In recent years, Serbia’s reform-minded government has made great strides, as evidenced by macroeconomic indicators. The government deficit is back in control, GDP is growing again at three per cent per year, and international credit rating agencies are upgrading its status. As the European economic crisis seems to be abating, with the ECB even talking of winding down quantitative easing, this will also further strengthen the rebound of the Serbian economy
Since 2016, Korea and Serbia have been accelerating their cooperation in the area of knowledge-sharing in e-government. The 2016 MoU between the two ministries of public administration related to cooperation on e-government was the first such international MoU signed by the Serbian government.
In November 2016, a pan-governmental delegation from Korea visited Serbia to host knowledge-sharing workshops and meetings with counterparts. Serbian public officials have been invited back to Korea again for special seminars on various e-government systems, such as e-customs, e-tax, high-tech forensics, civil service HR, e-learning and others.
Your Excellency, are you satisfied with the results of the G20 Summit that was held in Hamburg, given that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was among the topics?
– The summit meeting dealt with a number of pressing issues in this drastically changing world. During the meeting, President Moon Jae-in of Korea expressed strong support for free trade, as well as the commitment to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, reaffirming once again to the world Korea’s commitment to play its part as a responsible member of the international community. It also served as an opportunity for President Moon Jae-in to outline major economic policy stances of the new Korean government, with an emphasis on a more humane economic growth model, encompassing job creation, eco-friendly energy industries and the empowerment of women. It is not altogether surprising, then, that President Moon committed US$10 million to the global fund aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Even though the G20 summit meetings are focused on economic issues, global leaders discussed North Korea’s provocations, including its recent launch of a ballistic missile just three days before the start of the meeting. There was widespread concern about the escalating tension and leaders called on the UN Security Council to respond firmly and adequately to these latest provocations.
The side-lines of the G20 also yielded fruitful outcomes, with president Moon Jae-in meeting with U.S., Japanese, Chinese, German and Russian counterparts, among others, and discussing the situation on the Korean peninsula. In particular, during the Korea-US-Japan trilateral summit meeting, President Moon Jae-in, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued the first joint trilateral summit declaration and reaffirmed their cooperation on this matter.
Do you believe that international pressure on North Korea can yield results, or are you considering the possible escalation of tension?
– As my President laid out during his recent trip to Germany, there can be no alternative to a peaceful solution on the Korean peninsula. The fact that he chose the site of the former Berlin City Hall, where the historic agreement on German reunification was negotiated, to announce the blueprint for a peaceful Korean peninsula speaks volumes about the vision and aspirations of my country. I would like to quote his inspirational words: [the Government of the Republic of Korea] will “begin the bold journey of establishing a peace regime on the Peninsula, with the Republic of Korea playing more of a guiding role.”
We are fully conscious of the fact that the North Korean nuclear issue has become increasingly more advanced and complex. This is why we must look into a comprehensive step-by-step approach, with a nuclear freeze as the starting step, and denuclearisation as one of the last.
The seminar “Regional Stability and Cooperation in the Korean Peninsula and the Balkans” was held recently. Does the title suggest some other similarities between the two regions, other than them both being geopolitically viewed as potential crisis hotspots?
– Being situated on peninsulas at the nexus of great powers, both Korea and the Balkans have often become battlefields for rival neighbours and have witnessed regional division and colonisation. Thus, we have much to learn from each other, and this is why the Korean Embassy organised a political seminar for the third year in a row, which provides a comparative insight into the situations in these two regions.
What’s more, both Korea and Serbia, unlike most other nations, must grapple with legacy issues of the past predating this century. In the Balkans, there is an on-going effort to join the European Union, a component of which deals specifically with overcoming the tensions of the late 20th century. On the Korean peninsula, the spectre of the Cold War still looms, with North Korea continuing on its path of self-isolation and provocation. Japanese imperialism in the early 20th century also left the region divided.
In Asia, we have what is known as the “Asian Paradox”, where even as intra-regional trade and commercial interactions intensify, regional security remains unsure.
Both our experiences demonstrate that nothing can replace the political commitment, the institutional framework for cooperation and mutual understanding in building lasting peace and stability. In this regard, I applaud the efforts of the Serbian government to continue on its European path and to build better relations with its neighbours.
I believe we need to continue building on this momentum. Economically, I would like to see some more Korean investments arriving in Serbia. Korean investors generally have a good reputation and standing in many parts of the world, and I believe Serbia could benefit from the diversification of investment
Relations between the two countries are good in every sense. What will be the priorities of your mandate in Belgrade?
– Korea and Serbia enjoy an excellent relationship across the board. Politically, the two countries are closely cooperating on a host of issues and are also active in high-level and civil servant exchanges. In fact, the two countries signed an MoU on cooperation in the area of civil service matters, to promote such exchanges during the visit by the Korean Minister of Personnel Management in February.
