Korea and Sweden get closer every year

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Korea and Sweden get closer every year

Special contribution by the Swedish ambassador
to mark the 60th anniversary of Korea-Sweden diplomatic ties


The Swedish Red Cross Hospital in Busan during the Korean War (1950-53). [SWEDISH EMBASSY]


Some time ago, I learned the tragic news about Dr. Yoon Han-duk, head of the emergency center of the National Medical Center. He passed away over the Lunar New Year holiday while caring for his patients. People across the nation mourned his passing. Even President Moon Jae-in paid tribute, writing, “For Dr. Yoon, saving people’s lives and safety came before himself and his family…”

Why is this a concern of a Swedish ambassador? Because Sweden has a strong connection with the National Medical Center. While I never had the chance to meet Dr. Yoon, I did visit the emergency center last year and was impressed by its important function. Recently, I also had the honor to meet Dr. Kim Chong-suhl. Dr. Kim, now 96 years old, was 36 when he joined the newly opened National Medical Center in 1958 as a doctor.

In 1958, war-torn Korea was in great need of expertise and training for its medical personnel. Upon a request from the Korean government, the governments of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, along with the United Nations (UN) Korean Reconstruction Agency, agreed to set up and operate a National Medical Center for five years. The National Medical Center — also known as the Scandinavian Hospital — opened in November 1958.

The establishment of the National Medical Center contributed to the modernization of Korea’s medical services and effectively responded to the growing demand for medical services and technology. A Nursing School was established at the hospital as an integrated unit in 1959. The management of the National Medical Center was transferred from the Scandinavian countries to the Korean government in 1968. During those 10 years, 367 Scandinavian doctors and nurses served at the hospital.

I am proud to note that Sweden, in a humble way, has been able to contribute to the development of Korea’s modern medical care over these years.

60 years of diplomatic ties between Korea and Sweden

Today, March 11, 2019, marks the 60-year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Sweden and Korea. However, ties between Sweden and Korea go back to the late 1800s, when Swedish missionaries, journalists and explorers found their way to the Korean Peninsula. The first Swedish map on which Korea was clearly indicated was published in Stockholm in 1730 by Major Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, an officer under King Charles the XII.

As a diplomat, you always look for common ground and for areas of cooperation. The time I have spent as Swedish ambassador to this great country has been a delight in that regard. Our countries may be separated by vast distance and differences in culture, but we share so much in terms of expertise and commitment. This includes our strong industrial and engineering traditions, our youth cultures, our music industries, the passion for and production of world-class film, design and food, our top-ranked innovation hubs, exciting cultural exchanges and not least our joint focus on peace, security and a rules-based international order. Yet perhaps most importantly, we treat each other with respect and curiosity — and we like modesty.

In this regard, I would like to share some personal experiences from meetings since I arrived in Korea. They are related to episodes, which, to my mind, have been pivotal in shaping Swedish-Korean relations, as well as Sweden’s role on the Korean Peninsula.


Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom at the United Nations Security Council. [SWEDISH EMBASSY]

It started with a field hospital…

Kjell Lindqvist is 92 years old. He lives in the city of Luleå in the very north of Sweden. In 1951, he worked as a medical assistant at the Swedish Red Cross Hospital in Busan. Kjell could not muster the strength to attend the commemoration ceremony for war veterans in Busan last November. Yet I watched with pride as his son, Hans, received a medal from Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Pi Woo-jin on his father’s behalf.

The Swedish Red Cross Hospital was a direct response to a UN call for assistance following North Korea’s attack on June 25, 1950. It would come to lay the foundation for modern Korean-Swedish ties. Because of strict neutrality at the time, Sweden could not send military assistance to Korea during the war. But Sweden was determined to assist the UN action and instead dispatched a Red Cross field hospital. It arrived in Busan on Sept. 23, 1950, with 150 doctors, nurses and other staff, less than three months after the outbreak of hostilities.

