Toward a common futureRelations between countries are founded on interests. The pretentiousness of each nation to obtain advantages or benefits in the international environment is the main reason that motivates relations to be institutionalized, the condition which subordinates their evolution and the determinant which defines their relevance and expiration. Nonetheless, in some cases, ties are established between nations and even go beyond the formalisms and solemnities that characterize international relations; this is when links are created and bridges are built with a sincere spirit of unity, fraternity and loyalty which lead binational relations to overcome distances, language and culture differences, enabling solidarity, adhesion and brotherhood. Among the best examples of this extraordinary linkage is the one shared by Colombia and the Republic of Korea.
President Park Geun-hye defined this relation in a very significant way, noting that “Colombia and Korea are blood brothers.” And it is how history tells it. Sixty-five years ago, without formal ties or proximity between our people, Colombia was one of the 16 nations (the only one from Latin America) who attended the call from the United Nations for freedom and democracy for South Korea. Five thousand, two hundred and four Colombians traveled the approximately 15,000 kilometers (9,000 miles) that divide us, in the aim of fighting in defense of their flag. Among them, 557 were wounded, 173 were killed, 71 went missing and of the 30 who were captured by the enemy, two never returned.
These soldiers enabled two geographically antipodal nations to meld in a warm embrace, bringing together the soul of two lands, whom by a bizarre paradox appear to share a similar historic path. As both republics had to endure internal conflicts promoted by supporters of communist ideologies, violence suppressed their constitutional regimes, their freedom and democracies. In South Korea’s case, adversaries were defeated in a civil war to preserve its political, social and economic system. In Colombia’s case, a subversive menace still aims to overthrow our democratic regime and grasp power by terror.
From this situation derives a second similarity, which is that both countries face a couple of momentous challenges for their national projects. The great challenge for South Korea is to achieve reunification with North Korea, following the example of similar cases such as those of Germany, Vietnam and Yemen. For Colombia, the big challenge is to achieve peace after more than five decades of violence, and this underpins a step that is essential to promoting development. That is where we require more assistance and support from South Korea, as we value and admire the path you have followed.
Thus, we are taking important steps toward this direction, beginning with the signing of a “strategic cooperative partnership,” which was signed in September 2011. Since then, Colombia has received two important South Korean presidential visits: the first, in June 2012, by President Lee Myung-bak and the second, in April, by President Park. During the last one, not only was it announced that the Asian country will finance much of the construction of a Health Rehabilitation Center for soldiers and victims of the armed conflict, but also intent to increase investment, cooperation and knowledge exchange, which is critical at a time when Colombia seeks to project itself in the Asia-Pacific region, and South Korea suits to be the best partner to fulfill this purpose.
This union is mutually beneficial, since we are dealing with two countries seeking to project themselves and, in the Colombian case, international positioning. Meanwhile, the Korean economy, since the 80’s, has been opened to foreign trade, allowing it to expand and strengthen, while the Colombian economy just wants to enter and develop. The estimate of purchasing power parity, which compares living standards of the countries, marked that in the early 80’s, South Korea was only 12 percent higher than that of Colombia. Ending the first decade of the 21st century, however, the gap widened to 238 percent.
Despite this disparity, it is clear that there are a lot of possibilities to expand the commercial relationship. South Korea exports goods of medium and high technology, while Colombia sells commodities based on natural resources. South Korea imports primary and manufactured goods obtained from natural resources, and Colombia purchases medium and high technology. The understanding of this situation led to a free trade agreement between Colombia and South Korea in Feb. 21, 2013, following Chile and Peru.
Sponsored by this framework, the trade balance has experienced significant growth by 2014, which showed a 22 percent increase in Colombian exports reaching $520 million. The main products sold to South Korea were: coal (52 percent), coffee (16.8 percent), ferronickel (12.9 percent), metallurgy (10.5 percent), and basic chemicals (2.2 percent). In turn, Korean imports reached $1.5 billion, of which a third belonged to the automotive sector. However, it is expected to quintuple the trade volume in the next few years.
But not all ends there. Colombia has become an attractive investment destination, thanks to its special characteristics, such as market size, a growing middle class and the possibilities to serve as a potential platform to access other countries. This explains the growing number of Korean companies investing in Colombia: from 14 in 2010 to more than 40 in the 2014. South Korea is the second largest Asian investor in Colombia after Japan, recording a cumulative foreign direct investment of $176 million between 1994 and 2014.
As it can easily be seen, the possibilities of economic and commercial opportunities are plentiful. However, there is a contribution that is certainly most valuable and important when facing the challenge of developing a country in a post-conflict scenario, and this is to take elements of the Korean education system and implement them in Colombia. In the absence of strategic natural resources, Korea was able to achieve outstanding progress in education. When asked about the reasons that allowed them to become the world’s greatest economic miracle of the last 50 years, President Park identified three key factors: the conscience and conviction of the Korean people; expansion of the vision to the world; and Korean parents’ fervor for education.
A society that identifies education as main change generator can manage to overcome its difficulties, providing a very valuable road map for those who aspire to the same examples. To do this, we look forward to the invaluable support of a brother nation, South Korea, to which we have a shared past. We hope we can get closer further in the future.
*The author is the Colombian Ambassador to South Korea.
by Tito Saul Pinilla