The Serbian people share many similar characteristics with Koreans, despite the two countries being thousands of miles apart ~ Jaewoong Lee
Upon arriving in Serbia four months ago, new Korean ambassador to Serbia Jaewoong Lee stated that his goal is to “double the trade exchange” between the two countries. In this interview, his first for CorD Magazine, he announces that at least two or three more Korean companies will start doing business in Serbia, thereby joining the existing Korean business community in the country, which already employs around 10,000 people. Apart from the auto industry and the IT sector, new areas of mutual cooperation are opening up in the fields of ecology and nuclear energy, says Ambassador Lee. He adds that connecting the two countries in the fields of culture, art and tourism is a special challenge, help in which could be provided by the global popularity of the Korean wave.
Your Excellency, given that you arrived in Serbia just four months ago, could you tell us about your first impressions of the country and how you’re acclimatising to life in Belgrade?
My first impression of Serbia is that it is a beautiful country. The harmony of Western and Eastern cultures, architecture of classical and modern styles, and both sad and happy legacies with a deep historical background, provide a perfect reason for admiration. The scenery of mountains and rivers allow me no other expressions. However, the true beauty of Serbia lies in its people. Serbs are kind and hospitable, especially to foreigners like me. They are smart, diligent and also emotional. They like music and dancing, and enjoy eating and drinking. In a way, I believe, Serbian people share many similar characteristics with Koreans, despite the two countries being thousands of miles apart.
Thanks to kind Serbian people and their help and hospitability bestowed upon me from the time of my arrival late last year, I haven’t had any difficulties getting settled in Belgrade. The weather in Belgrade is also very similar to Seoul. Winter was cold, but that was okay for me, as winter in Seoul is also severe. To my great pleasure, more and more greenery is coming to us by the day, in many parks and streets, and I am ready to fully enjoy the wonderful time here.
You stated when presenting your credentials to the President of Serbia that you intend to continue engaging in the promoting of Serbia as an excellent investment destination for Korean companies, while you also noted that your aim is to double the trade exchange between our two countries. Which areas of the economy do you see as providing the best route to achieving that aim?
There are currently six Korean companies already operating their businesses successfully in Serbia. They are based not only Belgrade, but also in other cities like Niš, Leskovac, Zrenjanin and Smedervska Palanka, creating almost 10,000 jobs. The good news is that many Korean companies are still expressing an interest in new investment opportunities in Serbia. For example, noting that Serbia has rich resources in terms of IT experts, some Korean IT companies are considering opening their R&D centres here. Others are taking a careful look at the possibility of participating in smart city projects that are either under consideration or being implemented by big and small cities. Given all those instances, I think at least two or three more Korean companies will come to Serbia during my term here as ambassador. It should also be noted that Korean businesses regard Serbia as a promising long-term partner for co-prosperity.
When it comes to Serbian exports, Serbian agricultural and livestock products are well known for their high quality and affordable prices. To date, Korea has relied on imports of some of these products from Serbia, such as corn and pork, through indirect imports via third countries
As for trade, which stood at almost 500 million USD in 2021, there is still huge room to increase its volume. When it comes to Serbian exports, Serbian agricultural and livestock products are well known for their high quality and affordable prices. To date, Korea has relied on imports of some of these products from Serbia, such as corn and pork, through indirect imports via third countries. The direct trade of those two products alone can contribute to a substantial increase in trade volume, if handled properly. For the Korean side, we see a steady increase in exports of products like machinery and semi-conductors, as well as consumer products like cosmetics. The Korean embassy, with the help of the KOTRA Belgrade office, will do its best to achieve our goal.
You’ve already pointed out in your meetings with Serbian officials that the Republic of Korea has decided to become a carbon-neutral country that relies on nuclear and renewable energy sources. As one of the world’s leaders in this field, do you see opportunities to broaden cooperation with Serbia?
Certainly. As the two countries are respectively moving forward vigorously with their own ambitious goals for carbon neutrality, there is a huge opportunity for close cooperation with many Korean investors in the field of renewable energy coming to Serbia.