After dedicated service throughout the war, the Swedish hospital continued to offer medical aid after the armistice was signed in June 1953. The hospital was converted into the Swedish Hospital in Busan. During and after the war, a total of 1,124 Swedish men and women served at the hospital and cared for more than two million patients. Not only UN forces and South Korean soldiers but also civilians and even North Korean prisoners of war were treated there.

After the ceremony, Hans told me how much the time in Busan had meant to his father, and how touched Hans was by the way in which South Korea had honored and commemorated him. It is personal links such as these that symbolize the great friendship between our two countries.

More than 60 years of military presence in Panmunjom

After the armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, Sweden heeded the call to serve in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission together with Switzerland, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ever since, Swedish officers have served to monitor and supervise the armistice. When I visit the DMZ in Panmunjom, I think of the more than 960 Swedes who have served and are serving the cause for peace — and who have done so every day since August 1, 1953.

This is one of many concrete ways in which Sweden has manifested its commitment to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. I believe we are eminently placed to do so. Sweden has no geopolitical interests of its own, other than to provide good offices and to contribute to peaceful outcomes.

On the Korean Peninsula, Sweden is uniquely placed in that it has three official representations, in Seoul, in Pyongyang and at Panmunjom. It was the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1973, and has had an embassy there since 1975. The possibilities to perform diplomatic activities in the North are limited, but the embassy serves as a crucial means of communication for the outside world with North Korea.

As a former deputy director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), I was particularly pleased to see that it has been able to provide a platform for such contacts between the parties concerned in the peace and security challenges on and around the Korean peninsula. Sweden stands ready to continue to offer its services as an honest broker if the parties so wish.

From industry and innovation, to K-pop and kimchi: our ties are becoming wider and deeper every day

It’s an intriguing fact that Swedish music producers have written songs for many of the most successful K-pop artists. It’s also quite amazing that a Korean designer shaped one of Sweden’s most well-known export goods. These are just two recent examples illustrating how our two countries continue to develop and revitalize our cooperation in new areas.

Many of the larger Swedish companies entered the Korean market decades ago and have a broad business footprint contributing to innovation and development in the country, as well as creating thousands of jobs. Likewise, an increasing number of Korean companies are finding their way to Sweden, discovering the great potential in increased collaboration.

South Korea and Sweden are regarded as two of the most innovative countries in the world. This means that if we can innovate together, we would be second to none. In this context, the close and growing relationship between South Korean and Swedish universities is of special importance. Many Swedes are studying in Korea, and more and more South Korean students find their way to Sweden.

Our joint trade relations are also deepening. Sweden is a proud member state of the European Union (EU), which means that we can benefit from the free trade agreement between South Korea and the EU, just as South Korean companies can do in our part of the world. Moreover, South Korea and Sweden are strong defenders of the multilateral trading system. It has helped both our countries to prosper and it is something worth fighting hard to protect.

Our joint cultural relations are multifaceted and deep. Both traditional and modern Korean culture is making strong inroads in Sweden. Korean food is trendy among younger Swedes and nowadays you can find kimchi in many Swedish food stores. Every time I visit Stockholm, I discover new Korean restaurants.

A particularly interesting cooperation exists in the area of film. Watching films is a great way to learn more about another country. To this end, Sweden has organized an annual film festival in South Korea for a number of years. Last year’s festival commemorated the centennial of the birth of the great film director Ingmar Bergman. It attracted a record 10,000 moviegoers in Seoul, Busan, Gwangju and Incheon, where Bergman’s films were screened.

Another strong bond of a direct human nature between Sweden and South Korea are the adoptions of South Korean children to Sweden. This has been going on since the end of the ’50s and has resulted in about 10,000 Korean adoptees in Sweden. While being an adoptee may be complicated identity-wise on the individual level, they are all appreciated members of Swedish society. Many have important positions in politics, as well as in the academic, cultural and corporate sectors.

