[Friends for decades] Korea and Estonia make a dynamic duo in cyber innovations

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[Friends for decades] Korea and Estonia make a dynamic duo in cyber innovations

Ambassador of Estonia to Korea Sten Schwede speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the European Union delegation office in Seoul on Nov. 2. The interview was conducted at the EU office due to ongoing renovation of the Estonian Embassy in Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Ambassador of Estonia to Korea Sten Schwede speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the European Union delegation office in Seoul on Nov. 2. The interview was conducted at the EU office due to ongoing renovation of the Estonian Embassy in Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
Korea and Estonia have built some of the most digitalized societies in the world, doing everything from filing taxes, registering new homes, and even finding a free parking space in the vicinity online — and this could make them apt partners when it comes to innovations in cybersecurity, said a top Estonian envoy in Seoul.
 
“What we need to learn from each other now is how to actually defend those systems,” said Sten Schwede, ambassador of Estonia to Korea, in speaking with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 2. “Cybersecurity and data safety: These are fields where we can put our heads together.”
 
The two countries are celebrating their 30th anniversary in ties this year. When it all began, they had little idea of the level of development they would have achieved in the digital sector, especially moving their government online.
 
Estonia went a step further and started to offer its public services to foreign citizens in 2014.
 
The Estonian e-residency, which can be filed online without the filer ever physically setting foot in the country, allows holders to open companies in Estonia, sign documents digitally and trade with all partners in the European Union.
 
Estonia was no stranger to Covid-19 lockdowns — having implemented two itself — but when the pandemic shut down borders in Europe, remote working took off and so did European applications to e-residency, some coming from companies based in Britain and hoping to maintain access to the EU market following Brexit.
 
“Now we have 2,000 e-residents from Korea, of whom around 10 to 15 percent have opened companies through their e-residency,” he said.
 
Korea-Estonia relations have strengthened in the last three years, following high-level visits, including that by former President Kersti Kaljulaid in 2018, and have largely centered on the digital sector. But all of this was possible because the basic foundation of the bilateral ties, revolving around shared values on democracy, stood as firm as ever, said Schwede.
 
“[Back in 1991], after 51 years of being ruled by another country, we needed to find our place in the international arena to find allies and friends and establish diplomatic relations,” said Schwede. “That was the main drive behind the establishment of our ties, and South Korea, as a democratic, like-minded country, was one of the countries that we sought friendship with.”
 
To hear more about the milestones in the 30 years of diplomatic relations, including in cybersecurity and budding cooperation on higher education, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with the ambassador at the EU Embassy in Seoul on Nov. 2.
 
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
 
 
How would you assess the past 30 years of Estonia-Korea ties?
It has been a long journey — the ties have strengthened step by step and really intensified in the last three years when we had high-level visits, including the visit of our president to the country during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, which was followed by a state visit later that year, as well as Korea’s Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum to Estonia in the same year.
 
 
What were the major outcomes of the state visit by former President Kersti Kaljulaid?
One of the big messages that our president had with her was about our digital success, as Estonia is an e-government-oriented country. The digital revolution in Estonia was led by the government, unlike in other parts of the world where it was led by telecommunication companies, banks and mainly the private sector. We shared about our e-residency card, which is open to foreigners, who can [with the e-residency status] establish a company in Estonia and actually target the European market, as they can sign digitally through the system and their signatures would be valid throughout the European Union. Today we have around 2,000 e-residents from Korea, of whom 10 to 15 percent have opened companies.
 
 
Both Estonia and Korea are some of the most digitalized societies in the world. Has there been any recent bilateral cooperation on tackling cybersecurity threats?
We are working on cooperating more on defending our systems, to ensure cyber security and data safety. We have jointly held several exercises on sharing our best practices.
Estonia’s combat on cybersecurity challenges began with an attack on our e-government system in 2007. The system was around five to six years old by then. At the time, the government made a decision to remove a [Soviet] war memorial from the center of the city, which was followed by some riots by Russian-speaking people. This was accompanied with heavy cyber attacks from Russia. Estonia realized that with all of its administration online, we should really look into bolstering our cyber security.
 
 
In marking the 30th anniversary of Estonia-Korea relations, what do you envision for the next 30 years of the bilateral ties?
I would say that our ties in science and higher education may take center stage in our cooperation. Both South Korea and Estonia actually do very well on education rankings, like the PISA test [by the OECD]. We’re trying to see whether we can combine our experiences and learn from each other’s practices to make it even better. One way of doing this would be promoting more exchange of students, professors and scientists.
 
 
Any special events to mark the occasion?
We had a special musical performance at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre that was joined by both Estonian and Korean students [last month]. It was a beautiful performance that highlighted our budding cooperation in the education sector and the people-to-people exchanges between the younger generations.
Coming up next is a book publication event in Seoul, which will highlight Oskar Luts’ novel “The Spring.” A Korean translation is prepared and will be presented at the event. “The Spring,” published in 1912, tells a story of the Estonian youth at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. By reading the book, you will be able to get an idea of what it was like to be a youth in Estonia at the time, which was ruled by foreign powers. The novel is part of a four-part series.
 
