On a similar path?

Israel and South Korea share many similarities. Ambassador Ilsoo Kim not only studies Talmud, but also shares some interesting facts about his country.

Ilsoo Kim (photo credit: Michael Freund)
Ilsoo Kim
(photo credit: Michael Freund)
A little more than half a year ago, Ilsoo Kim took up the post of South Korea’s ambassador to Israel. A seasoned diplomat whose career has spanned three continents, the affable Kim presides over a delegation that finds itself increasingly busy as relations between the two countries continue to expand.
Like Israel, South Korea was established in 1948, and it too inhabits a rough neighborhood, many of whose occupants don’t always appreciate its democratic system and free-market capitalist ways. To mark 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the Republic of Korea, Ambassador Kim sat down for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with the Jerusalem Post.

You have been in Israel since last autumn. What is your impression of the country so far?
I came to Israel last September, so I am relatively new here. Every day I am learning new things about Israel and I find it to be a very unique country. My country is also very unique, so it is great fun for me to compare the similarities that exist between our two countries.
Over the course of my career, since I joined the Foreign Ministry in 1977, I have served as ambassador to Kazakhstan and before that I served in the UK, Saudi Arabia, Moscow, Jamaica and in Washington. My career was mostly oriented toward the West and not too much in Asia, so much so that I had not visited Japan until last year! Like you do in Israel, I served in the Korean military as a naval officer. I speak Russian and I am now learning Hebrew.
And how is that coming along?
It is interesting. I just take 30 minutes out of my daily schedule to study how to read and write the language. Right now I am learning the verbs. Compared to Russian, Hebrew is not that difficult, so maybe I can do it. But I am already in my mid-50s so it is not very easy to learn a new language, but I am trying.
In recent years, there appears to have been a warming of relations between Israel and South Korea. To what do you attribute this?
I think the image of Israel among Koreans is quite good. First, it is the Holy Land. Second, the 1967 war had a great impact. At the time, I was in elementary school and I remember our teacher telling us about how great this small nation had done in the face of its big neighbors. At the time, South Korea was the underdog, as North Korea was militarily and economically stronger. So our teacher spoke about how we should emulate the triumphs of Israel. And Israel is also now known as a start-up nation. As a result, more Koreans have come to notice the potential of Israel as a partner for economic cooperation. The exchange of visits by the leaders of the two countries, and the growing number of Koreans who are visiting Israel, has also reinforced this. We now have direct flights from Tel Aviv to Seoul three times a week, and four times a week in the busy season.
Do you see the trend continuing and relations growing warmer?
Yes, they are expanding. We are very likeminded people. So I think because of our common experience, we can understand each other better. There is a kind of empathy that exists between us. Our trade volume is also expanding – last year it was around $2.5 billion. I met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who was recently in Seoul to attend a nuclear security summit. It was his first time in Korea and he said that even though the trade figures are impressive, given the size of the Korean economy and Israel’s expertise in various fields, it is not a figure that we should be satisfied with. I agree with him. So relations are growing warmer, and they cannot but grow still further given our circumstances.
Both of our countries are democracies surrounded by nations that are not democratic. What kind of unique challenges does this present from a security and diplomatic point of view?
Yes, this is the source of all problems. Of course both Korea and Israel share a market economy and democracy. In Korea’s case, China is our No. 1 trading partner and the volume of our annual trade with them exceeds $20b.
You know, China is a kind of market economy that is socially oriented and their political system is still not very much the same as ours. Russia is both a democracy and a market economy but the road there is not very smooth. And Japan is closest to Korea in terms of economy and political system but there is a historic problem. And although America is not our geographical neighbor, they have troops based in Korea and in Japan.
And then we have North Korea, which is a paragon of the old system. They represent everything of the past. And they are trying to arm themselves with nuclear bombs. It is not only a matter of democracy or nondemocracy, but also a question of the sheer size of the neighbors.
China is No. 2 economically in the world and No. 1 in terms of population. Russia is No. 1 in territory and Japan is No. 3 economically.
So Korea is surrounded by leading nations, with North Korea being another story altogether. Many Koreans complain: why is our country located in this area? We would have been better off if we had been located somewhere else. But that we cannot change.
I think it is kind of a curse but also a kind of blessing. All the countries are first-class countries so that peer pressure is what has kept Korea going. The same thing applies to Israel – it is an island of democracy and economic prosperity in this region. The security challenges and living in a difficult neighborhood is one of the common things that we share. But because of that I think that Israel is united among themselves.
