[Friends for decades] Wars and oceans can't get the best of Belgium and Korea's relations

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[Friends for decades] Wars and oceans can't get the best of Belgium and Korea's relations

Belgian Ambassador to Korea Peter Lescouhier speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Belgian Embassy in Seoul on March 9. Korea and Belgium are celebrating their 120th anniversary of diplomatic ties on Tuesday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Belgian Ambassador to Korea Peter Lescouhier speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Belgian Embassy in Seoul on March 9. Korea and Belgium are celebrating their 120th anniversary of diplomatic ties on Tuesday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

At the very hour when the empire of Korea was being surrounded by rivaling powers in East Asia, there came a neutral European nation knocking on the door of the Asian kingdom.  
 
“King Leopold II [1865-1909] was very interested in Asia, and Belgium at the time was a powerful industrial nation looking for new markets,” said Belgian Ambassador to Korea Peter Lescouhier. “We had even built the first long-distance railway in China connecting Beijing with Hankou [part of present-day Wuhan]. So when many great powers all started to have treaties with Korea in the early 1880s, Belgium was of the opinion that we couldn’t stand by and watch.”
 
The interest was equally visible from the Korean side, as King Gojong (1852-1919) of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) took a keen interest in the European nation after hearing that the country practiced neutrality in its foreign policies.
 
“When Belgium had a plenipotentiary minister in Japan [from 1885], he was approached by Korean diplomats Pak Yong-hyo and Kim Man-sik to see if Belgium was interested in concluding a treaty with Korea, mainly because of the fact that Belgium was a neutral country,” Lescouhier said. “The emperor [of Korea] had the aspiration to make Korea a neutral country to defend its sovereignty against China and Japan who were encroaching upon Korea.”
 
Belgium was one of the few nations that came to establish diplomatic relations with the empire of Korea. Although relations were cut short during the Japanese annexation (1910-45) of Korea, the grounds for ambassador-level exchange of envoys were renewed in 1961, and to this day the two nations have come to enjoy close cooperation in the protection of human rights, low-carbon economy and growing trade.
 
As the two nations celebrate the 120th anniversary of diplomatic ties today, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Ambassador Lescouhier to bring to the fore the memories of thousands of Belgians who came to Korea in some of its darkest hours, and to hear more about the theatrical and musical events planned for the year in Brussels and Seoul in hopes they provide cultural relief during the pandemic.
 
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
 
Can you tell us more about the nature of the 1901 treaty between Belgium and Korea?
In 1882, the United States, Germany and Britain had concluded a treaty of friendship, trade and navigation with Korea. France joined the group in 1886. Belgium, already present in China and Japan, was considering to do the same. Contacts took place between Charles De Groote, extraordinary envoy and plenipotentiary minister in Japan, and Korean diplomats residing in the Japanese capital. While Korean diplomats were interested in learning more about Belgium’s neutrality policy, Belgium was interested in opening trade with Korea. The treaty, which is also kept in record in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, announced that Korea and Belgium will exchange envoys, and stated which ports in Korea were officially recognized for Belgians' commercial activities.  
 
A page in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty details the treaty signed between Belgium and Korea in 1901. [NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF KOREAN HISTORY]

A page in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty details the treaty signed between Belgium and Korea in 1901. [NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF KOREAN HISTORY]

Even after diplomatic ties were cut during Japan's annexation of Korea, Belgium had continued to watch Korea's affairs, as evidenced by the report from the Belgian Embassy in Tokyo in 1919 about Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement. Were there other exchanges of information or people between the two nations during this period?
It’s an interesting question and one that a Belgian scholar might be looking into at the moment. The Royal Commission for History in Belgium and the National Institute of Korean History are working together to publish a book about diplomatic records between the two nations from 1901 to the Korean War [1950-53], hopefully by next year. What we find in this project may be able to provide answers to this question. But as you mentioned, the Belgian diplomatic mission in Japan continued to watch the events in Korea between 1919, when the ties were officially cut off, to 1948, when Belgium recognized Korea as a sovereign nation upon its establishment of its government. The mission’s report about Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement was also on display at the National Assembly during the state visit of His Majesty the King of the Belgians in March 2019.
 
