Koo Hong-seok, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea: Kazakhstan is a land of opportunity
NUR-SULTAN. KAZINFORM - Ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Kazakhstan Mr. Koo Hong-seok told Kazinform correspondent Akbota Kuzekbay in an exclusive interview how the cooperation between the Republic of Korea and Kazakhstan continues, how Korea is helping in the fight against coronavirus, whether the pandemic has affected the relationship between our countries, about medical tourism in Korea and other opportunities in the bilateral cooperation.
Mr. Ambassador, You have been working in Nur-Sultan as the Ambassador for almost a year now. What are the main directions of our cooperation, do South Korea and Kazakhstan have new areas of cooperation?
Yes, I have already spent one year in this lovely country. And I am very determined to make more contribution during my tenure as Ambassador.
We are currently deepening our cooperation. Due to the current situation, I think we can stress four areas in the frame of our bilateral cooperation.
First of all, the cooperation in the healthcare sector. We are all going through the worrisome times of the pandemic. The «Medical partners Korea» (MPK) Korean medical institute in Almaty has been making a great contribution in conducting PCR tests in the fight against COVID-19. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited the MPK center last year in May. There are more promising areas in healthcare for the two countries to deepen the cooperation, for example, in construction and operation of hospitals, medical staff and academic exchanges.
The second area that I want to stress is the development of the oil and gas industry. Definitely, Kazakhstan is one of the major oil and gas exporting countries to Korea. Kazakhstan’s Government is energetically developing the oil and gas industry. I am aware that Kazakhstan’s Government is very keen to develop other new areas - for example, chemical and petrochemical industry. Korean Government wants to remain as one of the importing countries of oil and gas from Kazakhstan. Korean Government and Korean companies are highly interested in contributing to the development of the downstream sector in Kazakhstan, and I welcome Korean companies which are focused in this area.
Thirdly, we can consider cooperation in power generation - especially in a brand new area – in alternative and renewable energy. Korea has excellent technologies. Actually, we made a great contribution in Southeast Asian countries and even in South and Central America.
Korea and Kazakhstan cooperate in traditional energy sectors. The Korean Government is working on the Green New Deal policy which is based on low-carbon energy. Kazakhstan’s Government is also talking about a green economy policy.
I want to point out that South Korea is one of the countries that supplies energy through nuclear power plants, but safety always comes first. Korea has exported its nuclear power plant to UAE and has long experience of operating nuclear power plants in Korea. If there will be any chances for Kazakhstan’s Government and people to consider the construction of a nuclear power plant, Korea could be considered as one of the competent contributors. Even now, Kazakhstan is exporting a vast amount of uranium to Korea. I fully understand some concerns over the nuclear power plant among the Kazakhstani people, but again - safety first. If Kazakhstan someday decides to set up the plant, I have to say that the Korean Government and industry will be very willing to cooperate with each other.
And finally, cooperation in the ICT sector. I think ICT technology still matters in the future. Korea is one of the renowned countries in this regard. Recently Korean Government announced the Digital New Deal to make Korea even more advanced in ICT. Kazakhstan’s Government also has long-term goals in the frameworks of the Digital Kazakhstan program. The goal of both countries in this sector is very similar. ICT area could be one of the most promising areas in our bilateral cooperation.
So these four areas stress our cooperation. The motto of our cooperation could be «expansion and diversification». We can expand and deepen our relationship in the traditional areas and diversify our cooperation. Two countries’ economy is very mutually beneficial.
How many Korean companies are currently working in Kazakhstan and what new projects are these Korean companies working on?
According to our government, more than 300 Korean companies are doing business in Kazakhstan. I am very happy to see many Korean cars and many companies focused on electronics. For example, such companies as Hyundai and Samsung, LG and so on. Not only big, but also small- and medium-sized companies are highly interested in investing and doing business in Kazakhstan.
According to the statistics of Kazakhstan’s Government, Korean investments to Kazakhstan are estimated at $8 billion. From the Korean perspective, Kazakhstan is definitely one of the largest investment destinations in Central Asia.
Also you can find companies focusing on housing construction, for example, Highvill. One of the construction companies - SK Engineering & Construction Co, Ltd, is building a highway in Almaty (BAKAD). In the financial sector, Shinhan Bank also operates here in Kazakhstan. Many Korean snacks, which you can find in supermarkets, are manufactured by Lotte company. I know that many people in Kazakhstan enjoy Korean food and love to use Korean cosmetics. And more Korean companies are interested in Kazakhstan’s market and I am very happy to see this activity.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected the trading volume between Kazakhstan and Korea?
No country can evade from the pandemic situation, but in comparison with other countries, trade volumes of Kazakhstan and Korea still remain robust.
According to the statistics reported by the Kazakhstani government, the bilateral trade volume was $6.5 billion in 2019. It decreased to $5.9 billion in 2020.
Trade volume between two countries decreased only by 10 percent. This demonstrates how much the cooperation between our two countries has been made smoothly. As I have mentioned before, Kazakhstan is the largest trade and investment partner of South Korea in Central Asia. And Korea is the number four trade partner to Kazakhstan. Overcoming the coronavirus, the relationship of two countries should be shown much more progress. We are doing our best to keep up people to people exchanges. Many people should come and go. Contactless meetings are still effective, but I want to see business meetings and more consultations. We need more progress and we would like to be more ambitious.
