INTERVIEWSMIDDLE EASTOPINION

Seoul-Riyadh ties will continue to grow: Envoy

Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Korea are working closely to strengthen strategic coordination, commercial relation, and pragmatic cooperation in different sectors including politics, economy and culture. The Republic of Korea has strong confidence that Saudi Arabia will successfully fulfill its role as the Chair of the G20 this year, exactly ten years after Korea’s presidency.

This was disclosed by Jo Byung-Wook, South Korean Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in a wide-ranging interview here recently. Giving an overview of Saudi-South Korean relations, Ambassador Jo said: “In the last half a century and more since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1962 our two countries have indeed continued to foster and nurture close ties.” “Korea has played a key role in the development of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom has been the primary energy provider for the Korean economy,” he added.

Looking back to the 70s and 80s, over a hundred thousand Koreans worked on construction sites in Saudi Arabia, during which close bonds were formed between the countries. Here in the Kingdom, one can see many landmark buildings and infrastructures, such as ministry buildings, hospitals, universities, highways, airports and residential areas, which were built by Korean companies. Besides this, “Saudi Arabia has indeed been a good friend to us, supporting our efforts to promote peace and security on the Korean Peninsula,” said the diplomat.

“To give one good example, immediately following the holding of the Inter-Korean Summit in April 2018 Saudi Arabia issued a statement welcoming the Panmunjom Declaration,” said Ambassador Jo. “Likewise, whenever civilian targets in the Kingdom have been attacked, including the attack on facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September last year, the Government of Korea has consistently issued a statement strongly condemning such attacks”, he added.

He said that Korea and Saudi Arabia have taken a common stance at the United Nations and other international organizations on various issues. These include such key agenda as counterterrorism, denuclearization, development cooperation and sustainable development. “Our close relations are also clearly demonstrated by the frequent high-level visits between the two countries,” said the diplomat. So far four Presidents of Korea have visited the Kingdom, and there have been countless ministerial-level visits between us, he noted.

For the last year alone, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-Wha, Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kim Hyun-mi, Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo and Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hyun-chong visited the Kingdom from Korea, while Minister of Economy and Planning Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri, Minister of Health Tawfiq Al-Rabiah and, most importantly, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, visited Seoul from the Kingdom.

He said that “our long journey of friendship and prosperity has reached a new level of maturity after the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed on June 26-27, 2019”. This marked the highest-level visit from Saudi Arabia in 21 years since then-Crown Prince King Abdullah’s visit to Korea in 1998. This surely is the most notable and historic event reflecting the even closer friendship between our two countries.

On the occasion of the summit, Crown Prince Mohammed and the President of the Republic of Korea discussed not only the traditional fields of cooperation such as construction, infrastructure, and energy but also various new fields of cooperation such as healthcare, smart infrastructure, ICT, e-government, intellectual property, renewable energy, defense science, and technology, as well as cultural and people-to-people exchanges. “On top of these close ties in the economic and political realms, I would like to see more cultural exchanges between our two countries,” said Jo.

“I believe this would be of tremendous value in further deepening the mutual understanding and goodwill between the Korean and Saudi peoples,” said the diplomat adding that our two countries have already worked together closely for the holding of a range of wonderful cultural events. For example, the “Roads of Arabia” special exhibition in Seoul, Korea two years ago attracted tens of thousands of Koreans to enjoy and learn more about Saudi history and culture. The National Museum of Korea also organized a successful exhibition on Korean history and culture from December 2018 to March 2019 at the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh.

A series of cultural performances were held in Riyadh such as the “Korea-Arab Friendship Caravan” in October 2018 and Korea Culture Night, “Ahlan Korea” in April 2019, providing an exciting opportunity for many Saudis to experience for themselves and gain a sense of Korean culture. The MoU on facilitation of issuance of visit visas for citizens, which came into force in February 2019, and the Kingdom’s introduction in September 2019 of an e-visa program, allowing people from 49 countries including Korea to visit Saudi Arabia are also further boosting bilateral cooperation in the fields of culture, tourism, sports, and education.