 
Even before the agreement to exchange ambassador-level envoys in 1961 and the establishment of embassies in following years, thousands of Belgians volunteered to serve in the Korean War. How was that decision made?
At the request of the United Nations, the Government of the Kingdom of Belgium decided in August 1950 to send an infantry battalion to Korea. Since the Belgian Constitution does not allow conscripts to be sent to overseas operations, the government decided to establish an infantry battalion exclusively with volunteers. Around 7,000 young men applied. Only 2,000 of the applicants made it through the selection process. After intense training, the first group of these volunteers arrived in Busan on Jan. 31, 1951. A total of 3,172 Belgians participated in the war.
 
Belgian soldiers during Korean War (1950-53). [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

Belgian soldiers during Korean War (1950-53). [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

After the war, several Belgians came to Korea, many of them staying permanently and even becoming Korean nationals. Tell us more about their stories.
In 1953, Therese Cambier, a nurse of the Belgian battalion, responded to a call of the Bishop of Seoul and returned to Korea as a civilian to care for people with leprosy until 1979, first by means of a mobile medical team, in which she was the only foreigner, and later by setting up a permanent hospital in the Andong diocese.
In the late 1950s, several Belgian priests moved to Korea in the wake of the war to support the local communities in rebuilding the damaged country. One of them, Didier t’Serstevens, locally known by his Korean name Chi Chong-hwan, introduced the production of cheese in Korea. The factory that opened in 1967 in Imsil continues to produce cheese until this day.
In 1972, Marie-Hélène Brasseur, a Belgian nurse, came to Korea and opened a clinic for low-income families. The clinic to this day provides free medical and palliative care in a home-like environment, provided by Korean doctors and specialists who employ their time and service voluntarily, without pay.
 
Didier t`Serstevens, a Belgian priest faring from Brussels, making cheese with locals in Korea in the 1960s. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

Didier t`Serstevens, a Belgian priest faring from Brussels, making cheese with locals in Korea in the 1960s. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

One of the Koreans' most memorable milestones in bilateral ties might be Belgium's assistance to Korea during the Asian financial crisis.
When the financial crisis shook Asia in the late 1990s, Belgium, together with several other countries in Europe, including France, Germany and Italy, and with United States, Canada and others, committed to provide supplemental financing to support Korea’s program with the International Monetary Fund. This provided a second line of defense estimated to be in excess of $20 billion.
 
 
It’s interesting that King Philippe has actually visited Korea four times, from when he was prince to after he was enthroned. Is it rare for a king to make such frequent state visits to one nation?
King Philippe was in Korea while he was a prince, once leading an economic delegation, and other times to participate in international events. It is a usual practice in the royal family, for the princes and princesses to lead economic delegations and travel, to be well-versed in the affairs of Belgium and its relations with many parts of the world. Princess Astrid has also led an economic delegation to Korea in 2017.
Belgium has had two state visits of the kings to Korea, with the first by King Baudouin in 1992 and the second by King Philippe in 2019. President Moon Jae-in met with King Philippe in Brussels in 2018 whilst he was participating in the ASEM Summit, but it was not a state visit. The only state visit from Korea to Belgium was in 1986, when President Chun Doo Hwan visited. We are hoping that Korea will schedule a state visit to Belgium with an economic or trade mission, to return the interest from the Belgian side.
  
