[Friends for decades] Latvia-Korea relations cover everything from the KTX to Lotte Tower

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[Friends for decades] Latvia-Korea relations cover everything from the KTX to Lotte Tower

Ambassador of Latvia to Korea Aris Vigants speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the embassy in Seoul on Nov. 17. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Ambassador of Latvia to Korea Aris Vigants speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the embassy in Seoul on Nov. 17. [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
If you have recently hopped on a KTX train, visited Lotte Tower or made your way through a museum in Seoul, you would have no doubt experienced something made in Latvia, said the top envoy from the Baltic nation.
 
“The new generation high-speed trains KTX-EUM is fitted with sound insulation interior designed with plywood by Latvian company Latvijas Finieris,” said Aris Vigants, ambassador of Latvia to Korea. “You can find the same in Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art in Itaewon.”
 
Latvian fiberglass company Valmiera Glass also added to the construction of Lotte Tower, installing its fire-proof barriers and glass fabric to the structure. Another glass company based in Latvia, Groglass, encases many art works at the National Museum of Korea with its products.
 
“The same anti-reflection glass used by the Louvre in Paris is also being used at the national museum in Seoul,” said Vigants.
 
These are just a few examples of the budding Latvian-Korean cooperation, and something that the ambassador is hoping to cultivate in the next few years of his tenure.
 
Vigants is the second Latvian ambassador to reside in Seoul, after his predecessor opened the Latvian Embassy in the city in 2015. He arrived earlier this year, just in time for the 30th anniversary celebrations.
 
Looking back, the top envoy said, Korea and Latvia were always meant to find each other, but they were each delayed by different events back home.
 
“In 1918, when Latvia reached its independence, Korea was under occupation [by the Japanese], and during the World War II, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany,” he said. “But it was obvious, as we sought to join the United Nations, that we have the same values as the other UN members on the international law-based order.”
 
The flags of the three Baltic states — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — and both Koreas rose at the United Nations on Sept. 17, 1991, as they joined the organization, along with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia.
 
To hear more about the different milestones during the 30 years of relations, as well as recent developments between the two countries, especially on logistics and technology, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with the ambassador at the embassy in Seoul on Nov. 17.  
 
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
 
 

Looking back on the 30 years of ties, what milestones stand out to you most?
One of the milestones was the establishment of full-fledged embassies in both of our countries. Korea opened its embassy in 2012, which became a fully-fledged embassy in 2019 when the ambassador joined. Latvia opened its embassy in Korea in 2015.

I would add that the most recent culmination in our relations was the visit of our president to Pyeongchang in 2018, when he met with President Moon [Jae-in] and the speaker of the National Assembly. As a result of the visit, agreements on air traffic were signed, and we had three charter flights from Incheon to Riga in 2019, which were all fully booked. We are hoping to renew this cooperation after the pandemic is over.
 

Any special activities planned to mark the 30th anniversary this year?
In spring we had an exhibition in Gimpo, which was a comprehensive exhibition on Latvian architecture, folk costumes, including some that were inspired by traditional dresses in Latvia and the Korean hanbok, and Latvian illustrations for the children. We had another exhibition in Busan over the summer and film festivals in both Daegu and Busan. We were happy to find a high level of interest from the Korean public on Latvian animation.

For those interested in the history of the Baltic states, we have an exhibition at Damda, a modern art history museum in Yongin, Gyeonggi, ongoing through the end of December, that is centered on the Batun [Baltic Appeal to the United Nations] movement, when exiled communities from the three Baltic countries appealed to the United Nations and the international community [from 1966 to 1991] about the social injustices they faced during the occupation by the Soviet regime. Upcoming in December we will host an exhibition on Latvian ceramics, in cooperation with Latvian and Korean artists.
 
