for the World Federation of United Nations Associations, our team focuses to serve as a platform through the Citypreneurs program and the World Impact Startup Ecosystem Conference to promote East Asia's impact ecosystem to the global community, opening up new opportunities and possibilities.

While we focus on recognizing and supporting entrepreneurs, we also hope to embody the entrepreneurial spirit ourselves by being problem-solvers.

(Credit : wfuna)

Q. I would like to hear about the future plans of the WFUNA Seoul Office.

In the long term, we aim to enhance our expertise. 

As an international organization, if we can equip ourselves with the ability to research and develop policies, analyze problems, and propose practical solutions, and build partnerships for these goals, I anticipate that we will gain a competitive edge. In the long run, developing professional capacities for international cooperation and social impact becomes increasingly important.

To transition into a team equipped with this expertise, our organization needs to grow larger than it is currently. 

In the medium term, we must solidify the underlying structure that supports the organization's size. We intend to create synergy between talent development programs, community-based campaigns, and impact startup accelerator programs, gradually expanding into an international organization that is robust both in substance and scale.

Q. Lastly, what advice would you give to young people who engage with the Seoul Office's education, campaigns, or acceleration programs?

There is a message I often share when I speak to young audiences about sustainability:

"We might be the last generation of humanity."

In this context, I candidly express to the young generation, who have so much life ahead, that it is not enough just to talk about dreams and hopes. Instead, I advise them to earnestly seek out the issues they are passionate about and willing to dedicate their lives to solving. I encourage them not to limit their future to just their job or major but to look for 'the problems they want to solve.'

Surprisingly, students take this advice very seriously. They seem to resonate more with the guidance to 'find the problems you want to solve' rather than just to 'be ambitious.' 

Ultimately, the entrepreneurial spirit of continuously striving to define and solve problems may not only provide direction in life for the current generation of young people but also serve as a cornerstone that sustains them through the challenges of life.

Written by Jinny Kim (underdogs)


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Jinny Kim
underdogs. Media Manager & EO STUDIO. Freelance Writer