Of course you have many opinions, but once there is an external challenge or crisis, you come together and are united. The same is true in Korea. So I think this adversity causes real trouble, but in the long term in a curious way it affects favorably the paths of the two countries. Both of our countries were born in the same year, in 1948, and not many countries made such political and economic development in such a short period of time. That is something that we can both be proud of. So perhaps adversity is something that makes you excel.
South Korea has had to live in the shadow of a hostile neighbor armed with nuclear weapons. Since Israel may have to face a similar prospect in the years to come, what advice would you give the Jewish state?
There is not much in the way of advice that I can give to you. North Korea started to develop nuclear arms because they are in a very defensive position. At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union ceased to provide North Korea with their economic subsidies and cooperation. Economically and politically North Korea has been quite isolated.
And their legitimacy is questioned, as many asked: how can this communist dictatorship survive?
The North Koreans developed their nuclear bombs out of desperation. In 2002, they admitted developing their uranium enrichment program. And North Korean threats are not only nuclear, they also involve conventional arms. When you walk in Seoul, which is just 40 km away from the Demilitarized Zone, you are within range of North Korean artillery. They have this longrange artillery aimed at Seoul, so our capital is constantly under threat. That is why they are talking about the possibility of introducing the Israeli Iron Dome system in South Korea in order to protect the population of Seoul.
So we are under threat. Our concern is not to have a war take place. We already lost about three million people in the Korean War. We believe the solution to the problem is through peaceful means. And also we view this as not only our problem but as an international problem for the international community.
So we initiated the six-party talks involving North Korea and other powers to persuade North Korea to give up their nuclear ambitions as part of a grand bargain that would involve economic assistance and permanent recognition.
They have made two nuclear tests thus far but we have not yet heard reports regarding a nuclear bomb being deployed. It means they have demonstrated their nuclear capability but in terms of weaponizing it – we do not know yet. We are trying to persuade them that their security lies not in possessing the nuclear bomb but in opening up their economy and in pursuing cooperation with the outside world. And we are ready to give them assistance, which we would have to extend anyway if we were to become unified, so now we are in the process of dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem that way.
But what about your country’s relations with Iran?
In terms of Iran, I think that the circumstances are a little bit different. The International Atomic Energy Agency has indicated that Iran has some military intentions in their program. Korea is now participating in the international sanctions against Iran. We used to import some 9 percent of our oil from Iran. And unlike Israel, which has found gas in the Mediterranean, so far we have not found any sources of oil or gas either onshore or offshore. So we are 100 percent dependent on imported oil or gas.
And it all comes via shipping, which is in a very precarious situation. So we need to find an alternative before we reduce our imports from Iran. But we are actually reducing it. And our president recently visited Saudi Arabia and other oil rich countries to increase their exports to Korea. The Iranian nuclear problem is not only for Israel but for the international community. I am hopeful that Israel will find a solution in cooperation with the international community.
If Israel decides that there is no alternative but to use military force against the Iranian nuclear installations, what would your government’s position be on that?
That is a question that I would leave for the future. In our case, because of the enormous costs that any conflict with North Korea would incur to South Korea and Japan, the best solution would be a negotiated one. But in your case, you know better than I. I mean that Israel’s political leaders know better than I. And of course I would be happy if the issue is solved by negotiation and peaceful means in cooperation with international community.
How concerned are you by the proliferation efforts of the North Korean regime?
It has been reported, for example, that the North Koreans were assisting the Syrians to build a nuclear reactor which was destroyed. Whether it is North Korea or any other country, we are of course against proliferation. As the hosts of the recent nuclear security summit in Seoul, and as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and a board member of the IAEA, we are against proliferation.
But we have to watch closely what the North Koreans are doing, the traffic they have with other countries. So far it is not officially confirmed that North Korea has some real nuclear traffic with other countries but we do not exclude the possibility and we are watching this closely.
If I am not mistaken, Korea is the only country in the world that is divided in two. What are the prospects for unification in the near future?
This is a very difficult question. In the early 1990s, many experts believed that after the downfall of the Soviet Union, North Korea would disappear within five or 10 years. But since then more than 20 years have passed, and we cannot be sure what will become of North Korea in the next 20 years.
North Korea is supported by China and it is not really of much concern to the international community unless they develop some nuclear weapons. These kinds of factors combine to make North Korea... live longer. And North Korea’s regime’s control of the population is so tight and cruel. Because society is tightly controlled as well, people are in the dark about what is happening outside.
As a new phenomenon in the 1990s, North Koreans began to escape in large numbers. We don’t know how many, but we have 20,000 or so refugees in South Korea who came via China or other countries.