 
Do you sense a parallel spirit in the Korean people, because of the similar experiences in seeking independence and democracy?
I do sense it myself, and I can relate to your thinking behind your foreign policy decisions, as Korea was also surrounded by a relatively hostile environment for a long period of time, and that, of course, works into your mentality.
Estonia has been a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council and we have had wonderful cooperation with South Korea in the council based on our shared values including our commitment to rules-based order and peace.
 
 
People who visit Estonia for the first time may expect to see a futuristic-looking capital city, but what they actually find is a city that has been preserved for thousands of years and designated a Unesco world heritage site since 1997. What are your recommendations for visitors to the city?
We are very proud of our [capital] city Tallinn. Luckily the huge wars that raged in the region didn’t damage the city that much, although parts of the old town are gone forever. The city is compact and perfect for tourists to walk around to see churches, town halls and even a pharmacy that has been working nonstop since 1404.
There are no restrictions in travel into Estonia at the moment for those who are vaccinated.
 
 
Perhaps less known to outsiders are Estonia's natural parks and more than 2,000 islands. Any recommendations for visits to its natural wonders?
Estonia is covered by forests — 52 percent of the country is covered with wild forests, filled with wildlife such as brown bears, wolves, lynx and moose. People venture into the woods to pick berries and mushrooms.
There is a city called Tartu that you should visit while in Estonia: It has the biggest university in the country. There is also a seaside leisure town called Parnu, which was very famous in the 1930s when there were much less travelers than today. The water gets quite warm, around 25 degrees Celsius [77 degrees Fahrenheit], which is rare in the region.
We have all the islands in the Baltics, and if you are visiting during the winter, I recommend the Hiiumaa islands, where you can drive between islands on ice roads, which only form during the middle of the winter season, and only if the temperatures drop enough.
 
 
What Estonian dishes are a must-try during visits to the country?
I recommend kama, which is this kind of dried grains and peas, with yogurt or sour milk added, taken with jam or sugar on top. I also recommend the dark rye bread, which goes well with Baltic herring served with potatoes, sour cream and sliced fresh onions.
 
Timeline of Estonia-Korea relations
1991 Establishment of ties
After 51 years of Soviet occupation, the Estonians “sang their way to freedom,” a phrase often used by the media to describe the historical movement centered on national song festivals in Estonia from November 1988 to September 1991, where hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered to sing national anthems and folk songs, until the Soviet Union officially recognized their independence.

Estonia and Korea established ties just a month after Estonia’s independence, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the Embassy of Estonia was established in Seoul. Korea’s ambassador of Finland serves as the non-resident ambassador to Estonia.
 
2018 President Kersti Kaljulaid visits Korea
Former President Kersti Kaljulaid visited Korea during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, marking the first state visit from the president of Estonia to Korea. In her meeting with President Moon Jae-in, she discussed Estonia’s digital policies, including the e-residency program, and ways for the two countries to collaborate on cybersecurity and start-up incubation.
Former President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid meets with President Moon Jae-in during her visit to Korea on Feb. 6, 2018. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Former President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid meets with President Moon Jae-in during her visit to Korea on Feb. 6, 2018. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

 
2018 Visit by Interior and Safety Minister Kim Boo-kyum
Then-Minister of the Interior and Safety Kim Boo-kyum, currently the prime minister, visited Estonia in October 2018 to attend the Tallinn Digital Summit. During the visit, he met with Estonia’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Rene Tammist to explore where Korea and Estonia could collaborate further on e-government technology and cybersecurity policies.
Then-Minister of the Interior and Safety Kim Boo-kyum, right, meets with Estonia’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Rene Tammist during his visit to Estonia on Oct. 15, 2018. [MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR AND SAFETY]

Then-Minister of the Interior and Safety Kim Boo-kyum, right, meets with Estonia’s Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Rene Tammist during his visit to Estonia on Oct. 15, 2018. [MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR AND SAFETY]

 
2021 Meetings with university students
Staff members of the Estonian Embassy in Seoul, including deputy head of mission Marti Matas, meet with students of Kyungbock High School in central Seoul to introduce Estonia, as part of the EU Goes to School program run by the European Union Delegation in Seoul and the embassies of EU members in Korea.
Staff members of the Estonian Embassy in Seoul, including deputy head of mission Marti Matas, meet with students of Kyungbock High School in central Seoul to introduce Estonia on June 8. [ESTONIAN EMBASSY SEOUL]

Staff members of the Estonian Embassy in Seoul, including deputy head of mission Marti Matas, meet with students of Kyungbock High School in central Seoul to introduce Estonia on June 8. [ESTONIAN EMBASSY SEOUL]

 
2021 Presentation of credentials
Estonia’s first in-residence ambassador to Korea, Sten Schwede, presents his credentials to President Moon Jae-in on Oct. 15. Schwede was formerly ambassador in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia, and consul general in New York.
Estonian Ambassador to Korea Sten Schwede, left, presents his credentials to President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House on Oct. 15. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Estonian Ambassador to Korea Sten Schwede, left, presents his credentials to President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House on Oct. 15. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

 
2021 Concert at Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre
Korean and Estonian students put together a performance at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Estonia-Korea relations on Oct. 20.
A Korean student and a choir of Estonian students perform at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre in Tallinn on Oct. 20. [ESTONIAN EMBASSY SEOUL]

A Korean student and a choir of Estonian students perform at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre in Tallinn on Oct. 20. [ESTONIAN EMBASSY SEOUL]

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BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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