Sweden — the only country in the world with a feminist foreign policy?

One important reason why Sweden — despite its modest size and peripheral location — is so successful is its focus on gender equality. For Sweden, gender equality is natural and it means that everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to work and support themselves, to find a balance between career and family life, and to live without the fear of abuse or violence.

Sweden, together with our Nordic neighbors, ranks as the one of the top countries for women to live in. Nowadays, no Swedish government will consist of less than roughly as many women as men. The participation rate in the labor market is more or less the same for men and women.

Through a tax system, which gives incentives to all families with two incomes, women are now able to work just as much as men in Sweden. In addition, the law guarantees elderly care and that every child between the ages of 18 months to 6 years has the right to full-time, low cost, high quality day care.

An illustration of how seriously Sweden takes gender equality is the fact that the government pursues a foreign policy explicitly branded feminist. This means that in any action taken by Sweden in the diplomatic arena, full consideration is given to how our policies affect the role and position of women.

I am glad to note that issues related to gender equality have been a centerpiece in the bilateral relations between Sweden and Korea for quite some time. Sweden is not interested in preaching, but in sharing experiences. Perhaps that could come in handy in the efforts to deal with issues such as low birth rates, professional fulfilment for all and labor shortages.

In that context, it might be interesting to draw a historic parallel. In 1911, three Swedish female Salvation Army missionaries arrived in Korea. One of the three, Ms. Verna Olsson, became prominent as she invited Koreans to her home where she sang Swedish songs and hymns accompanied by a guitar. She stayed in Korea for many years, serving as an early example of a Swedish woman who worked to earn her living despite the norms of the time.

The future of Korean-Swedish relations is bright

In Sweden, it is sometimes said that it is only when a person turns 60 that they perform at their best. I am unsure whether the same applies to diplomatic relations, but I believe that such relations mature and deepen over time, and I do know that 60 has a real significance in Korea and that it is something worth celebrating.

I believe that there are many areas in which we can work even more closely together. Developing peace and common security continues to be one area where we will continue to deepen our collaboration. The various summits during the past year have been the most decisive factors in what must be regarded as a positive, albeit long, process toward peace on the peninsula. But lasting security needs to be underpinned by a wide range of activities in which a country like Sweden can play a role.

Another potential area for development is tourism. Many Koreans have already visited Sweden and I am happy to note that an increasing number of Swedes find their way to this beautiful and dynamic country. But I also think that more concerted efforts may be needed from both sides to facilitate visits and to ensure that tourists benefit from the long trip.

We could also do more to combat climate change together. Korea is the home of the Green Climate Fund, which has shown a willingness to be in the forefront to help preserve our planet for our children and grandchildren. But more importantly, there are pressing climate-related challenges here and now — such as air pollution and global warming — that need to be addressed without delay. I am certain that we can do more together on these existential issues.

Let us learn from — and honor — the memory of Dr. Yoon by focusing on a sustainable, healthy and dynamic joint future in the spirit of the respectful and equal partnership of the National Medical Center. I am convinced that the future of Korean-Swedish relations is bright. Together we can continue to contribute to a better existence not only for our own countries but for the world.

Sweden will come to collaborate with Korea. I hope you will join the fun.


Jakob Hallgren, Swedish Ambassador to Korea

Jakob Hallgren, Swedish Ambassador to Korea

Jakob Hallgren served as deputy director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) from 2012 to 2018. He previously worked at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs as the head of its Humanitarian Division and as the head of its Division for Conflict Issues. He has undertaken assignments at the Swedish Embassy in Sarajevo, the Swedish Permanent Mission in Geneva, for the Folke Bernadotte Academy and the Swedish Armed Forces. He has worked closely with the European Union and the United Nations, and a variety of organizations in the fields of mediation, peacebuilding, security systems reform, disarmament, humanitarian operations and disaster risk reduction. His regional expertise covers Northeast Asia, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
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