It shows just how dire the situation is in North Korea. Until the 1970s, North Korea’s living standards were higher than those of South Korea. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, people might have some good memory of him, which might help the regime to survive. But since the 1990s, there is no good memory among North Korean population. Malnutrition, hunger and starvation and even famine, with millions having died. So the legitimacy has eroded. So many North Koreans are coming out of the country.
The Korean people lived together for thousands of years; this is just a temporary situation for 60 or so years. So compared to the long history of living as one nation, it is a very short span, and everybody both in North and South Korea believes that they should be united. We don’t know exactly when it will happen. No one predicted the unification of Germany, for example.
But we saw the example of Germany and what kinds of things we would have to do in the case of unification. So we are now preparing for unification and we will take it – whether we like it or not – and learn from the lessons of Germany. I hope it will be less than 20 years.
Back to our region – we are sitting here in your embassy, which is located in Herzliya. But Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. Why doesn’t South Korea recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
We know how the Israeli government views Jerusalem as its capital. But I think this is a kind of thing to be decided by some agreement. Like everybody else I do not know the solution. At the time of Israel’s birth, it was unthinkable that Egypt and Jordan would one day forge diplomatic relations with your country, but they did it. So perhaps some unthinkable changes will one day occur here as well.
The Palestinians have long had close relations with North Korea. Indeed, on December 22, PA President Mahmoud Abbas sent condolences to Kim Jong Un on the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Abbas wrote that: “Kim Jong Il devoted all his life to the dignity and prosperity of the country and the people and most powerfully supported the cause of global justice and truth.” Given the Palestinians’ support for your North Korean adversaries, why does South Korea back many of the Palestinians’ demands?
I don’t think that the Palestinian Authority really appreciates that much the leadership in North Korea, [or] are genuinely respectful of them. As an entity that is not fully recognized internationally as a state, the PA has every reason to be kinder to anybody who shows any signs of sympathy. I just take it as a kind of diplomatic gesture by the PA. We don’t withdraw our cooperation with the Palestinians because of that kind of statement. Of course they went too far in what they said, and we don’t like it, but it is also something that does not offend us too much.
There has been talk of a possible Free Trade Agreement between Israel and South Korea. Where do things stand with that?
Yes, that is one of the most important tasks that I have to fulfill. In February I was in Korea and had a long discussion with my colleagues in charge of FTA and presented my case regarding the necessity of signing this agreement with Israel, and the great potential we have.
And because of the similar nature of our economies there are not many issues to fight over. So let’s do it. The problem is that the South Korean government now is beset with so many requests for FTA from other countries. The priority of Israel is high, but there are also China and other Southeast Asian countries which for geographical reasons we give priority [to]. But Israel is very high on the priority list. I am working on it, and signing an FTA with Israel is high on my agenda.
Last year, there was a flurry of reports in the international press about the study of Talmud in South Korean schools. What is it about Jewish culture and the Jewish historical experience that Koreans find interesting?
By Asian standards, Koreans are considered to be quite casual and free-thinking and like to talk with each other and criticize each other very much. But they know Israel is a country where we can learn and change our way of thinking.
In non-Asian terms we Koreans are considered to be thinking inside the box. From you we can learn how to think outside the box. And more practically, parents like to give their children a good education and something different than others. And they think they can find a solution in Talmud and the Jewish way of thinking.
On the government level, we have won the Nobel Prize in peace, but not in physics, not in economics or other fields. But Israel and the Jewish people have produced so many Nobel laureates. So when we look at Israel we think, “wow, these guys are doing so much better with such a small number of people. Let’s just learn from them how to produce high-minded people.”
So generally speaking the interest in Israel among the Korean population, both in the government and the private sector, is very, very high. Not many have a chance to be exposed to the Israeli way of culture so one of my jobs is to let my people know more about what the Jewish way of thinking is.
And the Talmud helps them to understand.
We have many books that have been translated into Korean on the Talmud. I also keep some here on my desk.
Have you studied Talmud?
Yes, as an ambassador that is my duty. I am reading Hebrew history and about Talmud.
On a recent visit to South Korea, a number of Koreans told me they believe that Koreans are descendants of the tribe of Dan. What do you think of this?
Yes, there are many Koreans who believe we are related to Jews. Dan is the name of an Israelite tribe, and the founder of the Korean nation was Dangun, so many people associate the Korean founder with the Israelites. Legend tells us that he started the Korean nation over 4,000 years ago. So maybe it is possible that the lost tribe of Dan wandered across Asia and made its way to the Korean peninsula. That is the theory.
Of course it needs more scientific research to verify if it is true. There are many similarities between our people, so I hope we are related, perhaps even long-lost cousins.