On nuclear energy, it seems inevitable to rely on it for the foreseeable future in order to realise the goal of carbon neutrality. Korea has successfully built a nuclear power plant in the UAE, and is currently bidding for a new plant in the Czech Republic. We also have particular strength in the Small Modular Reactor (SMR). Given its advanced technologies and ample experience in exporting related products, as well as Serbia’s strategic goal of inducting nuclear energy for electricity, I believe Korea will make a suitable partner for Serbia’s nuclear energy project in the future.
The latest Korean investment in Serbia is represented by the auto parts factory of company Kyungshin Cable in the town of Smederevska Palanka. Considering the global crisis that’s confronting the auto industry, linked to oil and gas prices and difficulties in maintaining supplies, do you believe this company will succeed in implementing its envisaged plan of employing 700 people by the end of this year?
Since its opening in April last year, Kyungshin Cable has been producing wiring harnesses and other eco-friendly automotive components for electric vehicles, and is now providing more than 500 jobs for the local economy. Despite the pandemic, Kyungshin Cable completed construction of its factory as planned.
The factory is operating at almost full capacity and is seeking to add more production lines. In the face of the recent crisis in Ukraine, on top of the difficult challenges caused by COVID-19, every business has had a hard time under the tangled supply chains and high prices of oil and gas. Nonetheless, Kyungshin Cable seems to be faring well, and I just hope they will succeed in implementing their envisaged plan.
Have you already had a chance to acquaint yourself with the work of the joint Information Centre, which has been operating in Belgrade since 2017? There are also announcements that a second one should open this year in Niš?
I haven’t been there myself yet, but I fully notice the Information Access Centre (IAC) in Belgrade is one of the best cooperative projects between Korea and Serbia. Since its opening in 2017, the IAC, also known as “SKIP Centar”, has grown to be now running as many as 1,500 training programmes. Some of them are being conducted with support from the World Bank, the EBRD or the EU, contributing to narrowing Serbia’s digital divide. More than 40,000 civil servants and citizens have participated in various ICT workshops there to date. In recognition of these accomplishments, the IAC Belgrade was awarded as the “Best IAC” last year, among 60 similar IACs all over the world that are supported by the Korean Government.
Given its advanced technologies and ample experience in exporting related products, as well as Serbia’s strategic goal of inducting nuclear energy for electricity, I believe Korea will make a suitable partner for Serbia’s nuclear energy project in the future
Furthermore, the Korean Government has decided to provide support for a second IAC in the city of Niš. The new IAC is now under construction and will be up and running by the end of this year. I believe the new IAC will further accelerate cooperation with Korea in the IT sector.
You’ve said that you would like Serbian citizens to discover more about your country’s tourism potential. Despite good bilateral relations, citizens of our two countries still don’t know a lot about such travel opportunities. How do you intend to change that?
As we return to normal, with fewer or no COVID-19 quarantine restrictions in the coming days and months, it is expected that more Koreans and Serbs will visit each other. We recently received the good news that the Korean Government has finally resumed its visa-free entry programme after a two-year suspension, starting from April; thereby allowing Serbian citizens to come to Korea more freely.
I agree that we, Koreans and Serbs, don’t know each other very well, which hampers the full realising of our tourism potential. Fortunately, more Serbian citizens are becoming interested in Korea, mainly thanks to the increasing popularity of K-Wave, “Hallyu” in Korean. K-dramas, K-movies and K-pop are much in vogue these days. This trend will certainly increase awareness about Korea among the Serbian public.
I think we need to make full use of the popularity of K-Wave for the benefit of Serbia too. Under normal circumstances, without COVID-19, there were many instances of K-drama companies filming their products in foreign tourist spots. Reality shows filmed in foreign tourist spots were also common. If we, both the Serbian Government and the Korean Embassy, can find a way to persuade one of those companies to come to Serbia for filming locations, we can easily trigger visits of many Korean tourists to those locations.
