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New era in already warm Korea-Iran relations

Apr 28,2016
President Park Geun-hye will start a three-day trip to Iran on Sunday, becoming the first Korean president to visit the home of an ancient civilization and one of the world’s most promising markets.

According to the presidential office, Park will pay a state visit to Iran from May 1 to 3 at the invitation of the Iranian government.

“It will be the first presidential visit to Iran since Korea and Iran established diplomatic relations in 1962,” the Blue House said. “We expect the trip to serve as an important opportunity for us to develop bilateral cooperation since the international community’s sanctions on Iran were lifted in January.”

The relationship between Korea and Iran goes back to the presidency of Park’s late father, President Park Chung Hee. Seoul and Tehran established diplomatic ties in 1962 and the two countries have maintained a relatively strong partnership over the past decades.

During the Park Chung Hee administration, special efforts were made to engage the Middle East in order to win construction projects and invest in petrochemical industries. Korea opened its embassy in Iran in 1967 and Iran opened its embassy in Seoul in 1975.

In October 1971, then-Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil visited Iran and attended a ceremony marking the 2,500th year of Foundation of Imperial State of Iran as a presidential envoy. Many high-profile delegations visited each country to deepen bilateral ties during the early days.

In 1976, Seoul and Tehran became sister cities; the next year, Tehran Street was created in southern Seoul, and Seoul Street was designated in Tehran.

In 1969, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the final Shah of Iran, invited President Park Chung Hee to visit the country. In 1978, Park invited the Iranian leader to visit Korea.

The Korea-Iran summit, however, never took place as the Shah was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and Park was assassinated that year.

Decades later, President Park Geun-hye will realize that goal. Her trip will include a summit with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran to discuss bilateral cooperation and regional issues.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, Korea and Iran maintained a special economic relationship. During the first oil crisis in 1973, Iran was the only fuel supplier to Korea.

Earlier this year, the Korean government lifted a series of economic and financial regulations imposed on Iran for its nuclear weapons program in 2010 as international sanctions were lifted.

After the Iranian nuclear deal was concluded in July last year, Seoul worked quietly for months to arrange Park’s visit. Iran has the fourth largest oil reserves and the largest natural gas reserve in the world; with a population of 80 million, Iran is a substantial consumer market.

The Blue House said the Middle East’s second-largest economy is expected to grow 5.8 percent this year and 6.7 percent next year since the lifting of the sanctions.

Korea is one of Iran’s top trading partners. The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries reached $6.1 billion last year. Iran exported almost $2.36 billion worth of goods to Korea, mostly crude oil. Korea exported $3.75 billion worth of goods to Iran, mostly electronic devices, home appliances and paper products.

About 350 Koreans are living in Iran.

“We have high expectations for Korean companies’ participation in major infrastructure projects to rebuild Iran’s economy,” An Chong-bum, senior presidential secretary for economy, said Wednesday. “We will try to forge cooperative measures such as financial support to this end.”

An also said Iran is seeking to diversify its industries to prepare for a post-oil era, and its growing demand for technologies, services and cultural content is expected to provide business opportunities for Korea.

Last November, Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se visited Iran and met with leaders including President Rouhani. Rouhani expressed his hope for deepened relations and Yun expressed Korea’s interest in improving economic cooperation.

“During the decades of economic isolation, companies from only a few countries, including Korea, stayed in Iran and helped the country through its hardships,” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a media interview following his trip. “The Iranian government has a high opinion of Korea thanks to this.”

Other top officials, including Korea’s land, infrastructure and transport minister and commerce minister, also visited Iran last year to discuss economic cooperation. Since his trip to Iran, Land Minister Yoo Il-ho was promoted to deputy prime minister for the economy and finance minister.

In February, Korea restarted a ministerial-level economic conference with Iran. The last meeting of the Joint Economic Cooperation Commission took place in 2007.

Reflecting Korea’s interest in the market, the largest-ever economic delegation will accompany Park to Iran. Representatives from 236 business organizations and companies will go on the trip. Companies specializing in petrochemicals, power generation, desalination plants, urban and port development as well as information technology, communications, finances, health and medical industries are particularly interested in Iran’s market.

The presidential trip includes a Korea-Iran business forum and cultural events.

According to a Foreign Ministry source, Park will wear a rusari or headscarf during her official events in Iran, including the presidential summit. “It is a decision to show respect to Iran’s law and culture, and other female members of the entourage will also wear headscarves,” the source said.

Park is also the first female state leader from a non-Muslim country to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran. Female leaders from Pakistan and Bangladesh have visited Iran.

Park’s trip will also send a message to North Korea to follow Tehran’s lead in winding back its nuclear weapons program. Diplomatic observers said Park’s trip sends a message to the Kim Jong-un regime that its strategy of “carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously” has no future.

During his November visit to Iran, Foreign Minister Yun met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and exchanged views on the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement and its implications for North Korea.

“Yun said that although the Iranian nuclear issue and the North Korean nuclear issue are different in many aspects, the Iran nuclear agreement has significance in that it was reached through continued dialogue and negotiations,” Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said, “and expressed hope that the Iran nuclear agreement will also have a positive impact on efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.”

“Yun hoped that North Korea will also learn lessons from Iran, which has restored the international community’s trust by reaching the nuclear agreement,” the ministry said.

Iran’s decision to give up the nuclear program in return for lifting of international sanctions is significant because the country was once portrayed by U.S. President George W. Bush as “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea.

Iran has also maintained a close relationship with the North since diplomatic ties were established in 1973. In addition to their shared hostility toward the United States, the two countries are known to have traded missile and nuclear technologies.

As the Kim regime steps up its nuclear and missile brinkmanship, Park expressed her interest in using the Iran model on the North. “Park got an idea from this case, and is paying attention to the success of the Iran model,” said a senior presidential aide.

Since then, Seoul has stepped up its pressure on Pyongyang, including the shutting of the Kaesong Industrial Complex earlier this year. Iran came to the negotiating table because of the strong secondary financial sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, and the Park administration apparently followed that lead by pulling the plug on the last remaining inter-Korean business project.



BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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