Guest Columnist: Advancing cooperation

Having come from a unique country myself, it has been even more fascinating to discover that we have so much in common.

Advancing Israel - South Korea cooperation (photo credit: Reuters)
Advancing Israel - South Korea cooperation
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 country.
Enjoying the discovery of similarities, I cannot but feel that Koreans and Israelis are well-positioned to understand each other.
Korea 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 the celebration.
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 that.
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.
The two 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 before us.
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 cooperation.
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 assistance.
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.
In cultural cooperation and human exchanges, we have more potential to tap.
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 less difficult.
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.
Commemorating the 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 partners.
The writer is the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to Israel.