Giving an overview of Korean-Saudi trade and investment relations, Ambassador Jo said that the two-way trade volume between Korea and Saudi Arabia reached $30.2 billion in 2018 and $25.5 billion in 2019. The trade volume has been increasing steadily over the past few years and reached a total of $30.2 billion in 2018. However, the year 2019 marked a 15.7% decrease in trade volume compared with that of 2018. This was mainly due to the fall in the oil price caused by the global economic slowdown.

He further said that as of 2019, Saudi Arabia is Korea’s 9th largest trading partner and the 4th largest source of import. Korea is the fifth largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia. Cars, tires, synthetic resins, construction equipment, steel, and textiles are the major Korean export goods to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s major export goods to Korea are mineral fuels, including crude oil, naphtha, and petrochemicals.

He pointed out that the total value of the Saudi investment in Korea was about $2 billion from 2008 to 2018, while the total value of the Korean investment in Saudi Arabia during the same period is about $5 billion. Ninety-one percent of Korean investment is in the field of construction and seven percent is in the manufacturing sector.

Asked how closely South Korea is working with Saudi Arabia within the framework of the G20, Ambassador Jo said that Korea hosted the 5th G20 Summit in Seoul in November 2010 for the first time in Asia. Korea played a steering role in the entire process – not only the holding of the meetings but also setting agendas, discussions and forging consensus. Korea has become a country that takes the lead in making new frameworks rather than simply playing a passive role in the international order created by others. It is meaningful that Korea has reaffirmed its position as a leader in the international cooperation system in the process of overcoming the global economic crisis

He said that the Kingdom, as the only country in the Middle East and Arab region in the G20, has represented the region’s views and played a leading role in addressing various global financial, economic and social issues. “Saudi Arabia has also been a major player in the stability and prosperity of the global economy and has played a key role in the global energy market, as one of the largest crude oil providers in the world,” he added. “In an era in which the world is facing complex global challenges such as protectionism, crisis in the global trade and finance system, sustainable development, digitalization, and climate change, there are great expectations that Saudi Arabia will well fulfill its role, demonstrating leadership in drawing a consensus from the member countries,” he observed.

Also, in the process of the implementation of the Saudi Vision 2030, various reforms implemented by the Saudi government including in various fields such as labor, women, healthcare, education, digitalization, climate, and environment, are closely linked with the issues the member countries of the G20 have been discussing and sharing views on both at the domestic and international level for several years. The experience in the pursuit of the realization of Vision 2030 of Saudi Arabia may serve as a source of inspiration for other member countries around the world.

Ambassador Jo further said that “the Republic of Korea has strong confidence that Saudi Arabia will fully fulfill its roles as the Chair of the G20 this year, exactly ten years after Korea’s presidency.” Korea will cooperate with the Kingdom for the resounding success of the 2020 G20 Riyadh Summit in every aspect.  In recent years, there has been some skepticism regarding the role of the G20, with some saying that the consensus on the G20 has become difficult, and the influence of the G20 has declined. “However, I believe that the G20 holds particular importance in international economic cooperation,” said the diplomat. Therefore, given its standing it is a top priority to make sure that it fulfills its role well, he emphasized.

The ambassador said: “Here I would like to offer reflections on some of the major issues that the Korean government hopes may be addressed during the 2020 G20; we appreciate the pursuit of a free and open multilateral trading system, rejecting protectionism and the political guidance on WTO reform.” Climate change is surely one of the most pressing agendas – indeed it is an existential threat to the world itself that requires global response and cooperation; we believe the momentum of the G20 debate on increasing women’s participation in economic activities should continue; Aging societies is soon to be a universal issue since many G20 members, including Korea, have already embarked on the era of the aging society as changes in demographics are factors that affect the economy and society in general.

He pointed out that there will be 12 ministerial meetings and four G20 Sherpa Meetings through the year in the lead up to the summit in November, as per the announcement made by Saudi Arabia. “The Republic of Korea, as an active participant in the G20 discussions, will dispatch its ministers of all related fields such as finance, trade, energy, the digital economy, education, environment, employment, health, agriculture, and tourism not only to participate in the sharing of wisdom and experience but to contribute to the Kingdom’s successful leading of this year’s summit,” he noted.

