In an exclusive interview with Azeri Observer, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Baku, Mr. Kim Tong-op, shares information about the investment cooperation between two countries, involvement of Korean companies in infrastructure projects in Azerbaijan and prospects of cooperation in the innovation OF technology. He also speaks about the increasing interest in Azerbaijan among Korean tourists, deep common roots of our two nations, and Korean cultural events in Baku.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Could you please start with a short overview of the bilateral political relations between our countries and the cooperation within the international organizations?
A.: Azerbaijan and Korea has been enjoying a high level of interaction in all spheres since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. Our countries closely cooperate and support each other at international platforms. Both governments take measures with enthusiasm to advance the level of relations. In 2009, high-level political consultations were launched to resolve all the pending political issues and further contribute to the strengthening of diplomatic ties. Moreover, an exchange of high-level visits gives a fresh impetus to our existing relationship. I would say that the official visit of President Roh Moo-hyun to Azerbaijan in 2006, and the state visit of President Ilham Aliyev to Korea in 2007 are the most important achievements in our history of mutual cooperation. Moreover, the recent visit of Speaker of Korean National Assembly, Mr. Moon Hee-sang in October 2019 was of great importance for intensifying inter-parliamentary relations. I have no doubt that this tradition will keep developing.
Q.: The businesses of the Republic of Korea participated in huge projects in Azerbaijan, such as the Olympic main stadium and the Sumgayit carbamide plant. Could you tell us about notable bilateral economic projects which are under implementation or under discussion now? What spheres of Azerbaijani economy are attractive for South Korean investors?
A.: Azerbaijan is a reliable partner of Korea in the South Caucasus and its ongoing economic reforms – in particular in the non-oil sector – making Azerbaijan more attractive to Korean companies. Korean companies are actively involved in industrial, transport management, urban planning, architecture and other fields of Azerbaijani economy. I would like to stress the successful launch of the Sumgayit carbamide plant, constructed by Korean Samsung Engineering Co., which contributes to the development of the non-oil sphere in Azerbaijan. Currently, Korean Hansol company works on the construction of the Pirshaghi Water Treatment Plant, one of the biggest projects, which is already 95% complete. Another Korean company, S-Traffic Co. Ltd., is involved in the special equipment installation at the newly constructed Baku-Guba-Russia toll road. It makes us proud to see Korean companies’ active involvement in such crucial projects. Korean companies are also showing great interest in the SOCAR-GPC project, and Yashma Thermal Power Plant.
On February 6, Korean delegation headed by Deputy Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy visited Azerbaijan to take part in the 2nd meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation between the Government of Republic of Korea and Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan. I firmly believe that this meeting will pave the way for new prospects of cooperation.
Q.: How do you assess the prospects of cooperation in the innovation of new technology given the advanced experience of your country in this area?
A.: Nowadays, Korea is a main driver of global innovation and ranks among the top three innovative counties in the world. Korea is willing to share its experience with partner countries through training and consultations. I would like to stress that the opening of Baku State Vocational Education Center on Industry and Innovation, based on Korean standards is an example of close cooperation in this sphere. I am confident that the Center will play a vital role in preparing highly qualified specialists meeting the requirements of the labor market of Azerbaijan. Moreover, Korean Interior and Safety Ministry and Azerbaijan State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovation, are effectively cooperating in the development of an “e-government” in line with the signed memorandum of understanding.
Q.: Azerbaijan’s National Tourism Promotion Bureau plans to open a representative office in Seoul in 2020. What prospects do you see for cooperation in this sphere?
A.: Tourism is one of the key factors for the enhancement of mutual relations. Both Governments actively work in this direction. If we look at the statistical data for recent years, we can see a significant growth; for example in 2019 over 9,000 Korean tourists visited Azerbaijan, which is an increase of 19.9%. The development of tourism does not only bring money to the country but also increases cultural awareness and mutual understanding between two nations, which is necessary for all kinds of relations. In recent years, we can also see a rising interest of the Korean Tour Agencies and TV Channels in Azerbaijan as a touristic destination. Korean TV channels like EBS, KTV and KBS have broadcast thematic programs about Azerbaijan. We really welcome the opening of the Bureau. It will be a real stimulus to further promote mutual exchange and cooperation.
