“People-to-people exchanges have become more vibrant” Choi Yong-jin

Having come to Nepal some seven months ago, ambassador of Korea to Nepal Choi Yong-jin has already visited many parts of Nepal and is trying to help it find ways to achieve prosperity. With Nepal and Korea celebrating 40 years of establishment of the

Dec. 26, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 08 No. -13 December. 26- 2014 (Poush 11, 2071)

Since the two countries established bilateral relations, the Republic of Korea has been supporting Nepal in various sectors. How do you assess the current state of bilateral cooperation between the two countries? What is your perspective on Nepali-Korean bilateral relations?

The Republic of Korea and Nepal have developed a friendly and cooperative relationship in various fields since the establishment of the diplomatic relationship in 1974. In particular, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, the second Policy Consultation  Meeting  took place in Seoul in March. In addition, Minister Mahendra Pandey paid an official visit to Seoul in May and met with Korean Foreign Minister Yun  Byung-se. It was the first foreign ministers’ meeting between the two countries in 18 years.  In November, Deputy Minister Lee Kyung-soo attended the SAARC Summit as an Observer Country representative. I am satisfied to find that more frequent high-level exchanges have succeeded in vitalizing bilateral coopertion in various fields: political cooperation, economic cooperation, development cooperation, employment cooperation and cultural cooperation, as well as cooperation on regional and international fora.

How do you see the progress?

The bilateral relationship has made gradual progress in both the private sector and the government sector. People-to-people exchanges between Korea and Nepal have become more vibrant these days, with direct flights operating between Seoul and Kathmandu twice a week. Nepal welcomes more than 30,000 Korean tourists every year , and there are about 26,000 Nepalese workers living in Korea. Koreans and Nepalese are becoming more interested in each other’s cultures and societies. Because this year marks the 40th anniversary of the bilateral diplomatic relationship, the Korean Embassy designated the last week of October as “Korea Week” and successfully held many cultural events. These included a film festival, a food festival, a Korean language contest, a performance by the B-Boy break-dancing team and a tae kwon do demonstration, among other activities.

When the diplomatic relationship was established in 1974, the economies of Korea and Nepal were similar in size. Currently, Korea is the 15th-largest economy in the world but Nepal remains a less-developed country. How do you assess the current situation in Nepal?

Korea faced numerous difficulties in the past, having experienced Japanese colonial rule for 35 years and the devastations of war in the 1950s. Korea’s per capita GNI was a mere $79 (USD) in 1960. The country lacks natural resources, and the Korean Peninsula is divided. Yet, in spite of all these challenges, Korea achieved democracy and economic development, and it has transformed itself from a recipient of foreign aid into a donor.

To my belief, it was education in conjunction with the development of technology that made Korea’s economic growth possible. Thanks to continual investment in human capital, Korea managed to achieve rapid industrialization and economic growth within just half a century.

How do you see education in Nepal?

It has been seven months since I took office as Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Nepal. So far, I have found that many Nepalese youths and parents are enthusiastic and passionate about education. I would expect that a more stable political situation, an expanded social safety net, and the timely implementation of sound policies would be conducive to the economic development of Nepal. Nepal has abundant natural resources—undeniably a great advantage in terms of growth potential. Since Nepal is different from Korea in many aspects such as natural resources, geological situation, demographic characteristics and so on, and there is no “one size fits all” path to economic development, I think that Nepal must pursue its own model of economic development, one tailored to its own conditions. As Ambassador to Nepal, I hope that Nepal will achieve growth at an early date to enhance the lives of the Nepalese people.

What is the relationship between Korea and SAARC, and what are its future prospects?

First of all, I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations to the government of Nepal, as well as to the Nepalese people, on hosting the 18th SAARC Summit successfully. I believe that the Kathmandu Declaration, which resulted from the 18th SAARC Summit, held under the theme “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity,” has established a strong foundation for closer regional cooperation in South Asia and enhanced regional stability and prosperity.

South Asia is rising rapidly as a dynamic new market with a high growth rate thanks to the region’s abundant and youthful labor force, and the international community has acknowledged the region’s significant potential for investment. In addition, South Asia is one of Korea’s most important development cooperation partners. Most countries in the region, including Nepal, are Korea’s ODA Priority Partners, and ODA to South Asia makes up more than 20 percent of Korea’s total assistance to developing countries.

How do you see role of Korea in SAARC?

Korea acquired SAARC Observer status in 2006, and since then it has been continually striving to strengthen cooperation with SAARC. First, Korea has been sharing its experience and technology with 100 government officials from South Asian countries every year since 2008, with the total number of officials amounting to 600, through the SAARC Special Training Program. The program encompasses various fields including agriculture, infrastructure, public health, ICT, energy and the environment. Second, the two sides have held ROK-SAARC Partnership Seminars annually since 2010 as a mechanism of communication and consultations that will help to identify new areas of cooperation.

