In 1948, two small, proud and fiercely independent nations on opposite sides of
the globe regained their political sovereignty.
As heirs to ancient and
venerable civilizations, both of which had suffered under the yoke of foreign
occupation, these two states seemed poised for close friendship and cooperation.
Both faced gargantuan tasks of development and modernization, with precious few
national resources other than the vast talents and human capital of their
And yet, it was not until April 1962 – 50 years ago
this month – that Israel and South Korea finally established formal diplomatic
While the rapport between the two countries has certainly had
its ups and downs in the intervening decades, the time has never been more ripe
to improve ties. In a world of mounting strategic instability, it behooves both
Jerusalem and Seoul to take steps to forge a stronger alliance.
quick look at a map and you will see how policy- makers in Israel and South
Korea face challenges that are as daunting as they are similar. Indeed, both are
strongholds of freedom in regions dominated primarily by much larger and
decidedly less democratic states.
And South Koreans, like Israelis, know
all too well what it is like to grapple with a hostile and bellicose
Residents of Seoul live within artillery and rocket range of
the thuggish North Korean dictatorship which lies just across the 38th parallel
of the Korean peninsula.
With its heated rhetoric, propensity for
violence, and nuclear arsenal, the Communist North poses an ongoing existential
and security threat to the South Koreans.
Not surprisingly, all young
male South Koreans are required to do a stint of military service, with defense
consuming a healthy share of the national budget.
Sound familiar? But the
comparisons don’t end there.
Israel and South Korea, each in their own
ways, have produced economic miracles despite the odds. The Jewish state has
famously made the desert bloom, while Koreans took a country that lay devastated
by war in the past century and transformed it into a commercial and
For all the similarities, however, the
relationship between the two countries has often been rocky.
oil shock of 1973, South Korean policy tilted strongly in favor of the Arabs and
the PLO, and leading South Korean companies adhered to the Arab League boycott
against the Jewish state.
This prompted Israel to close its embassy in
1978, which only reopened in 1992 after the end of the Cold War. Since then,
bilateral relations have slowly and inexorably begun to take off.
past two years, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor
Liberman each visited Seoul, and a delegation of 11 prominent South Korean
parliamentarians came to Israel. Recent news reports indicate that defense ties
between the two countries are growing stronger, and last September, South Korea
purchased Israeli-made Spike rockets to defend against a possible attack from
Trade between the two countries was well over $1.5 billion
last year, and reports indicating that the Talmud was being taught in South
Korean schools as part of the curriculum generated a media stir. But much more
can and should be done. A good place to be start would be to sign a free trade
agreement, one that would enable the already burgeoning commercial relationship
to flourish still further.
South Korea is now the fourth largest economy
in Asia and the 16th largest in the world. It is a powerhouse in fields ranging
from shipbuilding to petrochemicals. The country is well-positioned to serve as
a regional center for finance, offering Israel an additional gateway to the
East. No less important is the fact that there is great potential for developing
widespread grassroots pro-Israel sentiment in South Korea, particularly in light
of the phenomenal growth of evangelical Christianity in the country.
visit to Seoul earlier this week, I had the honor to meet Rev. Young Hoon Lee,
Senior Pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, as well as Pastor Il Doo Kwon of
the church’s international division. Located in the middle of the Han river, in
the heart of downtown Seoul, the church was founded by the Rev. Dr.
Yonggi Cho. It rapidly grew into the largest Christian congregation in the
world, with more than 1 million members and a main sanctuary that seats 26,000
people at a time.
After greeting me warmly in Hebrew, Rev. Young told me
that Israel is very dear to the hearts of many South Korean
“We pray for Israel every month,” he said, “and we ask God to
bless the land with peace.” “We love Israel.
Many of our members have
visited the country and are active in a global initiative to pray for
Jerusalem,” he noted.
Sitting in his office, 8,000 kilometers from
Jerusalem, I could not help but admire the fact that our Holy City is in the
thoughts and prayers of Rev. Young and his flock, who regularly beseech God on
behalf of Israel.
With so much in common, it is time for the two
countries to join forces and fashion a closer relationship.
presents Israel with an opportunity to cultivate a strategic partnership in an
increasingly important part of the world. By every measure, this is a bond we
would do well to strengthen.
The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel
(www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to
return to Israel and the Jewish people.