Q.: Could you tell us about the support measures that Korea offers to IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Azerbaijan?
A.: Representing the foreign policy of the Government of the Republic of Korea, the Embassy and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) have implemented various programs supporting IDPs in Azerbaijan.
Our Embassy initiated IDPs support events in cooperation with Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Affairs of the Refugees and IDPs in 2014. The main objective of these events is to render moral support and cultivate the feeling of unity with the IDPs who have lost their lands, and are currently residing in different regions of Azerbaijan. The scope of the events ranges from cultural performances and educational competitions for students, to the medical treatment voluntarily provided by the Korean Oriental Medical Clinic of SEBA (Seoul-Baku) Azerbaijan – Korea Cultural Exchange Association.
KOICA, in turn, cooperates with local authorities and international organizations in order to carry out infrastructure projects and to provide development support for the IDPs. One of the projects, which KOICA supports now is the Integrated Rural Development for IDP Communities in Azerbaijan through Revitalization of the Kahriz Water Supply System implemented by the International Migration Organization in 8 western regions of Azerbaijan where IDPs live compactly. Another infrastructure project on the Establishment of Water Supply and Sanitation System in the Khojavend settlement in the Beylagan region of Azerbaijan will be developed by the agency in cooperation with Azersu in 2020-2024. It will allow the residents of the Khojavend settlement to gain access to a modern water supply and sanitation system.
Q.: Our countries enjoy developed cultural and humanitarian cooperation. Tell us about them. What planned events does the embassy have for 2020 to let Azerbaijani people know more about Korean culture?
A.: Cultural and humanitarian cooperation creates the most solid and stable basis for the development of ties in all other spheres. Based upon this belief, the Embassy keeps promoting the development of relations in this field. We are actively involved in the organization of cultural, educational and sports events in Azerbaijan, with an awareness of Korean culture and language training centers in different universities and the promotion of Azerbaijani students for the Korean Government Scholarship Program. The Embassy screens Korean dramas in Azerbaijan, supports visits of the youth in both counties within the Youth Exchange Program, and many other projects initiated by Korea and Azerbaijan.
In 2020, on January 10 we held a Friendship concert at the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall. It was a remarkable event where a Korean cellist performed together with the Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra under the direction of prestigious conductor, Mr. Yalchin Adigozalov. Furthermore, we are planning to continue with our annual events like the K-Pop Festival, a Korean Speech Contest, a Korean Food Festival and the Ambassadorial Taekwondo Cup, aimed at raising Korean cultural awareness and encouraging the Azerbaijani youth to learn more about Korea. Other events include joint concerts, humanitarian conferences, and so on. The details will be announced shortly.
Q.: Could you share your impressions about Azerbaijan and its people? What is the most positive aspect of living in Azerbaijan? Do you see any similarities with Korea? What are the greatest differences?
A.: Azerbaijan is known as an oil-rich country, adjacent to the Caspian Sea and located in the Caucasus, which is a scenic beauty. Living in Azerbaijan for over a year, I can say that all economic, historic, religious and cultural factors defining Azerbaijan are harmonically and beautifully reflected in the people’s daily lives, which has created both a unique country and nation. The nation takes pride in its history and embraces its cultural background and traditions, while showing great interest in modernization, novelty and multiculturalism. Its hospitality makes foreigners feel at ease here, while making way for Azerbaijanis to appreciate new cultures easily with an open mind. Our similarities are based on our common roots as Altaic speaking nations. However, since our geographical isolation has made it difficult to interact for many centuries, the similarities are not overly visual and cannot be easily seen at first glance. You can see the parallels in our peoples’ way of thinking and their reverence towards the older generation. Originating from the same family of language, our grammar patterns have a connection. Therefore, it is easier to adapt in Azerbaijan once you start to interact with the people and understand them. I would say our differences are more visual, for example, appearances and food with differing cultural and modern habits.