How many Kazakhstan citizens visit Korea in general? And has the number of visas issued to Kazakhstan citizens decreased due to the pandemic?
More than 50,000 Kazakhstan citizens visited Korea in 2019. Due to the coronavirus situation this number decreased to 10,000 in 2020. Fighting the pandemic was a top priority of two countries. I have to remind you that the Korean government did not shut down direct flights between Kazakhstan and Korea at all. Because we believe that people to people exchanges are the basic foundation for countries’ relationships. All of the countries in the world have been starting to live a normal life and hopefully Korea and Kazakhstan can resume the number of flights. And I hope more people from Kazakhstan will come to Korea.
Could You comment on the development of the tourism sphere, particularly about medical tourism between the two countries.
Before coming here, I found one amazing fact - that Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries sending travelers for the medical purpose to South Korea. Korea is boasting world class medical skills. I asked Korean hospitals of the main purpose why Kazakhstani people come to Korea. Many Kazakhstani citizens said that it was to undergo medical check-ups and have surgeries. Thanks to the close relations of our countries, through a direct flight that lasts 7 hours, Kazakhstan people can easily travel to Korea for medical purposes. I would like to see more Korean medical treatments offered here, and for Kazakhstani patients to have much easier access to Korean skilled medical equipment in Kazakhstan. This would be possible by constructing or operating hospitals. And also, medical academic exchanges where Kazakh medical staffs could be trained by Korean medical centers could be considered in the future.
And what about the current situation with coronavirus cases in South Korea? How is Korea helping the world in the fight against coronavirus?
Korea was one of the countries which had suffered from the pandemic in the beginning. However, Korea has become successful in effectively fighting the spread of COVID-19, and is currently renowned for managing the pandemic situation. First of all, our Government decided to share our experience with other countries. Secondly, we provided humanitarian aid to the countries in need. I was happy to support the provision of humanitarian aid to Kazakhstan, which was estimated at $800,000. The humanitarian aid included PCR-test kits, masks, medical kits, etc. It is notable that we had good cooperation with the Ministry of Healthcare of Kazakhstan while we carried out our humanitarian aid. We also had one more friend – the World Health Organization (WHO). The Government of Korea, the Government of Kazakhstan and WHO were parts of a trilateral cooperation. Taking this opportunity, I would like to once again thank Kazakhstan’s Government and WHO. We are planning to provide more humanitarian aid to other countries, for example, to India, where serious situations with coronavirus still prevail.
I would like to ask - have South Korean scientists developed a vaccine against the coronavirus infection? Mr. Ambassador, have You already gotten your COVID-19 vaccine?
I would like to express my appreciation to Kazakhstan’s Government. Thanks to the measures taken by the Kazakhstan Government, I have been fully vaccinated. And not only me, but my colleagues here and most of the local staff members have already been vaccinated. Not only the staff of our Embassy, but also many of the Korean community members here, appreciate the offer. Personally, I was the first in the diplomatic corps who applied for the vaccination. My purpose was to demonstrate how safe this vaccine is. I understand that some people in Kazakhstan are concerned over the safety of the vaccine.
As an Ambassador who got fully vaccinated, I want to stress that the vaccine will be making society as a whole, much safer.
While there are more than 50 million people in Korea, the Korean government has secured about 100 million doses of vaccines so far. The vaccines are available for foreigners in Korea as well without any discrimination. Currently, Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are being administered in Korea. A number of Korean pharmaceutical companies are developing their own vaccines and now conducting clinical trials. The Korean government is actively supporting the development of domestic vaccines. We hope that the Korean companies can develop fully authorized vaccines by next year.
How do you comment on the vaccination campaign that is going on in Kazakhstan?
I am very impressed to see that Kazakhstani government is providing vaccines. Kazakhstan developed its homemade vaccine named QazVac. President Tokayev stressed that vaccine supply matters and asked the people to be vaccinated as soon as possible. I totally support his idea on the vaccination campaign. I hope that by the end of this year, Kazakhstani people will fully come back to normal life. So I am fully confident that Kazakhstan’s Government and people will overcome this situation very soon.
How does South Korea assess the political reform that is going in our country and what makes Kazakhstan attractive to South Korea?
2019 was a very memorable year for both countries. South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Kazakhstan in 2019 and President Moon had very productive meetings with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and the First President-Elbasy Nursultan Nazarbayev where they agreed to establish new economic cooperation.
Currently, the governments of the two countries are working closely to prepare for the future visit of the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to the Republic of Korea.
We hope that this year will include great opportunities to make further development in our relationship.
Let me mention about my assessment on Kazakhstan’s political situation. As an Ambassador I found that the reforms made by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev are impressive. I support the efforts by the Government of Kazakhstan making the political reforms in a transparent and democratic way. Reforms always mean radical changes. I think that Kazakhstan is on the right track.
President Tokayev is stressing his visional reform. While Kazakhstan is taking the great journey towards reforms, Korea will try to support Kazakhstan. Whenever I see the young generation which is very well-educated and smart - I see great possibilities. I strongly believe that Kazakhstan is a land of opportunity. Political leaders are determined that the resolution of the reforms will make Kazakhstan’s future much brighter. I have only spent one year and fully enjoyed the friendship between our people. I want to say a big thank you to Kazakhstani people for their hospitality.
Your Excellency, thank you very much for the interview!