South Korea-Arab Ties Take Another Step Forward

  • 31 October 2013

The tenth Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum held in Seoul on October 23 celebrated the historic ties between Arab nations and Korea, which began almost a thousand years ago with the arrival of Arab merchants in Korea. Sponsored by the Korean foreign ministry and co-hosted by the Jeju Peace Institute, the Korea-Arab Society and Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), the forum brought together academics, diplomats and journalists who discussed ways and means to strengthen the bilateral ties between the two entities.

The launch of the forum in 2003 was a significant commitment to continue and sustain the cooperation between Korea and the Middle East, said Moon Tae-young, president of the Jeju Peace Institute. “Since its first meeting in Cairo in 2003, the Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum has come a long way towards forging partnership between leaders, experts and stakeholders from both sides,” he said.

Broadly divided into three segments, the conference focused on politics, economic cooperation and voices of the next generation. To mark its tenth anniversary, the forum invited young delegates to participate in the day’s agenda and offered them a platform to share their concerns. While most Arab students appreciated the quality of education in the Republic of Korea, they bemoaned the lack of respect for cultural differences and the dearth of halal food in the country.

Addressing the Arab youth, Ali Fakhro, Bahrain’s former minister of education, said, “All developed countries have built their industries first and then moved on towards knowledge-based economies. Let me tell the young generation that the internet is not going to change the world. You can’t have a revolution without having institutions.”

Echoing this sentiment, Chung Dal-ho, former Korean ambassador to Egypt, said the youth need to open their minds to the world. “My suggestion to the Arab youth would be open their minds not only to Korean music or dancing but to Korea’s ancient culture.”

Yun Byung-se, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, lauded the Middle East for looking beyond its traditional role as the global supplier of energy. “The region is making preparation for the post-oil era by looking into possible new growth in areas such as renewable energy, information technology, nuclear energy and the health and medical industry,” he said.

“Korea welcomes such policy directions of the Middle East and hopes that this will, in turn, lead to an opportunity to foster a more future-oriented partnership with the Middle East. In this regard, there are already Korean nuclear power plants being built in the UAE and hundreds of Middle Eastern patients are arriving in Korea for medical treatment.”

While the forum could have benefited with a single-point agenda, it did help in providing a channel to air views on common concerns. “This forum represents an important opportunity to address the most pressing regional issues of concern to both the Arab Gulf states and the Republic of South Korea,” said Humaid Al Ali, the secretary-general of Federation of UAE Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“There is an urgent need to support initiatives and activities that seek to achieve our common interests especially those that employ scholarly approach to communication and dialogue in order to develop and strengthen relations between us,” he said.

In the middle of an Arab Spring, some nations in the Middle East are challenged by serious security concerns and political upheaval. While Egypt struggles to build a democratic state after the revolution, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is getting worse with each passing day.

Christian Berger, the director-general of European Union External Action Service, who moderated the “Working with the International Community: Syria and Beyond” session said, the EU supports a vision of Syria which will live up to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for a free, open and inclusive political system.

“Only a political solution that results in a united, inclusive and democratic Syria can end the terrible bloodshed, and grave violations of human rights,” he said.

Expressing concern over the continued violence and deepening polarisation in Egypt, Berger said a fully inclusive dialogue remains the only solution to restore and re-engage in building a democracy.

Emad Gad Badrous, the deputy director of Egypt’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also expressed the need to seek a political dialogue to resolve the Syria crisis. “Military solution in Syria will be harmful for stability and security in the Middle East and it will only serve the extremists in the region,” he said.

With regard to the situation in Egypt, Badrous said there is more to democracy than free elections. “Majority of Egyptians are now backing the army’s plan to have another transitional period. We should tell the American administration to stop interfering in Egyptian internal affairs because they are dealing with the Muslim Brothers as a democratic group,” he said.

According to Chung Min Lee, professor of International Relations at South Korea’s Yonsei University, mankind’s search for a just world should begin at a personal level.

“There must be a new paradigm beyond ideologies and political conflict. From my perspective, for enduring peace you must begin by assuming responsibility on your own,” he said.

Boosting relations

Established in 2008, the Korea-Arab Society, commonly referred to as KAS by its members, is a comprehensive organisation that includes Korea and the 22 members of the Arab League. Funded by the Korean government, the society aims to enhance economic and trade opportunities between the two entities. The KAS is conducting exchange projects to further expand Korea-Arab relations into the fields of politics, culture, sports and academics, among others. According to KAS, the bilateral cooperation in the energy sector has a vital impact on the Korean economy.

Homecoming Day

Speaking at the forum, Yun Byung-se, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, said this year marks the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of Korean construction workers in the Middle East. To mark the occasion, Korea and Saudi Arabia are jointly launching an initiative tentatively titled the “Saudi Homecoming Day” — a series of events during which retired Korean construction workers will visit Saudi Arabia to witness for themselves their legacy and contribution. “Through such an initiative, we hope to deepen our ties with our friends in the Middle East by recalling our contribution in laying the groundwork for economic growth,” he said.