The Korean government is also actively engaged in the areas of youth, education, e-government and IT cooperation. The IT Centre, which is soon to open in Belgrade thanks to a donation from the Korean government, is a prime example of cooperation which combines all these areas. The two countries also have excellent cooperation and exchange in the cultural field. In May and June this year my Embassy presented a month-long Korean culture festival in Belgrade and Novi Sad, with a huge turn-out from the public.
I believe we need to continue building on this momentum. Economically, I would like to see some more Korean investments arriving in Serbia. Korean investors generally have a good reputation and standing in many parts of the world, and I believe Serbia could benefit from the diversification of investment, advanced technology and business knowhow that Korean businesses can bring. In turn, Korean investors would be benefiting from Serbia’s well-educated and competitive labour force, vast FTA network and strategic location as the hub of the region.
Korean entrepreneurs are increasingly recognising what Serbia offers and are making serious inquiries. At the moment, an international consortium led by Incheon International Airport is making a bid for the concession project of Nikola Tesla Airport. The Incheon Airport is the world’s number one in terms of operating margins. Since 2005, it has been rated as the world’s best airport by Airport Council International every consecutive year. It has nearly a zero per cent accident rate, despite servicing over 50 million passengers a year. It has also been cited as the future of airport operations because it has established the best balance between aviation and non-aviation revenue. Upon these solid credentials, Incheon Airport stands ready to assist Nikola Tesla Airport in fulfilling its vision of becoming a regional transport hub.
The Korean economic miracle is increasingly mentioned in Serbia. You are probably asked regularly about the secret of the economic progress that saw Korea develop from a poor country to the very top of the world economy.
– These statistical gains have yet to fully materialise in the life of everyday citizens. I believe the Serbian government realises that the crisis management phase is over, but the heavier toil of building up industries, creating jobs and improving economic resilience is still on-going. This is why my Embassy held an economic seminar in December last year that had inclusive growth and shared prosperity as central themes, and which provided Korea’s case study for Serbian policymakers, as they consider the next steps. In particular, Korean guest speakers discussed in-depth the role of good governance and free trade in Korea’s economic development.
The speakers were also very lucid about the different economic environment faced by the Serbian government today, in contrast to the days of Korea’s early development. The proportion of manufacturing in the global value chain is decreasing and the disruptive forces of the 4th industrial revolution are transforming the global economy. The lucidity of their diagnosis makes their consistent support for good governance and free trade even more persuasive.
While replicating the Korean experience, on the whole, would not be possible, and Serbian policymakers may have to leapfrog certain developmental stages, as they are gearing up to do with the platform on digitisation, the Korean case still provides an enticing model in fast-track socio-economic and political development.
These statistical gains have yet to fully materialise in the life of everyday citizens. I believe the Serbian government realises that the crisis management phase is over, but the heavier toil of building up industries, creating jobs and improving economic resilience is still on-going
The trade exchange between Korea and Serbia is on the rise, but the possibilities still far outweigh the reality. How can you increase the volume of trade and which areas do you see as interesting?
– With the markets in the Americas, Asia and the EU becoming more and more saturated, the Korean entrepreneurs are looking to find up-tapped markets elsewhere, such as in the region of Southeast Europe. At the same time, Serbia’s awareness of the Korean market is growing. The Korean market is 50 million-strong, with high incomes and a discernible taste for foreign goods. It is also a good test market, because Korean consumers often set the standards for consumer goods for the rest of Asia, while regulations are transparent and business is easy to do.
So, I am encouraged to hear that last year our bilateral trade grew by over 12 per cent, according to Serbian statistics. This represents growth across both exports and imports. Recently, Serbia made headlines in one Korean newspaper which found that Korean exports to Serbia grew by nearly 30 per cent in 2016, making Serbia the 3rd fastest-growing export destination in the world for Korean companies.
Food, cosmetics, medical equipment, machinery and automobiles are just some areas where the two countries have great potential. The Korean Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) provides a professional service in connecting importers and exporters, and also in introducing various trade fairs held in Korea for those who are interested. In May, with the support of the KOTRA office, the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry led a delegation of agricultural producers for the first time to the Seoul Food Fair, which is the largest food products trade fair in Asia and is well-attended by buyers in the region.
One area that often gets overlooked is the possibility of Korean-Serbian partnership on third markets. In this age, simple bilateral trade is no longer the norm, and discussion of a trade surplus or deficit is dangerously simplistic. We should help each other by being a launchpad into respective regions. My Embassy has been taking the initiative in establishing various economic treaties to enable such partnership and joint ventures in this aspect, and I hope that we will see the conclusion of one of the key treaties, the bilateral investment treaty, soon.
What impact has been made by the work of the Korean Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), which opened its office in Belgrade in December 2015?
– Since the KOTRA office opened in Belgrade on December 2015, we are seeing an intensification of commercial interaction in all sectors. Partly in recognition of their efforts, the KOTRA office increased its manpower at the beginning of 2017, with one additional employee from headquarters dispatched here. This is quite an achievement, considering that the office was only opened a year before.