Going forward, which sectors between the two countries are you hoping to bridge the most?
Latvia’s nonfreezing ports in the region have long provided critical access to the region, and today they open up the market to the European Union, Nordic countries, the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] and Russia. The system is there, and I am looking forward to bridging it with the logistics hub of Korea, especially Busan. We are looking to have a delegation on transport and logistics from Latvia visit Korea next year, and we will be visiting Busan, one of the most important ports in the region.
 
What's the latest on bilateral trade?

As for the trade between both countries, there is a lot of potential, as trade has steadily grown over the last 10 years, from 33.7 million euros [$37.9 million] to 109.6 million euros as of 2020.

As wooden products make the lion’s share of Latvian exports to Korea, there is a lot of potential to diversify Latvian exports, especially in organic food, high-end wooden products, IT hardware (for example Latvian made wireless routers are powering the SpaceX rocket mission) and software solutions.

Regarding Latvian investment in Korea, I would say that most Latvians view Korea as a powerhouse of technology. Latvian investors would see a lot of potential in the fast-growing e-commerce and IT sector.
 
The two countries are also celebrating this year as the 30th anniversary of joining the United Nations. How do you assess the Latvia-Korea partnership on the multilateral platform?

I truly believe that we can cooperate on many issues on the international agenda. Latvia has put forward its bid to join the nonpermanent seat of the UN Security Council for 2026-27, for which Korea also put forward its bid, but for the 2024-25 term, and we will be able to go hand in hand if we are both successful. I think it is natural that we cooperate on many issues as we have many similarities in our mentality and understanding of the security relations, especially in our work towards peace. We’ve been working closely on our 1+3 committee on economic affairs, which is a committee consisting of vice ministers of Korea and the three Baltic nations. We are hoping to be able to host such high-level consultations in [the Latvian capital of] Riga next year.
 
Where in Latvia do you recommend visiting for travelers post-pandemic?

For those who enjoy urban landscape and architecture, Riga can offer rich cultural traditions active for the past 800 years. The city has many parks, and there are also palaces or manors that are not far from the city. It is also very convenient to rent out a well-equipped cabin in the woods by a lake and really detox yourself from all the worries of work and life.

We have also been blessed with a luxuriously long, white sand coastline of more than 500 kilometers [310 miles], so you can choose whether to relax by the beach with many amenities, or to go a few miles further and have your own beach.

Latvia is home to a selection of palaces and manors, built during different centuries and scattered throughout the country. The most luxurious and popular is the 18th century gem, Rundale Palace, with it’s world-famous interior and rose garden.

I would say June or July is the best time to visit. The country has distinct four seasons and will offer a different look every season.
 
Movies and TV series are quickly becoming one of the more popular forms of culture consumption during this age of the pandemic. Have you had any memorable encounters with anything Korean, through films or the arts, before your time here?

I came across some Korean movies in the middle of the 1990s when we had some very good film festivals in Latvia. I learned about Korea through these movies, some of them made by director Kim Ki-duk. Since my arrival in Seoul earlier this year, I am learning something new about the country every day.
 
 
1991 Establishment of ties
Korea and Latvia established ties in October 1991, just a month after they both joined the United Nations, along with North Korea, Estonia, Lithuania, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Several prime ministers from Latvia have visited Korea since then, including Ivars Godmanis in 2009 and Vadis Dombrovskis in 2011. President Raimonds Vejonis was the first Latvian president to visit Korea, in 2018. The most recent visit to Latvia by a Korean official was when then-speaker of the National Assembly Moon Hee-sang visited in May 2019. The visit was returned the next year when Inara Murniece, speaker of the Latvian parliament Saeima, visited Korea in January 2020. 
 
Latvian and EU flags atop the Latvian Embassy in Korea, which was established in 2015. The file photo is dated April 24, 2017. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

Latvian and EU flags atop the Latvian Embassy in Korea, which was established in 2015. The file photo is dated April 24, 2017. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

2015 Opening of Latvian Embassy
The Latvian Embassy in Korea opened in 2015 and welcomed the first Latvian ambassador to reside in Korea in 2016. The Korean Embassy in Latvia opened in 2012, welcoming its first ambassador in residence in 2019.
 
