Korea – Constructing causeways of camaraderie

Having spent much of the last three decades spearheading economic, industrial and technological policies at the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in Seoul, he was more of a bureaucrat than a diplomat, implied His Excellency KIM Kyung-Sik, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Kuwait, during an exclusive interview with The Times.

While trade links between countries are important to ensure economic stability and progress, diplomatic ties are crucial in cementing international relations and safeguarding local and regional interests and ensure peaceful resolution of conflicts. The diplomat added, “I was Deputy Minister for Trade and Investment at the Ministry of Knowledge Economy when I was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2011, and my first posting as ambassador was to the State of Kuwait.

Today there are around 173 Korean embassies and consulates around the world and diplomacy remains a key component in the Korean government’s policies aimed at protecting its interests and promoting its stance and viewpoints on various regional and global issues. “I am honored to start my ambassadorial tenure in Kuwait, a country which has had a long and distinguished relationship with Korea. We recognized the State of Kuwait immediately after its independence in 1962, and established diplomatic relations in 1979. The same year we opened our embassy here and Kuwait opened its embassy in Seoul in 1992. Since 1979, the two countries have developed strong and enduring relations in numerous fields, including international politics, economy and cultural.”

“In 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces, Korean troops provided logistics support to the Multi-National Coalition forces that ousted Saddam Hussein’s army from the country. Strong ties between the two countries were further reinforced through numerous high-level reciprocal visits.

For instance, in 2004, His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah the Amir of Kuwait, who was then the Prime Minister, visited Korea at the head of a highlevel delegation. In 2005, then Prime Minister of Korea His Excellency Lee Hae-chan and in 2007 then President of Korea His Excellency Roh Moo-hyun visited Kuwait. In 2008, the then Prime Minister His Excellency Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al- Sabah revitalized bilateral relations by heading a large delegation to Korea; this was reciprocated by a return visit by his Korean counterpart, His Excellency Han Seung-soo.

Underlining the growing role of Korean companies in Kuwait’s infrastructure development projects, the envoy said, “Bilateral relations have developed dramatically, especially in the trade and economic field. Today, Korea is the second largest importer of Kuwaiti crude and Kuwait is our 18th largest trade partner. Many Korean companies, especially from the construction sector, are actively engaged in various mega-projects in Kuwait such as the Mubarak Al-Kabeer Port project on Bubiyan Island, Main Gathering Center Revamp Project in the oil sector, and the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Causeway, which is still awaiting approval for its groundbreaking ceremony.”

The ambassador added, “In a move to further strengthen economic cooperation and enhance existing relations, high-level joint committees have been formed in economy, construction, energy and information technology. The High-level Economic Joint Committee, co-chaired by the Ministers of Finance from both countries, is scheduled to hold a meeting in the first or latter-half of this year. We are also planning on holding a meeting of the Joint Energy Committee headed by the Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Oil in Kuwait and his counterpart at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Energy in Korea to boost traditional energy supplies to Korea, as well as promote Korean techniques and technologies in renewable energy to Kuwait.”

Presenting precise facts and figures on the burgeoning trade between the two countries the diplomat noted, “Kuwait is a good economic partner of Korea with bilateral trade rising to nearly US$ 20 billion in 2012, almost double the 2010 figure of US$ 11.9 billion. Bilateral trade has witnessed an increase of almost eight times within the last ten years.

However, the trade figures are skewed in favor of Kuwait with Korean imports of crude oil and petroleum products accounting for almost US$ 18.3 billion and Korean exports of automobiles, electronic goods, cables and machinery amounting to around US$ 1.6 billion. The export figures are relatively low and there remains much scope for increasing the volume of shipments from Korea to this country.”

Clarifying that unlike previous occasions, and despite a marked uptick in the latest level of threats, the recent bout of rancorous rhetoric from the North did not dampen business and investment climate, nor was there any significant drop in visitor arrivals to his country, the ambassador noted, “Exports play a major role in our economy. Korea is Asia’s fourth and the world’s twelfth largest economy and is one of the G-20 major economies.” The export-driven economy of the country also makes it the seventh-largest exporter in the world, with shipments abroad earning the country over US$130 billion during the first three months of 2013, with production focusing on electronics, automobile manufacturing ship-building, heavy machinery, robotics and petrochemicals. Elaborating on Kuwaiti investments in his country, the ambassador stated that there was room for more investments from Kuwait.

