WBJ talked with H.E. Sung-joo Choi, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Poland,
about the present international tensions in the region caused by the country’s neighbor’s
nuclear program, the chances of unifying the two Koreas, the economic status of
his country and bilateral relations between Korea and Poland
Interview by Ewa Boniecka
WBJ: Tensions caused by North Korea’s nuclear program have been growing over the past months. How has it affected the Republic of Korea and its people?
Sung-joo Choi: It is of course a source of concern to our people. We are all Koreans, divided into two countries since Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. While North Korea is under an oppressive communist regime, we are a democratic republic, where people live in freedom. That freedom has allowed us to achieve rapid economic growth. At the moment, there is no dialogue between the two Koreas and the chances of concluding a peace treaty are very slim, even though many Korean people are hoping for that. What’s important for Seoul is that we continue to pursue a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear issue and develop our economic potential to prevent any kind of war on the Korean Peninsula.
Do you believe, despite the huge differences between the two regimes, that the people of the two Koreas share the same national identity?
Yes. Nevertheless, the two Koreas have been divided for almost 70 years now and most of the generation that had family members in the North has now passed away. If you think about German Unification, Germany still had to go through economic and emotional hardship after the unification even though it had been divided for less than 45 years. The sense of shared national identity might fade as the division continues, eventually making it more difficult to achieve genuine integration of the two Koreas.
How do the close military and economic ties with the US influence Korea’s relations with its neighbors?
The Alliance with the US is the cornerstone of Korea’s security policy, just like Poland in the context of the NATO Alliance. Moreover, the US is the second largest trading partner and the largest investor in the world from the Korean perspective. Therefore, Korea’s foreign policy aims to build friendly relations with all of its neighbors, based on the robust ROK-US Alliance. The unification of the two Koreas is a challenge that can only be achieved with agreements from all stakeholders, including China, Japan, Russia and the US. In this context, it is important for the Korean government to maintain good relations with all our neighbors.
How do you assess the relations between Korea and Poland in general?
The bilateral relations between our two countries are developing into a mutually beneficial strategic partnership. The exchanges and cooperation have been growing rapidly in all fields, including the economic, cultural and educational fields since Poland and Korea officially agreed to become strategic partners in 2013. In October 2016, Polish Airline LOT opened up a direct route between the two capital cities of Warsaw and Seoul. The frequency of flights was initially three times a week, but in less than a year it has been increased to five times a week. I believe this is one of the signs that demonstrate the fast-developing relations between our two countries.
What is the volume of our countries’ mutual economic exchange? What are the major exports from the Republic of Korea besides the automotive industry?
In 2016, the trade volume between Korea and Poland stood at $34.3 billion (exports: $29.1 billion and
imports: $5.4 billion). The FDIs from Korea to Poland have reached a value of $1.8 billion and more than 200 Korean firms are currently operating in Poland. Besides automobiles, Korea exports high-tech goods such as flat panel displays, electrical appliances, automotive parts and mobile phones. Many of these products are used by Korean investors in Poland as intermediate goods to make endproducts, most of which are exported to other EU countries and Russia.
What are the major exports from Poland to Korea? What are the possibilities of expanding these?
Korea mainly imports ceramics, medical products, car parts, and agricultural products from Poland. In
my view, Polish industry has a great deal of potential – not only in the agricultural sector but also in high-tech industries such as electromobility and green technology – and can succeed in the Korean market with sufficient governmental support. Recently, the Polish government has been seeking to diversify its trading partners to non-EU countries, especially Asian countries. I think this could be an opportune moment that Polish exporters can exploit.
In the cultural field, Korean artists such as Seung-Jin Cho have successfully participated in the Frederyk Chopin Piano Competition in Poland. What other fields are developing? Do you think that Korean culture and history are well known in Poland?
Korean pop culture is already very popular among young people in Poland, especially “K-Pop” music. The popularity of Korean culture is spreading to various other fields aswell, such as food, films, cosmetics (“K-Beauty”), language and Taekwondo. There are currently three King Sejong Institutes (Institutes for teaching Korean language) in Poland, which is the same number as in Germany or France. In order to meet the increasing demand for Korean culture, the Embassy of Korea in Warsaw is organizing diverse events in cooperation with the Korean Cultural Center. For instance, we hold the annual Korea Festival, where Polish people can experience and enjoy all aspects of Korea, including modern and traditional culture. In 2017, more than 15,000 people participated in the 6th Korea Festival, which was held on June 10 in Park Agrykola.
What are the prospects for the educational exchange between our two countries?
Major Polish and Korean universities have student exchanges and double degree programs and more than 100 Korean students are currently studying in Poland. Furthermore, the Korean Government offers scholarships to Polish students who wish to study in Korea. To facilitate and institutionalize these kinds of exchanges, our two governments are working on cooperation programs in the fields of culture, education, sport and youth.
Korea has a strategic partnership and a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. How does Poland’s membership in the EU facilitate our economic cooperation?
The ROK-EU FTA definitely has a positive impact on our economic cooperation. Since the FTA entered
into force in 2011, the trade volume between the EU and Korea has increased by more than 10 percent, while the global trade volume has increased by only 1 percent. As an EU member state, Poland is an attractive destination for Korean investors. With its highly skilled labor force and geographical advantage, it is becoming the gateway to the EU market for Korean firms. On November 9 this year, the Korean Embassy is planning to hold a seminar on Poland-Korea economic cooperation in cooperation with Wrocław University of Economics. At the seminar, the implications of the ROK-EU FTA for Poland-Korea economic cooperation will be discussed by experts as one of the major themes.
In your opinion, what are the main vehicles of Korea’s impressive economic development?
I believe that the national fervor for education and consistent government policy were the key elements in the Miracle on the Han River, which is the term that refers to Korea’s remarkable economic development. Of course, some sacrifices had to be made by certain groups within the country in the course of such fast development. For example, most women had to devote themselves to supporting their families without any compensation or social recognition. These days, the Korean government is focusing on addressing the socioeconomic issues arising from rapid development in order to make the development more sustainable.