Furthermore, as part of efforts to expand cooperation with its South Asian partners, at the 18th SAARC Summit, Korea proposed an ROK-SAARC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in the latter half of next year in Seoul. For the purpose of strengthening mini-lateral  diplomacy with regional consultative bodies such as ASEAN , Korea has been building various regional networks. Now we are seeking to expand these efforts to South Asia. The ROK-SAARC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, if realized, will be a mechanism for the regular review of pending issues and will strengthen cooperation between Korea and South Asia.

How do you assess the progress of bilateral trade relations between the two countries? Numerous Korean companies are investing in Nepal in various sectors. In the electronics and telecom sectors, Korean brands are very popular. How do you assess the progress of Korean foreign direct investment in Nepal?

It is true that the volume of trade between the two countries is disappointing. The current level is insignificant, considering the scale of each country’s economy and the longstanding bilateral relationship. However, taking into account the prospects of political stability and economic growth in Nepal, as well as the popularity of “made in Korea” products there, I believe that bilateral economic cooperation is highly likely to increase in the near future.

As part of our commemorative events for the 40th anniversary, a Korean trade delegation from South Chungcheong Province visited Kathmandu in October. The two sides held business-to-business meetings for the first time, and they achieved meaningful progress. As a result of that success, the two sides decided that the trade delegation would visit Nepal again. As Korean Ambassador to Nepal, I intend to make ongoing efforts to strengthen economic cooperation by welcoming more trade delegations, as well as through other business-related events. 

Korean companies have also been involved in Nepal’s hydroelectric power sector. How do you assess the chances of increasing investment in Nepal’s hydroelectric power sector from Korea’s private sector?

It is well known that Nepal holds the second-greatest potential in the world for development of its hydroelectric power sector. Moreover, there is no doubt that the participation of highly competitive Korean companies, with extensive experience in the field of hydroelectric power plant development, can make substantial contributions to Nepal’s efforts to cope with electricity shortages there. At present, Korean companies are engaged in the Chameliya project (30 megawatts), the Upper Trishuli I project (216 megawatts), and the Upper Modi project (42 megawatts) as consortium partners. If these projects are successful, potential Korean investors will be more interested in investing in Nepal. In my opinion, business leaders in the two countries should meet more often so that Nepal can attract more investment from Korea. At the same time, the rules and regulations in Nepal need to be friendlier to foreign investors.

The Korean government has supported the construction of one of Nepal’s largest hydroelectric power plants, the 36-megawatt Chameliya plant in the country’s far-western region. However, the project is not yet complete. What are your views on the matter? With so little investment, the rating of Nepal’s far-western region on the human development index is the lowest among all the country’s regions.  However, the completion of the Chameliya plant will be a game changer. Are you taking any initiative to make this happen?

At present, the Chameliya project has been suspended because of several variations and a corruption scandal involving a Chinese company which is under investigation by the CIAA . While the investigation is going on , the participating Korean company (KHNP)  is not able to embark on the second phase of construction, which involves the construction of electromechanical parts.  I hope that all related procedures are carried out in an appropriate manner and that there will be progress at an early date. It is expected that the implementation of the project will benefit the local people by providing more job opportunities as well as electricity.

A few years ago, a Korean investor faced some difficulties in connection with a mineral water project in Rasuwa. Are any other  Korean companies facing difficulties in Nepal?

At that time, there was an incident in which a Korean businessman involved in the mineral water project received threats to his personal safety.  I am happy to say that there have been no such incidents recently. However, there is a case involving a Korean businessman, representing a world-class Korean company, who is experiencing difficulties getting the work permit or visa that he needs to establish a liaison office. I think that in order to attract more foreign investment in Nepal, it is necessary to establish a foreign investment-friendly regulatory system on many levels. 

The Korean government has been providing support through the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). What is your impression regarding its current activities?

With the alleviation of political instability in the country, the Korean government is increasing its development assistance, especially the assistance that it provides through KOICA. KOICA is implementing its programs in accordance with the Nepalese government’s rules and regulations, on the basis of close consultations with the government and respect for the Nepalese culture and people.

KOICA’s attention is not limited only to those programs that are currently underway. KOICA recently organized a successful “Institute – Industry” partnership workshop in cooperation with the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) and the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT). That workshop was undertaken with a view to the full utilization of the Korea-Nepal Institute of Technology (KNIT) in Butwal and the Kathmandu University-Technical Training Center—both of which were established as the result of KOICA projects in the technical and vocational education and training sector. KOICA is getting a good reputation for its development programs from various Nepalese partners, owing to its sincerity and affection  throughout the whole process.

The Korean government has placed a high priority on development activities in Nepal. How do you envision future development programs? What are the major areas for Korea’s official development assistance (ODA)? Do you have any specific plans for the future?

The Korean government provides development assistance to Nepal mainly through KOICA. Currently, the Korean government has designated 26 ODA Priority Partner Countries, and Nepal is one of them. In addition, the Korean government has drafted a Country Partnership Strategy for Nepal in consideration of the Nepalese government’s economic development strategy. KOICA’s priority sectors—health, education and agriculture—were determined through  discussions between the two governments in 2012 and 2013.

