SEOUL, Oct. 11 (Yonhap) -- As she goes about her official work in South Korea, U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens is hardly one to break a sweat. But she actually pumps a lot of sweat through her energetic sports outreach to the South Korean public.
Sports are making the well-known ambassador, who often goes by her Korean name, Shim Eun-kyung, even more popular among Koreans. She regularly plays tennis, for example, with Korean friends at her residence behind downtown Seoul's Deoksu Palace.
Her much-publicized affection for the country, where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in her 20s from 1975-1977, has endeared her to the masses.
After a recent fierce competition on the court during the Chuseok holidays, Stephens and three friends -- a medical doctor, an engineer and this journalist -- chatted over soft drinks on various matters ranging from health tips to holiday dishes.
The hard-nosed drive to win points on the court suddenly thawed into understanding and friendship.
"It was a rare opportunity to talk to a U.S. diplomat as a friend," said the medical doctor, Choi Hyong-gey. "Through this type of contact, we get to know each other better."
U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens(R) warms up with her tennis partner Rep. Chung Mong-joon before a match at her residence in Seoul. Tennis is one of the tools the ambassador often uses to reach out Koreans.
Relations between South Korea and its ally the United States are hardly that of the era of ping-pong diplomacy between America and China in the 1970s, but sports has still done much for state affairs. Stephens' particular brand of outreach could be called "sports diplomacy."
As an amateur but avid athlete, the ambassador uses not only tennis, but also bicycling and hiking to interact with South Koreans.
This is in contrast to American diplomats to South Korea in past decades, who were known for their "Big Brother" attitude and tough pressure in negotiations with their counterparts.
Stephens' two immediate predecessors, Christopher Hill and Alexander Bushbow, also built popularity among Koreans. Hill enjoyed traditional Korean food tofu and mixed freely with ordinary people. Bushbow, known for his "Jazz Diplomacy," often played at a local jazz bar.
While Stephens and her staff still engage in the traditional diplomacy of meeting fellow diplomats and foreign ministry officials for serious discussions, they also view "public diplomacy" -- reaching out to ordinary people -- as an important aspect of state relations today.
Stephens spends much of her time engaging with regular folks with diverse backgrounds -- students, scholars, journalists, business leaders and professionals. She travels to remote parts of Korea to listen to different voices nationwide.
"These meetings build relations and friendship," she said. "Meeting government officials is important, but meeting ordinary people is also important."
Foreigners who have isolated lives usually, she said, can become a part of the fabric of life in Korea despite not belonging to affinity groups, such as school alumni associations, as most Koreans do.
Although she doesn't play golf, currently the standard networking pastime in Korea, biking, hiking and tennis seem to present ample opportunities.
Her most recent expedition was a five-day, 250-kilometer bike ride in the Gyeongsang region in late August and early September with a group of young Korean students. The trip, named "On the Road with the American Ambassador," or "600-Ri Bike Ride with Ambassador Shim Eun-kyung" in Korean, was designed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.
As the cyclists visited the sites of bloody battles along the Nakdong perimeter, they paid tribute to Korean and American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to protect liberty and freedom. The trip was "to explore by bicycle parts of Korea where much was risked and sacrificed 60 years ago, to see what it looks like today and to reflect on the U.S.-Korea relations in the future," Stephens wrote in her blog.
U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens(third from L) poses for a photo in the southwestern port city of Yeosu on Aug. 29 as she launches a bicycle tour of Korean War battle sites. The tour is part of the envoys "sports diplomacy" to reach out to the Korean masses.
For the ambassador, the trip also allowed for sightseeing and revealed to her how sports have provided an outlet through the ages, including her time here in the 1970s.
"In those days, women had to stay home, but playing sports was a way of getting out there and getting to know other people," she said.
While it is still unusual in Korea for a woman in her 50s to play physically demanding sports as a means to meet people, the ambassador's sports partners speak highly of her physical strength and stamina.
When her hectic diplomatic schedule permits, she rides her bicycle along the Han River to Misari and Paldang -- an exhausting four- to five-hour ride. She also bikes through the small alleys of Yongsan and tiny corners of Dongdaemun.
"Through biking, you see places you can't see normally," she said.
If time allows, she hopes to bike along the east and west coasts, and even take a tour across the whole country, in addition to expanding her tennis network.
She has played tennis with numerous people in Korea so far, including National Assembly Rep. Chung Mong-joon and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.
When asked whether she would like to meet President Lee Myung-bak, also known as a fervent tennis fan, across the net, she answered, "I hear President Lee is good at tennis."
That definitely sounded like an open challenge.
(Editor's Note: Lee Byung-jong is a Newsweek correspondent based in Seoul. He has previously worked for The Associated Press and Bloomberg News as a correspondent.)