Just this year, many Serbian companies sent representatives to trade fairs organised in Korea, such as the bio-medical trade fair, the Seoul Food Fair and others. And every half-year a large delegation of the Korean trade mission visits Serbia to meet with potential buyers and distributors.
Do you have any general comments about Korean investors in Serbia?
– I would like to see more Korean investors in Serbia because I firmly believe that both countries stand to benefit from this partnership. The timing is also right. Nearby, production prices are rising in the Visegrad 4 countries, and a bit further away in China, economic growth is also slowing down. As you know, these two areas have experienced strong investment from Korean companies, but there are still Korean companies that have not made a commitment in these areas and are being forced to look elsewhere for new investments. As such, great potential exists for Korean companies to come and invest here.
My Embassy hopes to draw attention to the merits of Serbia as an investment destination during this time. To this end, in September we are planning to publish a handbook in the Korean language about Serbia’s business environment and incentives, which we will disseminate to interested Korean companies.
The two countries work together closely in the information technology sector. Serbia is at the start of the process of establishing e-government, while Korea is at the top of the world in that domain. What are the best ways for Serbia to utilise Korea’s experience?
– Korea’s own experience in this area shows, without a shred of doubt, that e-government systems can have multiple benefits for good governance: increasing transparency, reducing corruption, improving government efficiency and providing more accessible and better services for citizens. This is why international institutions like the UN, World Bank and the IMF are all recommending the adoption of e-government systems. What is important is that e-government is not merely composed of algorithms and software, but also an eco-system of mindsets, operational knowhow, legal and institutional foundations. Both public and private sectors must buy into its underlying premises, while civil servants also have to be retrained to adapt their work.
Korea’s e-government system, which boasts a five-year ranking as the world’s best by the UN report, provides invaluable insight into building such an eco-system. For example, Korea has been a pioneer in the legal and institutional foundation for e-government systems. And the kind of cross-Ministerial collaboration Korea has fostered enabled it to provide a one-stop service for the end-users, who are citizens.
The Korean market is 50 million-strong, with high incomes and a discernible taste for foreign goods. It is also a good test market, because Korean consumers often set the standards for consumer goods for the rest of Asia, while regulations are transparent and business is easy to do
Why is it significant that the Information Access Centre in Serbia is opening, which is being prepared by the Ministry of State Administration with the help of a donation from Korea; and how are preparations going for the start of that centre’s work?
– Korea is well-known for its world-class IT sector, and it is our mission to contribute to reducing the digital divide in other parts of the world through such channels as the Information Access Centre (IAC) programme. Building upon strong cooperation between Serbia and Korea in the area of e-government and IT, Korea selected Serbia as the only country in Europe in 2017 to be a beneficiary of the IAC programme. As this initiative corresponds well to Serbia’s own profile as an emerging IT hub, and to the Serbian government’s commitment to digitisation, we are certain that it will bear tangible fruit for our growing bilateral relations.
Preparations are going well at the moment. On 6th July 2017, a visiting delegation from Korea’s National Information Society Agency (NIA) chose the site for the new IAC centre and signed an MoU with Mr Branko Ružić, Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government. When it is finished, the fully equipped and refurbished IT centre will open at the heart of Belgrade, benefiting from a Korean donation worth €250,000.
The Republic of Korea also owes its successful economic transformation to its education system. What is cooperation with Serbia like in that area?
– We have vibrant and enthusiastic cooperation in the area of education. What is encouraging is that cooperation is occurring at both the governmental and civil society levels. For example, in November 2016 the Korean Education Development Institute (KEDI) and the Serbian Institute for Education Improvement held a joint seminar for the second year in a row, with the wide participation of commentators and experts. On this occasion, the two leading institutions also signed an MoU on further cooperation and the exchange of information.
Around the same time, State Secretary Vladimir Popović, from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, made an official visit to Korea and held fruitful discussions with his counterpart at the Korean Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning. Our high-level contact continued in April this year when Korean and Serbian delegations met for the first joint committee on cooperation in the areas of culture and education.
In the future, we hope to establish a government-to-government MoU on education cooperation. This will hopefully align the regulations on the curriculum for both countries, to facilitate student and professor exchanges.
The Republic of Korea has donated millions of dollars to the authorities in Serbia for assistance in taking care of migrants. Given that there are currently between 6,000 and 8,000 migrants in Serbia, do you intend to help further?
– The Republic of Korea has donated US$1.5 million to the Serbian Government for the running costs of the migrant crisis and to the UNHCR in the last two years. Two ambulance vehicles were purchased from that amount last year and delivered to hospitals in Vranje and Subotica. We will very soon deliver five ambulance vehicles, which will provide assistance not only to migrants but also to the local population in Belgrade and other cities across Serbia.