Fundamentally Freund: Bolster Israel-South Korean ties

In 1948, two small, proud and fiercely independent nations on opposite sides of the globe regained their political sovereignty.

The Bongeunsa temple near Seoul 370 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
The Bongeunsa temple near Seoul 370 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 respective peoples.
And yet, it was not until April 1962 – 50 years ago this month – that Israel and South Korea finally established formal diplomatic relations.
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.
Take a 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 neighbor.
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 manufacturing powerhouse.
For all the similarities, however, the relationship between the two countries has often been rocky.
After the 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.
In the 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 the north.
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.
On a 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.
David 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 Christians.
“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.
South Korea 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 (, which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.