Iran’s new opportunitiesI had a bizarre experience when I was in Taiwan a few years back. Whenever I turned on the television, someone was talking about Korea. It was not just about security problems or Kim Jong-un. Taiwan compares everything to Korea. For instance, Taiwan’s traffic system was criticized in comparison with Korea’s. Korea’s way had somehow become a set of guidelines for Taiwan. In the 1980s, Korea and Taiwan were often referred to as two of Asia’s four dragons along with Hong Kong and Singapore. Since then the two countries chose different development models. Korea enjoys advanced nation status thanks to global corporate names like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. Taiwan, where development was driven by small and mid-sized companies, no longer has weight on the global stage. It is no wonder Taiwan is so focused on Korea while Korea has no interest in it at all.
Korea and Iran also have an asymmetric relationship. Iran is in the spotlight as a land of opportunity. It was never a country to be underestimated. Home to one of the oldest civilizations, the Persian nation was powerful enough to defeat and capture Valerian the Roman emperor during the Roman-Persian wars around 260 A.D. The country is the second largest in the Middle East with a population of 81 million inhabitants. The country, located between the Caspian Sea and Indian Ocean, is also blessed with natural riches, sitting on the world’s fourth largest reserves of oil, second largest of natural gas and also hefty amounts of zinc and iron ore.
Ordinary Koreans know Iran as an oil producer that has been under sanctions by the international community due to its nuclear program. We keep close watches on the United States, China and Japan, but pay little attention to Iran, which is on the verge of coming out of the shadows after Iran and global powers reached a long-term accord on ending the decade-old dispute over Tehran’s nuclear activities. Sanctions may be lifted. Iran suffers a bad image due to biased coverage by the Western media, Iranian ambassador to Korea Hassan Taherian complained at a seminar by the Asia Society.
While Iran was shunned, China has been expanding its influence over the Persian country. Beijing did not join international sanctions against Tehran. As other Western oil companies hot-footed out of Iran around 2009, the China National Petroleum Corp stayed put. PetroChina became the largest oil producer in Iran. Last November, Beijing announced it would boost infrastructure investment in Iran from $25 billion to $52 billion. China announced it will build a 1,600-kilometer (994-mile) gas pipeline linking Iran and Pakistan as part of its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative to create a 21st century Maritime and Land Silk Road. Beijing fully capitalized on the international sanctions against Iran.
Iran is not courted by China alone. India has pledged $46 billion in investment to develop Iran’s southernmost port city of Chabahar. India plans to set up a joint venture with Iran to win the exclusive right to run a free port on the coast of the Gulf of Oman for 10 years. Two Asian economic giants - China and India - are in competition over the same Middle Eastern country.
Korea joined the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran and restricted corporate activities in the Islamic nation. In 2010, it suspended business of the Korean unit of Iran’s Bank Mellat, the country’s largest commercial bank, which had just five overseas outlets - three in Turkey, one in Armenia and one in Seoul. KT had to close its lucrative telecommunications consulting business in Iran in 2013 because Korean banks prevented financial transactions with Iran.
But Korea nevertheless maintains a big presence in Iran. Samsung and LG control more than 70 percent of the home electronics market. The most common car on the Iranian roads is Kia Motor’s Pride compact car. Korean TV dramas are immensely popular. There was talk that Iranians could not eat during the fasting period of Ramadan, but could not stop watching the Korean epic drama “Dae Jang Geum” (“Jewel in Palace”) when it was aired in 2005. Korea and Iran have no reason to be hostile. Tehran Street, built in the 1970s in southern Seoul, suggests how close the two countries were before the revolution. Korea must not miss new opportunities in Iran as it opens a new chapter of its history.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 20, Page 28
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jeong-ho