Asked about the progressively growing commercial relations and the presence of Korean companies in the Kingdom, he said that “Saudi Arabia is by far Korea’s largest overseas construction market with cumulative orders of $14.5 billion in total to date”. In 2019, Korean companies won projects worth $3 billion in the Kingdom, thanks to the recognition by the Saudi organizations of the quality and reliability of the work done by Korean companies. As invaluable cooperation between the two countries continues, there are 21 Korean engineering and construction companies currently present in the Kingdom. Major construction companies include Samsung C&T, participating in building Riyadh Metro and Tadawul Tower, Hyundai E&C, Samsung Engineering, Doosan Heavy Industries, and Daelim.

In January 2020, Samsung Engineering won $1.85 billion Hawiyah Gas Storage from Saudi Aramco. This project includes a gas injection facility of 1,500 million standard cubic feet per day and a gas reprocessing facility of 2,000 million standard cubic feet per day. Samsung Engineering expects this project to be completed in 2023. And in July 2019, Hyundai E&C won a $2.7 billion Marjan Development Program Package 6 and 12 from Aramco. The completion of these projects will take 41 months.

Moreover, in the field of trade and manufacturing, about 20 Korean companies are active including Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, and Hyundai Motors. Among them is IMI, which is a joint venture between Saudi Aramco, Bahri, Lamprell, and a Korean company, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), the 3rd largest shipbuilder in the world.

The IMI is now developing the Gulf’s biggest shipyard in Ras Al-Khair, Saudi Arabia. This shipyard, once completed, will be able to work on four offshore rigs and over 40 vessels a year, including three VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers). The total value of this shipyard project is $5.2 billion, and Aramco and HHI will invest more than $400 million in this.

Asked about cooperation in the nuclear power field, he said that the cooperation for the SMART Project started with the signing of an MoU between the Korean Government and K.A.CARE (King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy) in March 2015 to outline a joint venture to design and build 2 units of SMART in Saudi Arabia. The SMART, or System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor, is an integral-type small reactor, designed and developed especially for small or remote cities that could not be integrated into the main power grids because of their small population sizes or remote location.  It can produce 100 MW of electricity, or 90 MW of electricity and 40,000 tons of desalinated water concurrently, which is enough for 100,000 residents.

According to this MoU, Korea and Saudi Arabia have jointly invested a total of $130 million in developing and designing SMART tailored for Saudi Arabia, a process called the “Pre-Project Engineering (PPE).” The PPE process was completed in 2018. Besides, as a part of the MoU, 66 Saudi engineers and experts had the chance to work with Korean experts at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS).

The ambassador further explained that following the successful implementation of the PPE process, the governments of Korea and Saudi Arabia signed another MoU in September 2019 to work together to refine the reactor’s design, license it for use in Saudi Arabia and build a prototype. Besides, a separate agreement was also signed between KAERI and K.A.CARE to launch a joint nuclear energy research center. This center was established in KAERI and started operation in December 2019 and is now recruiting Saudi researchers and engineers. “Besides, it is my understanding that the discussions on establishing a joint venture that will spearhead the construction of the SMART in the Middle East countries are underway between Korea and Saudi Arabia,” said Ambassador Jo.

Overall, the ties of cooperation between Korea and Saudi Arabia in this field have lasted over several years, said the diplomat adding that he believes that Korea is an optimal partner for Saudi Arabia as it seeks to develop its nuclear energy industry.

In reply to a question about South Korea selected as one of the strategic partner countries to realize the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030, he said that the Saudi Vision 2030, led by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has opened up new opportunities for the further expansion of bilateral cooperation between the two countries. As one of the eight strategic partner countries of Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Korea takes a keen interest in economic and social reforms taking place in the Kingdom. The Korea-Saudi Vision 2030 Committee, launched in October 2017, is an institutional platform to explore partnership opportunities under the Vision 2030.

He pointed out that the second Korea-Saudi Vision 2030 Committee Meeting was held in Seoul on the occasion of the visit of the Saudi Minister of Economy and Planning to Korea in April 2019 and the two countries agreed upon 43 projects in five major sectors (industry and energy; digitization and smart infrastructure; healthcare; capacity building; and SMEs and investment) which had been deliberately identified in the prior discussions between the two countries before the establishment of the Korea-Saudi Vision 2030 Committee. The two countries are now preparing for the 3rd Vision 2030 Committee’s Ministerial Meeting in Riyadh in the second half of this year.