Let me give you an example. Croatia has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe since 2014, after a reality show about touring in Croatia was aired on Korean TV. The number of Korean visitors has increased fivefold. Serbia, featuring breath-taking views like those of the emerald-coloured Uvac canyon and its meanders, the sky-high Kopaonik Mountain, the magical Golubac Fortress and many other fortresses, medieval monasteries and castles of Vojvodina, archaeological sites, not to mention the country’s capital, Belgrade, a vibrant city with a flourishing economy and rich culture, one of the oldest in Europe, can also attract hundreds of thousands of Korean tourists.
For our part, as a way of raising awareness and understanding among both people, our embassy has launched a series of card news through its “Facebook” and “Instagram” accounts this year. Card news updates are being added every week and introducing interesting information about both Serbia and Korea, including attractive tourism spots. This is also a small but meaningful step towards steadily increasing people’s awareness of both countries.
President Aleksandar Vučić asked you to relay his invitation for the President of Korea to visit Serbia. Is a high-level bilateral visit currently being considered?
Currently, both Serbia and Korea are under transitional periods towards the forming of new governments after elections respectively. After both have their own new governments in place, the visits of high-level government officials will provide good opportunities to strengthen bilateral relations. I will do my best to arrange as many bilateral visits as possible during my mandate. After all, we have been forced for too long to stay away from each other due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and now is the right time to relaunch our reciprocal visits.
It seems that the world is slowly emerging from the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and your government has donated money and equipment to assist Serbia’s healthcare system on multiple occasions. What is the situation like in Korea today with regard to Covid-19?
It seems that the Omicron wave in Korea has passed its peak and is declining steadily. Korea has managed to keep our medical system from being overwhelmed, even during the recent spike, allowing us to focus on managing high-risk groups and maintaining the fatality rate at a relatively low level of approximately 0.12%. On 18th April, the Korean Government lifted almost all social distancing measures except for the wearing of face masks, bringing about greater expectations for a return to normal life.
Going through the difficult moments under Covid-19, Korea and Serbia have become even closer by helping each other. The Serbian Government arranged some flights enabling stranded Koreans to return home. The Korean Government, for its part, donated medical equipment to Serbia worth 300,000 USD, including test kits.
At the end of March, the South Korean military announced that it had test-fired a solid-fuel space rocket successfully for the first time, which is considered as representing a step towards strengthening your country’s defensive capabilities. What is this project all about?
The test-fire was the first of its kind in the history of Korean defensive science and technology. It was conducted to verify the performance of a solid-propellant space launch vehicle developed entirely with homegrown technologies. Following additional tests, a space launch vehicle will be developed with the capacity to propel micro or ultra-micro satellites into a low Earth orbit. Given the importance of outer space, as a key domain with significant impact on national security, the Korean Government will expeditiously advance its defence space power.
Our government, in close consultations with its ally and the international community, is exerting the utmost efforts to discourage North Korea from further provocations and to draw them back to the negotiating table
Despite living together with a precarious neighbour who has retained its adversary policy vis-à-vis its southern neighbour, South Korea has no military reconnaissance satellite of its own, and is thus dependent on U.S. spy satellites to monitor strategic facilities in North Korea. Therefore, the success of the test launch of a solid-fuel rocket could represent a key milestone in strengthening defensive power, particularly strengthening its military’s long overdue independent space-based surveillance field. It is noteworthy that the launch was based on 100% pure Korean technology and, considering its spin-off effect into the private aerospace industry, it means a lot to the Korean people in general.
The launch took place just a week after your northern neighbours tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. How would you describe the current political and security situation on the Korean Peninsula?
From the beginning of this year, North Korea has launched a flurry of missile tests; among them was the test of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) on 24th March, representing a clear violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, as well as breaking from its selfimposed moratorium in 2018. Our government defined this test as a deliberate provocation, posing a serious threat not only to the Korean Peninsula, but to the whole of Northeast Asia and beyond. Our government, in close consultations with its ally and the international community, is exerting the utmost efforts to discourage North Korea from further provocations and to draw them back to the negotiating table.
Noting that Serbia has rich resources in terms of IT experts, some Korean IT companies are considering opening their R&D centres here
As for trade, which stood at almost 500 million USD in 2021, there is still huge room to increase its volume
The IAC Belgrade was awarded as the “Best IAC” last year, among 60 similar IACs all over the world that are supported by the Korean Government