King Philippe and Queen Matilde of Belgium visit Korea in March 2019. [VLAD VANDERKELEN/EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

King Philippe and Queen Matilde of Belgium visit Korea in March 2019. [VLAD VANDERKELEN/EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

It's been a decade since the Korea-European Union FTA was provisionally applied. What are some growing sectors for business and investment between Belgium and Korea?
Aside from chemicals, Belgium’s most important export product to Korea, Koreans know how to appreciate a range of food products from Belgium, such as pork meat, fries, chocolate and beer. As of late, there has been growing investment from Korea in biomedical industries in Belgium. We have the second largest port in Europe and a dense railway network, and it’s been proven through the Covid crisis that Belgium is a logistics hub in the region, with many vaccine producers having selected Belgium as the site to produce and ship the vaccines from. It also helps that Belgium is one of the producers of the vaccines.
Korean investors have also been interested in the real estate market in Belgium. Not many people may be aware, but the building used by the Foreign Ministry of Belgium is actually owned by a Korean company. From the Belgian side, companies such as Umicore have been investing in production of [electric vehicle] batteries in Korea, and Solvay has been investing in chemical production here.
 
 
It sounds like Belgium and Korea have an ambitious list of events planned to celebrate the special anniversary in diplomatic relations. What are some of the events that our readers will be able to enjoy in Seoul?
Théâtre de Liège and the National Theater Company of Korea are working on a stage adaptation of Han Kang’s novel, “The Vegetarian.” It will be showcased in Belgium first and then come to Korea next year. In October, the embassy will host the Belgium Festival at the cultural center KOTE in Insa-dong [central Seoul], where people will be able to get a taste of Belgium — its beer, fries, chocolate and others. On Dec. 3, the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra will perform at the Seoul Arts Center with solo-pianist Cho Jae-hyuck. We are also planning to have Belgian artists participate in the Daegu Jazz Festival in August and the Seoul International Dance Festival in October to November.
 
 
It’s been nearly three years since your posting to Korea. What Korean culture have you been enjoying lately?
I am reading poetry by Baek Seok, whose works I admire very much. I think they are especially attractive to foreigners because they give insight to traditional culture of Korea before the effects of globalization set in. He discusses in his poems quite concrete and tangible matters, such as the smell of food, animals, villages, the people and so on. I have also been taking up a study in Korean, and hope that by next year I will be able to read newspapers in Korean.
  
Logo to commemorate 120th anniversary of Belgium-Korea diplomatic ties. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

Logo to commemorate 120th anniversary of Belgium-Korea diplomatic ties. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

1901 A treaty to establish ties
The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) records the details of the treaty signed between Belgium and Korea in 1901, at which time the two nations agreed to “strengthen their friendship” and business and trade relations, especially. The treaty announced that Belgium and Korea will dispatch envoys to each other and defined which Korean ports are officially recognized for Belgians to conduct their commercial activities, including Jemulpo, Gunsan and Mokpo ports.
 
1905 Former Belgian consulate
The former Belgian consulate office, constructed in 1905, is being used today as the Nam-Seoul Art Museum, also known as the Nam-SeMA, in Gwanak District, southern Seoul. It has been designated as a historical site by the Korean government. The consulate office shut down upon Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910.
 
The former Belgian consulate office, constructed in 1905, is being used today as the Nam-Seoul Art Museum, also known as the Nam-SeMA, in Gwanak District, southern Seoul. It has been designated as a historical site by the Korean government. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

The former Belgian consulate office, constructed in 1905, is being used today as the Nam-Seoul Art Museum, also known as the Nam-SeMA, in Gwanak District, southern Seoul. It has been designated as a historical site by the Korean government. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

1951 Belgians in Korean War

Belgium committed 3,172 soldiers to the Korean War (1950-53). By the end of the war, a total of 101 Belgians were killed. The Belgians formed a battalion with the soldiers from Luxembourg, and around 350 of the Belgium-Luxembourg Battalion were injured during the war, according to the Belgian Embassy in Seoul.
 
Belgian soldiers during Korean War (1950-53). [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

Belgian soldiers during Korean War (1950-53). [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

1959 Didier, Korea's father of cheese
Didier t`Serstevens, a Belgian priest faring from Brussels, arrived in Korea in 1959. In 1964, Didier was sent to a smaller and poorer parish in Imsil County in North Jeolla and met a farming community that was struggling to survive. Didier, better known in Korea by his Korean name Chi Chong-hwan, began to raise a pair of mountain goats with the locals there. That’s where the project to locally produce cheese for the first time in the nation began. After years of trial and error, Imsil Cheese as we know it today was born in 1967. Didier, a Korean citizen since 2016, died in 2019.
 
