South Korea has been a crucial partner and friend of Bangladesh during the course of the country's successful economic development for the past decades. It is well-known that Korean companies have played a key role in making Bangladesh's RMG sector as it is today.

However, the level of cooperation between the two countries is still far below its potential. Surprisingly, bilateral trade volume has not increased at all for more than 10 years. The RMG sector still occupies the largest part in Korea's investment in Bangladesh.

"Tapping the enormous potential of cooperation and taking the current relations to a higher level are my goals and responsibility," South Korean Ambassador to Bangladesh Lee Jang-keun told Dhaka Courier in an interview noting that Bangladesh and Korea have enjoyed solid and robust relations.

He said elevation, diversification and generation are the three key words that he keeps in mind. "I would like to take the current level of relations into a higher level: elevation. I would like to see more diversified areas of cooperation: diversification. And I would like to place the young people, the new and future generation, at the heart of my endeavor: generation," Ambassador Lee who stepped into his second year of current tenure explained.

Ties beyond Pandemic

The unprecedented corona pandemic is causing a great deal of difficulties and challenges. The Korean envoy, however, said both Korea and Bangladesh have handled the situation rather successfully even though Bangladesh is currently tackling another surge of infections.

"As the saying goes, "A friend in need is a friend indeed." I am happy to say that Korea has been with Bangladesh in this difficult time," he said they have provided various assistance to the Bangladesh government to help successfully address the challenges, including the 50 million US dollars as Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) soft loan at the end of last year.

The envoy said the prolonged corona pandemic has been causing difficulties in his efforts to take the relations into a new height.

"In particular, we could not fully utilize the momentum of cooperation which we have successfully cultivated before the pandemic, such as the visit of the Korean Prime Minister in 2019," Ambassador Lee said.

The follow-up high-level policy dialogue between Foreign Ministries which was scheduled to be held in March 2020 had to be postponed. Several planned visits of Korean delegations to Dhaka were either cancelled or replaced by virtual settings.

"I hope to revive the stalled diplomatic exchanges and activities during the later part of this year. But, if the current pandemic situation is further prolonged and face-to-face diplomacy further hindered, I am afraid that it could further slow down our efforts to achieve our desired goals," said the Ambassador.

He said COVID-19 is offering them an opportunity to think hard about the value and future of our relationship. "For the past year I had many opportunities to participate in events to discuss and share ideas on the future of our relationship and I was very encouraged to find the willingness and enthusiasm for stronger future ties from both sides."

Every good relationship needs good planning and preparation as in the case with personal relationships, said the envoy.

"Also, it is encouraging that both Korean and Bangladeshi economies are faring well and showing resilience despite the challenges of COVID-19. This will pave a solid ground for further new opportunities of bilateral ties in the future," said Ambassador Lee.

More FDI amid Covid

The Korean envoy said Korea is already one of the key foreign investors in Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh Bank, he said, Korea ranks 4th in gross Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows during 2019-20 after the UK, Singapore and the USA.

In terms of stock volume at the end of 2019-20 fiscal year, Korea ranks 5th which is higher than other major countries including Japan. In terms of annual net FDI inflows, Korean companies have invested annually over 100 million US dollars since 2011.

"Obviously the COVID-19 situation appears to slow down Korean companies' investment in Bangladesh, in particular new investment," said Ambassador Lee.

He, however, said a new Korean company manufacturing camping items recently signed an agreement with BEPZA for establishing a factory in Mongla EPZ with the investment amount of 4.6 million US dollars.

There are also several Korean companies discussing investment possibilities with their local Bangladesh partners, said Ambassador Lee.

"In this regard, I would also like to note that many of the Korean companies in Bangladesh are expanding and reinvesting their capital every year. Youngone, the largest Korean investor, alone is reinvesting over 30 million US dollars annually," he said.

Korean companies are still seeing the competitive labor cost of Bangladesh as an important merit for investment. Ambassador Lee said it may be the reason why the majority of Korean investment is in the RMG sector which is a typical labor-intensive sector as well as the largest export industry.

But as the country is developing and changing in a speedy manner, he said, the expanding domestic market is becoming increasingly attractive to Korean investors.

"Construction and ICT might be some areas where Korean companies have global competitiveness and have interest in making investment in Bangladesh," said Ambassador Lee.

Already many Korean companies are actively engaging in Bangladesh's infrastructure development projects and making investments, he said.

"Most notable is Samsung which is now constructing the 3rd Terminal of Dhaka International Airport. The two governments launched a PPP platform in 2019 in order to encourage Korean companies' active involvement in Bangladesh's construction projects," said the Ambassador.

