I have given many speeches in my life, but I have never felt the emotions I am experiencing today.
Seeing all of you, I am transported back 50 years to when we were all just teenagers. I am also so happy to welcome members of the younger generation, at least 50 years younger.
I am so happy to see all of you here. As we have seen from events around the world these last few years, young people are speaking up and speaking out and making a profound difference around the world. They are not only shaping their own destiny – they are changing the world.
That is why I often say that young people are not only leaders of tomorrow, you are also leaders for today.
We warmly welcome you here and thank you for sharing your insights and perspectives.
I think I speak for everyone when I say: Thank you so much, Red Cross.
Thank you for giving me – a poor boy from a small village in Korea – the chance to see another country and understand our world.
The Red Cross is an institution – but its strength lies in its members.
We could never forget the families who warmly hosted us. We could never forget so many kind, patient and thoughtful volunteers who travelled with us throughout our trip.
Mine was a woman named Florence Tupper. She called herself our “VISTA Mother.” She passed away two years ago at the age of 102, but she will always have a place in my heart.
Mrs. Tupper embraced each of us. We came from different countries, but we shared the same spirit of adventure.
I have another VISTA mother, Mrs. Libba Patterson, with whom I have been meeting during the last 50 years. She was my host mother in Marin County, California.
Dear VISTA friends,
I look forward to exchanging memories of our time together. But I am also interested in your views on our world today.
This afternoon, we will return to the Goddard Space Flight Center. I guess for most of us this will be the first time going back after half a century. Today, they have a spaceship on Mars, but in 1962, no man had ever walked on the moon.
Still, we were inspired by the space program 50 years ago. When I got back to Korea, I wrote in an essay: “I feel like I can grab the stars from the sky.”
The Red Cross opened my eyes to that sense of limitless possibility.
But we know that human ingenuity has never been the same as human wisdom.
Our world has plenty of food for everyone … but nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every night.
Diseases that we know how to prevent kill millions of poor people.
Twenty thousand children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases.
A mother in Sweden will almost surely survive childbirth, but in South Sudan – the newest country to join the United Nations – one out of every seven women dies trying to give life.
United Nations peacekeepers are trying to bring stability to societies that are ravaged by war. But governments and groups continue wasting badly needed resources on weapons. They spend more on the military in six weeks than we have spent on United Nations peacekeeping in the last sixty years.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but terrible abuses continue to this day.
In the face of these challenges, we are fighting for progress.
We are mobilizing to prevent the next food crisis in Africa.
On maternal health, it remains an appalling tragedy that a woman dies every minute and a half from childbirth or pregnancy. But at least we have slowed the clock from every minute just a few years ago.
The UN has an ambitious target to save 16 million women and children by the end of 2015 who would die needlessly.
We are working to stamp out killer diseases. We aim to eliminate polio, measles, maternal and neonatal tetanus, HIV infections in babies and malaria deaths by the year 2015.
We are pushing for disarmament.
We are fighting human rights abuses and putting war criminals behind bars– like Charles Taylor of Liberia, who terrorized Sierra Leone.
We are doing this through the United Nations – but the United Nations is also an institution that can only succeed thanks to the actions of Red Cross, Red Crescent and many other civil society leaders.
People like Mrs. Tupper, other Red Cross volunteers and all of you. Not just the fellow VISTA alumni, but the young people who join us. The world is in your hands. Be a global citizen. Look beyond the borders of your own country. Join together to create a better future for everyone.
Although it was half a century ago, I still often think about our short time together.
Remember when we met President Kennedy? That was amazing. He pointed out that we came from countries where the governments did not get along but the people did. He said that is “a very good reminder to all of us what hopes we can have for the future.”
Our reunion is a clear proof that friendships cross national boundaries. It shows the timeless truth of President Kennedy’s words.
Fifty years ago, meeting all of you was my first encounter with a gathering of representatives from different nations. I was so inspired I went on to spend my life in public service, first as a Korean diplomat and now for the UN.
Finally, I would like to thank the American Red Cross Society, International Federation of the Red Cross and Rec Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for their support and for making this reunion possible
I am very honoured to welcome you all here today. Let us have a wonderful reunion, looking back at the past with appreciation – and looking forward to the future with hope.