How do you see the volume of Korean support?

Since 2010, KOICA has continually increased the volume of its development assistance, which now amounts to $12 million or $13 million (USD) per year. Compared with major donors such as European countries and Japan, KOICA’s programs are small in scale; therefore, the agency tries to maximize their impact by focusing on its regional and sectoral base. For example, in the health sector, KOICA supports institutional capacity-building in the Kailali district through its National Health Insurance Support Program.  At the same time, KOICA supports regionally based healthcare service delivery upgrade programs in the Mugu and Tikapur areas.  In the agricultural sector, KOICA is supporting the Doti area as part of a partnership with WFP -Nepal on the strength of our rural development experience.

KOICA has initiated the $8 million (USD) Nawalparasi Inclusive Rural Development Project in cooperation with Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development. It will be KOICA’s first sizable project in the agriculture sector, and will draw upon Korea’s Saemaul or New Village movement as a model. The United Nations has evaluated the Saemaul or New Village movement as one of the most effective rural development models; moreover, in 2008 the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa identified it as a good model for the modernization of rural areas and local economies.  

The Korean government will either maintain or increase the volume of its ODA to Nepal through KOICA, in keeping with Korea’s economic status, especially in the health, education and agriculture sectors. In 2015, KOICA will launch a capacity-building program in partnership with CTEVT-TITI to support the technical and vocational education and training sector.

A number of Korean volunteers are also working in various sectors in remote parts of Nepal. How do you view their role?

Actually, I can say that they are representing Korea at the grassroots level. As a diplomat, it is not easy to meet ordinary Nepalese citizens from different parts of the country. However, our volunteers work and live with the local people and live like them as much as possible. Beyond delivering the know-how, knowledge and technology that Korea gained as a result of its development experience, our volunteers can also learn from the local people and put their ideas for the future of Nepal together with those of the Nepalese. I appreciate our volunteers’ devotion, and I expect to see volunteerism spread throughout the nation.

In addition to government-to-government exchanges, there has also been an increase in the number of Korean visitors to Lumbini and in the number of Korean charity organizations working in Nepal. How do you assess the chances of enhancing those kinds of exchanges?

In May I had the opportunity to visit Lumbini, which is popular among Koreans. Personally, I found it regrettable to see that the holy birthplace of the Buddha had been degraded and damaged. I am sure that more Buddhists will make pilgrimages to Lumbini—not just from Korea, but also from all over the world—if it is kept divine and clean. The international community and the Nepalese government can assist in the preservation of the holy place by implementing eco-friendly development plans.

KOICA has handed over a new Lumbini Master Plan to the Nepalese government. Can you please update us on the progress of this plan?

KOICA has already finalized the Lumbini Master Plan and will soon deliver the final version to the Ministry of Culture. At the same time, KOICA will deliver clean-auto eco-friendly rickshaws to the local people through the Lumbini Development Trust.

South Korea is the most lucrative labor destination for Nepalese youth. Under the quota system, how many Nepalese workers are eligible to seek employment in Korea? How do Korean employers feel about Nepalese workers? Do they show any preference for Nepalese workers over other foreign workers?

Currently, Korea accepts foreign workers from 15 sending countries, including Nepal, through the Employment Permit System (EPS). Nepal began sending workers in large numbers in 2008 after the two countries signed an MOU in 2007. To date nearly 27,000 Nepalese workers have gained employment in Korea through the EPS, accounting for 5.6 percent of all EPS guest workers from the 15 sending countries.

How do you see the number of Nepalese workers in Korea?

However, if you look at Korea’s annual employment statistics, the percentage of Nepalese workers is increasing every year. In 2013, there were 5,234 Nepalese participants in the EPS—8.9 percent of the total. In 2014, as of December 12, the figure was 5,831 workers or 12 percent. The quota of eligible Nepalese workers relative to workers from all 15 sending countries is also increasing rapidly. In 2013 the quota for Nepalese workers was the fifth-highest among participating countries, and this year it was the second-highest.

Korean employers are also showing a greater preference for Nepalese workers. In one particular case this year, all 320 Nepalese workers who sought re-employment at a Korean company were successful—this represents the second-highest number  among the 15 sending countries. The reasons for this increasing preference for Nepalese workers include their kindness and their strong work ethic. Nepalese are becoming role models for workers from other countries.

What is the status of illegal worker?

Additionally, the Korean government considered illegal migration rates as one of the most important factors in determining its quotas. Nepal’s illegal migration rate stood at 3.7 percent in 2013 and 3.8 percent in 2014 (as of September), the lowest among the 15 sending countries (for which the average was 15.6 percent). That is why more Nepalese can expect to get Korean jobs next year. I am sure that the expansion of the EPS will result in the expansion of economic development and friendly relations between the two countries in the coming years. 

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