Active aid grows improved relations
Last year, a new strain of the H1N1 influenza virus gripped the world, killing nearly 15,000 people worldwide. The global outbreak began in Mexico.
When Mexico was first struck with the virus, other countries began quarantining Mexican travelers and generally cutting off any physical contact with the North American nation. But Korea was different.
On May 5, less than two months after the outbreak in Mexico was detected, the Korean government shipped $500,000 worth of medical supplies to Mexico, including masks, gloves and ear thermometers.
Also in May, epidemiologist Shin Hyung-sik of the National Medical Center and nurse Park Soo-won spent 17 days touring four cities in Mexico, treating flu patients and offering education on flu prevention to Mexicans and Koreans alike. Shin and Park also provided 2,000 doses of Tamiflu and 10,000 medical masks. More than 200 Korean residents were checked for flu and none were found to have been infected.
In recognition of efforts such as these, Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent a thank-you note to Korean President Lee Myung-bak in June.
Later, at a time when China was quarantining Mexican travelers, Korea was still providing aid. Last April, Japan temporarily suspended visa waivers for Mexican citizens in response to the March outbreak.
Mexico’s neighbors were no better in their treatment of Mexican travelers. Peru, Cuba and Ecuador canceled flights to and from Mexico. Colombia canceled a football friendly match against Mexico. A taxi driver in Argentina refused a Mexican passenger.
The low point came in early May, when Haiti, one of the world’s poorest nations, declined to receive a Mexican ship delivering 77 tons of food aid. Mexican Ambassador Zadalinda Gonzalez y Reynero said at the time that ship’s crew was in perfect health and Haiti’s fears of infection were “unfounded.”
Korean businessmen working in Mexico said at the time that their Mexican business partners were appreciative of the assistance, but there was another benefit for Korea. Officials at the Mexico office of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or Kotra, said that through the additional aid, Korean companies were finally able to shed the image that they were not contributing to Mexico.
“Korea’s response to the flu outbreak was timely and measured,” said Park Dong-hyung, head of the Korea Business Center in Kotra’s Mexico City office. “Mexico felt betrayed and disappointed in these neighboring countries because Mexico considered them ‘brothers.’”
“Thanks to our government’s calm response to the flu outbreak, my business partners here all hailed Korea as a country of gentlemen,” said Kim Cheol-won, head of the hats manufacturer Joy Caps. “[Korea’s improved image] has definitely helped in dealings with our partners.”
Choi Sun-gyu, head of Hankook Tire’s Mexico office, chimed in: “Ordinary citizens and government bureaucrats alike are impressed, and that should drive up our sales.”
Diplomatic relations between Korea and Mexico are relatively new, going back only 48 years. The first Mexican ambassador to Korea, Francisco de Icaza, was appointed in 1967. According to the Korean Foreign Ministry, the Mexican Embassy didn’t open in Korea until 1978. The first Mexican ambassador to Korea based here full-time was Ricardo Galan Mendez, who began serving here in 1987.
In 1990, the national Olympic committees of the two countries reached a deal to promote sport exchanges. And many Korean football fans still have a special place in their hearts reserved for Mexico.
In the 1980s in Mexico, Korea’s upstart under-20 squad reached the semifinals of the FIFA World Youth Championship, which is now called the FIFA U-20 World Cup. And until Korea reached the final four of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the feat in Mexico was considered the greatest in the nation’s football history.
Cities and provinces from the two countries have also established ties since late 1980s. Partners include Seoul and Mexico City, Busan and Tijuana, Daejeon and Guadaajara, and Gyeonggi and Mexico State.
By Yoo Jee-ho [email@example.com]