1961 Relations renewed
Bilateral ties that were cut off during the Japanese annexation of Korea (1910-45) were renewed in 1961, when the two nations agreed to exchange ambassador-level diplomatic envoys. The Belgian government had already recognized Korea as a sovereign nation in 1948 when Korea established its government. Korea opened its permanent mission in Brussels on Nov. 1, 1965. Belgium opened its embassy in Seoul in February 1970. The first Korean ambassador to Belgium was Moon Duk-joo and the first Belgian ambassador to Korea was Jean Trine.
 
1972 Marie-Hélène Brasseur
Marie-Hélène Brasseur arrived in Korea in 1972 as a nurse. She helped establish the Jeon Jin Sang Clinic in 1975, to help low-income people in the suburbs of Seoul. The clinic, run by a team of dedicated volunteers, has been providing free medical and palliative care in a home-like environment, as well as social consultations, afterschool care and support to isolated and impoverished people. In celebrating the 45th anniversary of the clinic in May 2020, the hospital opened a new building in Seoul.
 
King Philippe and Queen Matilde visit Marie-Helene Brasseur, Belgian doctor, who has been serving in Korea since 1972 at the Jeon Jin Sang Clinic she helped establish. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

King Philippe and Queen Matilde visit Marie-Helene Brasseur, Belgian doctor, who has been serving in Korea since 1972 at the Jeon Jin Sang Clinic she helped establish. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

1986 President Chun in Brussels
President Chun Doo Hwan visited Belgium in April 1986, becoming the first Korean president to visit the country. In addition to meeting with King Baudouin, Chun also had a meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, during which the two heads of state agreed Belgium and Korea will collaborate closely on high-technology skills and research, as well as on SMEs. The first Korean state visit to Belgium took place as part of a Europe-wide trip Chun made at the time, stopping by nations including Britain, Germany (then West Germany) and France.
 
Korea's former President Chun Doo Hwan and his wife, center, pose with Belgium's King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola during Chun's state visit to Belgium in 1986. [PRESIDENTIAL ARCHIVES OF KOREA]

Korea's former President Chun Doo Hwan and his wife, center, pose with Belgium's King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola during Chun's state visit to Belgium in 1986. [PRESIDENTIAL ARCHIVES OF KOREA]

1992 King Baudouin in Seoul
King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola visited the country in 1992, marking the first state visit from Belgium to Korea. The king held a summit meeting with Korea’s president at the time, Roh Tae-woo.
 
King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium during their state visit to Korea in 1992. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium during their state visit to Korea in 1992. [EMBASSY OF BELGIUM IN KOREA]

2011 European Union-Korea FTA  
The European Union-Korea FTA was provisionally applied since July 2011 before it was formally ratified in December 2015. Since the agreement, trade between Belgium and Korea has been expanding over the years, with Belgium becoming the EU’s seventh most important exporter to Korea, with exports worth 1.6 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in 2019, according to the Belgian Embassy in Seoul. In the same year, Korea’s exports to Belgium reached 2.4 billion euros, making Belgium the 10th most popular market for Korean products in the EU.
 
2019 Royal visit to Korea  
King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visited Korea in March 2019, leading a delegation of over 200 people including ministers, high officials, CEOs, representatives of academic institutions and members of Belgian media. In addition to a summit with President Moon Jae-in, the king and the queen held commemoration ceremonies at the National Cemetery and the War Memorial of Korea, met with Korea’s National Assembly speaker at the time Moon Hee-Sang, and attended investment and trade promotion events on life science and health care, as well as on smart cities and digital media.
The king and queen, also keen on cultural exchanges, took part in a traditional Korean tea ceremony at the Furniture Museum in central Seoul, attended a taekwondo demonstration at Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Headquarters, and in conclusion of the visit launched the Belgian Life Festival, a three-day event centered on Belgium’s diamonds, beers, meat and concerts.
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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