I arrived in Israel as Korean ambassador last September. Six months in Israel has
provided valuable time for me to discover this unique country. Having come from
a unique country myself, it has been even more fascinating for me to discover
that we have so much in common.
In particular, what enables us to have
special empathy toward each other is that we both live in tough neighborhoods.
Korea is surrounded by world giants including China, Russia and Japan. On top of
that, we have a most difficult neighbor in our immediate proximity, namely North
Korea. Israel, meanwhile, is an island of democracy in its region and lacks
diplomatic relations with countries of the region besides its two immediate
neighbors. The many wars and conflicts Israel has undergone throughout its
60-some years of history bespeak the precariousness of the security environment
in which it finds itself.
South Korea is five times larger than Israel,
with a population of 50 million. Like Israel, Korea’s economic prosperity is
almost entirely attributable to an educated and motivated population, not least
because Korea has no natural resources except for people. Israel is a bit
luckier than Korea thanks to the recent discovery of offshore natural gas. But
it would be fair to say that thanks to human capital, both Korea and Israel have
achieved democracy and an economy mature enough for them to become members of
the OECD despite adverse conditions – an exploit few have accomplished in the
world’s recent history.
Two countries were born as modern states in 1948
as a result of United Nations resolutions.
Korea, proud of its 4,000
years of history, briefly lost its sovereignty to Japan from 1910 until 1945.
Israel, well known for its long and illustrious history, had been stateless much
longer. Korea suffered the loss of three million people during the Korean War of
1950-53, while the Jewish people lost six million in the Holocaust, making it
imperative for the two peoples to expend every effort to defend their
Enjoying the discovery of similarities, I cannot but feel that
Koreans and Israelis are well-positioned to understand each other.
and Israel celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year, and
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s recent visit to Korea was a culmination of
Besides exchanges of high-level visits, trade volume
bespeaks rapidly growing relations.
Last year our trade volume reached
$2.5 billion. But I would say we have the potential to do better and more than
Economic cooperation between the two countries is progressing in
the direction of cooperation in R&D and technology. When President Shimon
Peres visited Korea in 2010, his vision to develop cooperation in hi-tech
inspired business communities in both countries to launch joint funds aimed at
promoting cooperation between each other’s hi-tech start-ups.
countries are ideally positioned for cooperation because of the complementary
nature of their economies. Korea is a world leader in engineering, especially in
the automobile, shipbuilding, steelmaking, petrochemical and electronic
industries, while Israel is known for innovative ideas and highly developed IT,
NT, BT and green technology.
We have already seen the success stories
that Samsung and Iscar have created by combining the merits of two economies.
Multiplying such success stories is the daunting but highly plausible task
The defense industry is another area in which cooperation is
going ahead at full speed. Because of the military stand-off with North Korea,
South Korea buys advanced weapons systems from Israel, including radars,
missiles and so on. Korea is also trying to make inroads into the Israeli
military sector with its quality products.
Recently Korea hosted the
second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul to discuss how to make the world safer
by preventing nuclear terrorism. At the summit – which 58 heads of state and
international organizations attended, including US President Barack Obama and
Chinese President Hu Jin Tao – Israel was represented by Deputy Prime Minister
Dan Meridor. Korea also hosted the OECD-sponsored High Level Forum on Aid
Effectiveness last December to coordinate international efforts aimed at dealing
with the global community’s economic disparities through development
As a once-war-torn nation, still struggling to come to grips
with nuclear threats from North Korea, and as a recipient-turneddonor country,
Korea, the host of the two global events, was given the role of making the world
safer from nuclear terrorism.
I THINK Israel and Korea may work together
on these valuable endeavors, especially in cooperation for development
MASHAV, the International Development Cooperation Agency of
Israel, and the KOICA, MASHAV’s Korean counterpart, might become partners of the
donor-donor cooperation. In terms of similarity in the past experience, and
common aspirations for the future, Korea and Israel would make great partners in
contributing to the humanitarian well-being of the world and effectively
projecting our efforts throughout the international community.
cultural cooperation and human exchanges, we have more potential to
Every year, some 50,000 Koreans visit Israel, which reflects the
keen interest Koreans have in Israel. It is not well known that the majority of
foreign volunteers working at kibbutzim are young Koreans. Being aware, however,
that Israelis’ understanding of Korea leaves much to be desired, my ambition as
ambassador is to make as many Israelis as possible, especially young people,
visit Korea. Korea is to be the second country, after New Zealand, to sign a
Working Holiday Agreement with Israel. With the agreement in place, I hope more
young Israelis, especially backpackers, will visit Korea.
Both Korea and
Israel are faced with great challenges for the future. Israel has to attain a
stable peace with the Palestinians and its other neighbors. Korea’s task is no
As the only divided country in the world, unification is
the greatest challenge for Korea. By safeguarding security, promoting democracy,
human rights and sharing economic prosperity with others, I am sure that our two
peoples will successfully cope with the challenges.
50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Israel, I am once again convinced
that we are well-positioned to cooperate in exploring our paths for peace and
prosperity, and our tasks will become much easier to fulfill if we work as
The writer is the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to Israel.