Some tangible outcomes have already been achieved through the collaboration between the two countries. For instance, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) and Aramco jointly established International Maritime Industries (IMI) in 2017. The joint venture will manage and operate the first-ever shipyard of Saudi Arabia. The construction of the shipyard is underway and is expected to create 80,000 job opportunities once completed. Also, Hyundai Heavy Industries and Aramco have been developing another joint project of the manufacturing facility in Ras Al-Khair, which will have a capacity to produce about 200 vessel engines a year. Various other forms of cooperation are underway in the areas of renewable energy, smart infrastructure, digitalization and e-government, capacity building and supporting business-to-business exchanges.

It is worthy of note that there is very active collaboration in the intellectual property (IP) field between our two governments under the Korea-Saudi Vision 2030 cooperation. Thirteen Korean IP experts including officials from the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) have been working for the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) since August 2019. This project is based on the bilateral cooperation MoU signed by KIPO and SAIP in September 2018. The scale of secondment is unprecedented in the Saudi government sector. The Korean experts are currently collaborating with SAIP staff in three areas: the establishment of national IP strategy, development of IP automation system and enhancement of examination capacity. Six months have passed since this secondment began and it is understood that all projects for cooperation have proceeded smoothly, and will see concrete results soon.

Moreover, the Vision 2030 cooperation between Korea and Saudi Arabia will sow seeds for more solid bonds of friendship between the two countries which endure into the future. The two countries have been seeking new and diverse fields of cooperation such as medicine, digital cooperation in the healthcare industry and consumer protection and cultural exchanges. These joint efforts will serve to further consolidate the bilateral relations for the future, broadening the horizons of the cooperation and facilitating exchanges at every level.

Asked about possibilities of cooperation in the cultural field including cinema, theatre, and performance, he said the Korean government has been focusing on spreading the Korean Cultural Wave as a part of our public diplomacy. Public diplomacy, going beyond the scope of traditional diplomacy, which only focuses on communication and negotiation between governments, aims to win the hearts and minds of the public.  “The development of the Internet and Social Networking Services allows all to enjoy cross-border communication, and I am delighted to see that many Saudis are enjoying Korean culture through such platforms,” he noted. For instance, I was overwhelmed by the crowd in the BTS concert in Riyadh last October, applauding the artists and singing along to the lyrics in Korean, he added. They were fascinated by not only BTS’s songs but also by the message conveyed in their lyrics. “It is often said that music is a universal language crossing border, and I could tangibly feel the truth of those words that night,” he added.

The diplomat further said: “I can not emphasize enough the importance of cultural exchanges between the Kingdom and Korea. K-Pop is loved by people all around the world. And Saudi Arabia is a part of that now, too. In 2019, it started with Super Junior who celebrated their debut K-Pop concert in the Kingdom, and BTS made history by filling King Fahd International Stadium with an audience of some 70 thousand people.” In 2020, we are trying to expand the Korean artists’ activities in the Kingdom – there are discussions underway on the holding of several K-pop concerts, especially in conjunction with the G20 Summit, he added. “And I very much hope we will be able to see more Korean artists on various occasions here in the Kingdom,” said Jo.

However, K-pop is not the only genre that is fascinating in the world. The Korean Movie “Parasite”, which has won numerous awards including the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language at the Golden Globes and four awards at the Oscars, has been showing in several theaters in Riyadh. There was also the first Korean Movie Night in the Diplomatic Quarter in December 2019, with the showing of “Little Forest”, and it was very much loved by more than 500 people who were there. “I very much hope that more Korean movies and TV series can be shown in the Kingdom,” said the Korean envoy optimistically.

He said that “we are communicating closely with the relevant Saudi entities for the establishment of the King Sejong Institute – that is, a public institution teaching Korean language teaching around the world.” This institute is named after Sejong the Great, the inventor of the Korean alphabet. “I believe this would be welcome news for young Saudis who are already learning Korean on their own through Korean dramas and songs,” said the envoy.

Asked about South Korea’s position on key regional issues including conflict in Yemen, Syrian crisis, Iranian intransigence, and ME Peace Process, Ambassador Jo said that “the government of the Republic of Korea perceives that peace and stability in the Middle East are very important to the international community as a whole, hoping that the Saudi government’s efforts, under the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to stabilize the region will bear fruit so that we all can see the Middle East stand on a right path to the peace and stability”. South Korean government has expressed its aspiration for the restoration of the integrity and unity of GCC member states through dialogue and communication to ease the tension in the Arabian Peninsula.

