When former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup tells people about his upcoming appointment as honorary consul to South Korea he knows to pause for reaction.
"Here I was, planning to retire then 'ring ring'" he pantomimes answering the telephone. "Hello? Mr. Walkup? Would you like to be the honorary consul to the Republic of Korea?"
"Life is just a series of surprises," Walkup, 76 says with a chuckle.
He says he didn't think twice.
"It's an honor."
On Monday, Walkup will be sworn in and assume his duties as liaison to the estimated 50,000 South Koreans living in Arizona.
No. He doesn't speak Korean but says his smart phone can help him with choice phrases. He has visited South Korea and plans an official consul visit in the fall.
For now Walkup will work out of his home, but he would like to move into a downtown office eventually.
An engineer by training, Walkup has experience in aerospace research, international trade and government relations. Prior to his retirement in 2012, he served as Tucson mayor for 12 years.
The ceremony will be held in U.S. Rep. Ron Barber's office.
"Former Mayor Walkup is an outstanding choice for this prestigious appointment," Barber said via email. "I am confident that he will be an excellent representative for the people of the Republic of Korea and Arizona and that he will look for opportunities that will increase the potential trade and business relationships between South Korea and Arizona."
Walkup's honorary consul appointment - "Make no mistake. The word honorary means without compensation," he says - is for seven years.
A combination of his friendship with businessman and restaurateur K.C. An, Port of Tucson owner Alan Levin and Korea's interest in identifying more U.S. exports all played a role in Walkup's selection.
"When I heard the Korean government was looking for an honorary consul in Arizona because of the growing population I said, 'I have the perfect person,'" An says. "He is like my brother."
Politically connected in the Korean government, An was able to get support for Walkup. He wants to explore a sister-cities partnership and exchange programs through the University of Arizona.
The duo is also working with the Port of Tucson to increase trade with South Korea using import containers that are returning to Asia empty.
South Korea exports $64 billion into the U.S. and imports about $32 billion from the U.S.
Farmers or scrap-metal brokers could load exports into those empty containers, says Stefan Baumann, director of business development for the Port of Tucson.
"There are so many empties coming out of Texas and that means so many opportunities," he says. "Mr. Walkup wants to reach out to South Korea and find out what commodities they want from us."
Baumann said Walkup's role will benefit Tucson and Arizona exporters by opening wider the Korean market.
"We're very happy that Mr. Walkup saw the value of the port as one of his new tools," he says.
Walkup estimates he'll spend "80 percent of my time matchmaking."
"I see this as an opportunity to get city leaders to understand the opportunities we have with Korea," he says. "I'm excited about strengthening our Korean connection and expand the Port of Tucson into a true global, intermodal facility.
"All the stars aligned."
Yeon-sung Shin, the consul general in Los Angeles, who oversees Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, said he is pleased to have a representative in Arizona.
"Arizona is so important to Korea," he says. "We do need to feel the presence of Korea there to overcome the shortcomings and difficulties of being far away."
Because Walkup's position is an honorary one, not an official one, Shin will work closely with him.
When he became consul general more than two years ago, he had the chance to meet Walkup during a visit to Arizona, Shin said.
"I look forward to our work together," he says. "He needs the support of the people in the community."
Shin plans to attend Monday's ceremony.
Aside from increasing trade between the two countries, Walkup envisions bringing Korean corporations to Tucson.
He said the Bank of Korea has expressed interest in entering Arizona and investors are monitoring the Rosemont mine project.
"Korean Air doesn't have a service base in the U.S.," Walkup says. "Why not Tucson?"
The quality of South Korean products such as Hyundai and Kia vehicles and Samsung electronics are "right up there with China and Japan," Walkup says.
"I see this as an opportunity to expand Korean interests economically in this state."
In addition to the economic development projects, Walkup will be responsible for assisting South Koreans with matters such as getting a driver's license or enrolling in Arizona schools.
He's not sure what sort of demands the new role will make on his time.
"Whatever it takes, I suppose."
Did you know?
There are more than 30 countries with honorary consuls or consuls general in Arizona.
Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at email@example.com or 573-4232.