“Whether it is due to lack of information or interest, I am not sure, but overall the volume of investments is only around US$ 2.3 billion. The embassy is working on ways to enhance investments, especially given the fact that Korea is one of the top destinations in the world for Foreign Direct Investments and that the country has one of the most favorable business environments, including excellent human resources, infrastructure, technology and systems. Kuwaiti institutions and individuals have plenty of investment opportunities in Korea.”

Detailing the investment facilities for foreigners, the envoy noted, “Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency called KOTRA supports the entry and successful establishment of foreign businesses into Korea. The Invest Korea Plaza is a unique business incubation service from KOTRA that offers comprehensive one-stop services for investors with the aim of ensuring their foray into the Korean market is as painless and straight-forward as possible. The Plaza provides services, including a dedicated project manager who will provide relevant information and help investors in finding everything, from the right location for factories and offices, to applying for relevant government assistance programs and tax exemptions for foreign investments.”

Adding to the list of incentives to invest in Korean economy, the diplomat said, “Korea has been voted the best place in Asia for multi-national companies to base their regional headquarters. With half of all Fortune 500 companies having some sort of presence in Korea, another distinct advantage is the access to more than 51 cities of one million or more population within four-hour flight from Seoul. People have plenty of venues for investment in different sectors and industries of the economy, including in electronics, shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing and information technology, as well as in hundreds of promising Small and Medium-sized Enterprises across the country.”

Admitting that tourism from Kuwait to Korea was still growing, Ambassador Kyung-Sik added, “While tourism numbers are relatively not very significant, there has been an impressive three-fold increase in the number of visitors within the last three years, from 416 in 2009 to 1116 in 2012. Korea is a peninsular country with four distinct seasons that makes the country scenic and beautiful throughout the year. Tourism attractions include cultural, religious, historical and archeological sites, as well as modern theatres, art galleries and museums.”

“In addition to those visiting Korea to enjoy its touristic attractions, there has been a notable increase in the number of people traveling to the country to avail of medical treatment from its world-class health facilities. Providing healthcare at prices that are a fraction of the costs in Europe or the United States, Korea is fast becoming an attractive medical tourism destination for many people in the region. Korean healthcare is already synonymous with quality in the region and we operate one of the most advanced and specialized spinal care facilities in the region at the Wooridul Spine Centre in Abu Dhabi. The embassy is working to promote further cooperation between the two countries in the medical field”

Regarding cultural engagements the ambassador was effusive in stating that the Korean Cultural Diwaniya that was launched in 2012 continued to be a great success. “The Diwaniya serves as a forum to bring together and promote interaction and cultural exchanges between the Korean community here and the local population. It provides an opportunity for Kuwaitis to explore various aspects of Korean culture and social life. Starting out with 30 members the Diwaniya has grown to a community of over 100, not counting the 300 more members we have on Facebook.”

“The Diwaniya members are fully engaged in cultural and social activities and thanks to them we were able to organize various cultural events, including a Korean Cultural Week and Girgian parties for children during Ramadan. This year, the National Council for Culture Arts and Letters in Kuwait invited NANTA, a troupe of dancers and musicians from Korea, to perform at the annual Al-Qurain Festival. We are also planning on launching a Korean Movie Festival, a Food Festival and a Korean Pop Song Contest, during this year. In addition, early this year we had the privilege of launching a Korean translation of poems by leading Kuwaiti poetess and the 2012 winner of the Korean Manhae Prize in Literature, Sheikha Souad Al- Sabah.

On the Kuwaiti side, the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyya is also planning on holding an exhibition of the famed ‘Sabah Collection’ at Seoul’s Korean National Museum in July.” In conclusion, the ambassador noted, “I would like to add that my tenure so far has been both exciting and rewarding; the level of cooperation I have received from government officials and the warm-hearted reception from ordinary Kuwaiti citizens has been more than gratifying and I wish to express my thanks to all of them.”