Furthermore, Korea understands fully the concerns of neighboring countries regarding freedom of navigation and maritime security of the ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz. “Our government has accordingly been actively engaged in the international efforts by participating in the investigation team for the attacked vessel and expressing condemnation against any threats occurring in the Strait,” said Ambassador Jo. Considering that around 70 percent of our oil imports pass through the Arabian Gulf, Korea expanded the area of operation of an anti-piracy unit already operating off the coast of Africa to the area around the Strait of Hormuz to contribute to guaranteeing secure navigation, rather than joining coalition forces known as the International Maritime Security Construct led by the US, he observed.

“And regarding the drone attacks that occurred on two Aramco oil facilities in the eastern region of the country on September 14, as H.E. Moon Jae-in, President of Korea reiterated during the phone call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on September 18 right after the attack, Korea expressed its concern that the attacks, as a serious threat to major international energy infrastructure facilities, undermine global energy security and regional stability and condemned any similar form of such attacks,” said the envoy.

Concerning the U.S.’s Middle East Peace Plan, the government of the Republic of Korea appreciates the efforts of the international community, including the United States, to establish peace in the Middle East. It is our sincere hope that the Israeli-Palestinian issue will be resolved peacefully through dialogue and compromise among parties concerned based on the ‘Two-State Solution’, he said.  The government of the Republic of Korea will continue to play its role in the efforts to help those suffering in Syria, experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, in particular vulnerable groups such as children, women, and refugees.

On the question of his priorities as head of the South Korean Embassy in Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Jo said: “I will exert every possible effort to play my part in upgrading the already special relationship between Korea and Saudi Arabia into an even stronger strategic partnership during my tenure.” This is a dream treasured by all ambassadors, I feel. From the moment I arrived in Riyadh as Korean Ambassador, I have been encouraging Korean people and companies to pursue a “Made with Saudi” strategy beyond the just transaction, he added. “Indeed, I truly believe that by working together with people and companies in Saudi Arabia we can nurture thriving ties that endure and will create synergies for even greater achievements,” he noted.

There is no such thing as “less important tasks” as ambassador. From protecting Korean companies’ interests and meeting with Saudi officials in different fields to offering outstanding consular services to Korean nationals in the Kingdom, I and my embassy staff never think lightly of any of the tasks we are entrusted with, he said. “Yet, I would like to emphasize in particular on the importance of people-to-people communication,” said Ambassador Jo, adding that this is so vital in nurturing even stronger ground for sustainable cooperation, as Moon Jae-in, President of Korea and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed in June 2019.

He said that the two leaders agreed to expand exchanges among peoples and cultures, moving beyond the current bilateral relations based on economic cooperation to open new horizons. To this end, the Korean Embassy in Riyadh is planning a whole range of cultural events in 2020. “We are seeking to bring well-known Korean singers and dancers who are indeed a good reflection of K-pop to hold a concert in the Kingdom this year,” he said. We also plan to organize events that give opportunities to share the charm and diversity of Korean culture with the people in the Kingdom, he added. Key events include the 2nd K-Pop Contest and the 3rd Korean Speech Contest. He urged Saudis with an interest in Korean culture to participate. The Quiz-on Korea is also scheduled to cultivate Saudis’ interest in Korean affairs. And last but not least, the 2nd Korean Movie Night will welcome Saudi people once again. These are all excellent ways to get to know more about Korean society and culture. The wide and full participation of many people in these events held by the embassy would be deeply appreciated. “By enjoying these events I hope that you will take with you memories of Korean culture which always stay with you,” said the envoy.

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Ghazanfar Ali Khan

Ghazanfar Ali Khan is a senior Indian journalist living and working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for the past 26 years in mainstream journalism. He is currently associated with three different magazines besides offering media consultancy services to several clients. Mr Khan has reported widely on politics, development, security, entertainment, aviation, and humanitarian issues from Saudi Arabia, India, the UK, Italy, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands, Nepal, Bahrain, Switzerland, Sweden, Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the UAE, China, Malaysia, Bahrain, and more recently from Germany.

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