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Career Spotlight: Ian McConville, Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Seoul

In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking to Mr Ian McConville, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in the Republic of Korea, about his career in the public sector.

Biography: Mr Ian McConville is a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). He has served overseas as High Commissioner to Nigeria and High Commissioner to Mauritius. He also has had postings at the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Geneva (Deputy Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament), Cambodia and Pakistan.

Mr McConville holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Laws and a Master of Arts from Monash University and is a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university? Did you have a set plan for your career trajectory after graduation?

I remember doing a career guidance test when I was 15 at a school in Victoria. It predicted I would be a Trade Commissioner. On leaving school, I worked for a gap year at a school in the UK, my first trip overseas. This confirmed my fascination with travel and exploring new cultures, including hitch hiking in Europe. When I stopped over in India on my return, my mind was made up to work in a profession where I could interact with other cultures. As I progressed through my Arts/Law degree at Monash, I took all the international subjects I could, including picking up Bahasa Indonesia, and travelled extensively in South East Asia. DFAT was my goal.

You’ve had a fascinating career working at various Australian Permanent Missions around the world. What has been your greatest challenge in working and representing Australia abroad?

In the course of six postings overseas, the biggest challenge by far is ensuring my family remains resilient and positive despite long periods of separation from friends and Canberra life. This includes trying to mitigate the impact of the disruption on my spouse’s career. While there are many rewards of living and being educated overseas, it can be an unsettling experience for the family. This includes coping with occasional sickness such as dengue fever, security related issues, and reduced access to amenities like parks and sporting facilities which we are accustomed to in Australia. For example, in Nigeria, there were few public facilities for the children to enjoy, cinemas were off limits, and the school commute included an armed guard.

Tell us about your current role as the Deputy Head of Mission in Seoul. What does your role entail?

Our mission in Seoul is a dynamic and large Embassy, with a broad range of agencies in the mission working to advance Australia’s national interests. An important function I have is to ensure the whole of government effort is coordinated and effective, as well as ensuring strong morale in the workplace. South Korea is one of Australia’s four largest export markets, and we have a thriving Korean community in Australia. Our defence relationship is rich in shared history and sacrifice, with many Koreans remembering warmly our role in the Korean War. We also have a similar international outlook, with both countries sharing an alliance relationship with the US, but having China as our largest trading partner. There are many opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Korea’s innovative economy including on the fintech and the biomedical sector. From a personal perspective, it is also a fascinating place to live. Korean society is very cohesive, and has responded impressively to COVID-19 is one example.

What has been your greatest professional achievement so far?

I have had some rewarding roles including being part of Australia’s successful UNSC campaign through our lobbying in West Africa from 2010-2012. My most challenging assignment was coordinating the search, and then tragically, the retrieval of the 7 Australians who had died on board the charter flight of an Australian mining company, Sundance Resources, in the Republic of Congo in 2010. There were many amazing people that I worked with during this sad period, including my colleagues in Consular Response Team, the extended family members and the Australian Disaster Victim Identification Team. Additionally, I was humbled by the assistance we received from the Congolese authorities throughout a very difficult and trying period, spanning 8 weeks.

Finally, what advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs?

I would encourage you to have a very open mind as to what a career working in international affairs would look like in the future. I think we are living in a period of great flux, including with the still to be determined impact of COVID-19 on the operations of government and private sector overseas. But international challenges will only grow in complexity in the face of threats posed by climate change, pandemics, mounting global security tensions and even the questions posed on the benefits of globalisation. We will need creative young minds to solve these issues and forge a new global consensus.

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