2017 Midsummer festival
Midsummer festival, known was Ligo in Latvia, is celebrated annually on June 23. The tradition is that Latvians would spend the shortest night of the year staying awake, singing and dancing, eating and drinking around bonfires. The Latvian Embassy in Seoul began hosting the festival annually from 2017.
 
A midsummer festival at the Latvian Embassy in Korea on June 23, 2017. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

A midsummer festival at the Latvian Embassy in Korea on June 23, 2017. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

 
2018 Presidential summit
President Raimonds Vejonis visited Korea during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and met with President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House on Feb. 13, 2018. One of the key agreements signed between the two countries as a result of the summit concerned air services, including direct flights between Riga and Incheon. The services were launched in 2019 but suspended due to the pandemic.
 
Latvia's then-President Raimonds Vejonis, left, shakes hands with President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House on Feb. 13, 2018, during their summit meeting. [BLUE HOUSE]

Latvia's then-President Raimonds Vejonis, left, shakes hands with President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House on Feb. 13, 2018, during their summit meeting. [BLUE HOUSE]

 
2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics
A total of 35 Latvian athletes competed at the Winter Olympics, including their popular skeleton racers, brothers Tomass and Martins Dukurs and racer Lelde Priedulena, and two-man bobsleigh and four-man-bobsleigh pilots Oskars Melbardis and Oskars Kibermanis. Melbardis, with Janis Strenga, took the bronze medal in the two-man-bob.
 
Latvian athletes smile during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

Latvian athletes smile during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

 
2021 Presentation of credentials
Second Latvian ambasadsor to reside in Korea, Aris Vigants, presented his credentials to President Moon in April this year.
 
Ambassador Vigants presents his credentials to President Moon on April 14. [BLUE HOUSE]

Ambassador Vigants presents his credentials to President Moon on April 14. [BLUE HOUSE]

 
2021 Meetings with students
As part of the regular EU Goes to School program, Ambassador Vigants and staff members of the embassy met with the students of Gwangnam Middle School in Seoul on July 7 to introduce Latvia. The embassy has also been meeting with students in Korea studying the Latvian language, including those at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. 
 
Ambassador Vigants meets with Gwangnam Middle School students in Seoul on July 7 to introduce Latvia. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

Ambassador Vigants meets with Gwangnam Middle School students in Seoul on July 7 to introduce Latvia. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

 
2021 Latvian Film Festival
For the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties, the Latvian Embassy brought a film festival to Busan and Daegu from May 15 to 16. The festival brought eight Latvian movies including animations such as “My Favorite War” (2020) and “Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs” (2019), and feature films including “Blizzard of Souls” (2019).
 
2021 Exhibitions in Gimpo and Busan  
Also to mark the 30th anniversary, the embassy hosted exhibitions on Latvian architecture, especially the architectural history of Riga, a Unesco World Heritage site, and folklore and children’s book illustrations, from March to May in Gimpo and from August to October in Busan. An online concert a concert by Laima Jansone was also hosted by the embassy recently to celebrate the 30th anniversary.
 
The exhibition ″The World We Meet Again, Latvia″ that was held from March 25 to May 30 at the Gimpo Art Village in Gimpo, Gyeonggi. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]

The exhibition ″The World We Meet Again, Latvia″ that was held from March 25 to May 30 at the Gimpo Art Village in Gimpo, Gyeonggi. [EMBASSY OF LATVIA IN KOREA]



2021 Lighting of the City Hall
The Seoul Metropolitan Government lit the City Hall in the colors of the Latvian flag on Oct. 22 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of bilateral ties. 
Ciy Hall lit up in the colors of the Latvian flag on Oct. 22 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Korea-Latvia ties. [SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT]

Ciy Hall lit up in the colors of the Latvian flag on Oct. 22 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Korea-Latvia ties. [SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT]

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