In the field of ICT, Samsung Electronics is already assembling and manufacturing electronic devices including mobile phones, in partnership with local company Fair Group since 2018. Samsung also established an R and D institute in Dhaka in 2010 which now employs 460 young Bangladeshi software developers. Youngone Corporation recently started construction work of a Hi-Tech Park in its KEPZ compound in Chattogram.

"Also, I believe the bio and pharmaceutical industry is another area of potential interest. Recently under the initiative of the Bangladesh Embassy in Seoul, we had a very constructive webinar on Korea-Bangladesh trade and investment opportunities with focus on ICT and pharmaceutical sector," said Ambassador Lee.

Listening, Addressing Difficulties

The envoy said Bangladesh is a very attractive destination for investment by foreign companies, in particular for its abundant, low-wage, competitive and quality labor force.

"There are many reasons why Bangladesh is attracting foreign companies: continuous strong economic performance, rapidly expanding middle class and domestic market, and ambitious young population," he said.

However, Ambassador Lee said, much remains to be done to make the investment environment more attractive. "Still many Korean companies find it difficult to manage and operate businesses in Bangladesh despite these merits."

In order to boost bilateral trade and investment and diversify the areas of collaboration, Ambassador Lee said, one of the important things to do might be making a more business-friendly environment.

To this end, he said, listening to and addressing the difficulties faced by companies that are already investing and doing business in the country will be the first step.

"The difficulties or complaints I hear often from the Korean business community are the complicated and high tax system, tariff and taxes on sample goods and even on official grant items, difficulties in sending home profits, bureaucracy which causes uncertainty in business and undercuts efficiency, and the reluctance to issue long-term visas for long-time investors and business people," Ambassador Lee mentioned.

Opportunities for Young Bangladeshis

There are currently around 1,300 Bangladeshi students in higher education in Korea with most of them in Master's or Doctorate programs with scholarships. There are many scholarship programs provided by the Korean government, governmental institutions such as KOICA, and universities.

"While trying to expand the government-sponsored program, in particular GKS (Global Korea Scholarship), we also try to provide more information on the opportunities for higher education in Korea to the Bangladeshi people," said Ambassador Lee.

In particular, he said, they plan to work with alumni student associations such as GKS alumni and KOICA alumni, to provide useful information and advice to aspiring Bangladeshi students.

"I also have in mind to organize a job fair, in cooperation with KOTRA and KBCCI, for those students who returned from Korea to help them find job opportunities in Bangladesh, in particular in Korean and Bangladeshi companies seeking potential employees with knowledge and experience of Korea," said the Ambassador.

Ambassador Lee said he understands the difficulties faced by some Bangladeshi students who could not go to Korea under the temporary visa restrictions due to the COVID-19 situation. "But we do hope that the situation returns to normal soon and the restrictions are lifted. We are making efforts to this end."

People to People Contact

The Ambassador said he is going to make full use of the already existing programs for enhancing people-to-people contacts while exploring new programs.

The South Korean Embassy in Dhaka has been holding various cultural events regularly to engage with the Bangladeshi people such as film festival, K-pop festival, Korean food festival, Taekwondo competition, music performances, exhibitions, and Korean speech contest.

"Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 situation we could not organize face-to-face programs, but we are trying to make best use of online and virtual programs," he said.

The Ambassador said currently they are in the middle of K-pop Bangladesh auditions in order to select talented Bangladeshi performers to recommend to the final competition to be held in Korea in October this year. "We also plan to celebrate our national day virtually this year again which falls on the 3rd of October."

"Also, I am working with several universities such as DU, IUB and NSU for collaborations. In IUB, there is a Korean Culture Club with around 300 student members. In DU we have a Korea corner in the library as well as Korean language program," Ambassador Lee said.

More importantly, he said, to celebrate the golden jubilee of the diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and South Korea in 2023, there will be a number of programs to be offered in the context of enhancing people-to-people exchanges.

"I have started discussions with the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry on potential programs that our countries could launch together on the occasion," said the envoy.

Rohingya Crisis

The Korean Ambassador said it is regrettable that they are seeing a prolonged delay in the repatriation of Rohingyas to their homeland.

"There is little improvement in the political environment in Rakhine state that could facilitate the trust-building among the Rohingyas, and the political developments in Myanmar earlier this year have made the prospect for the Rohingyas' return even more uncertain," he said.

The Republic of Korea supports the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return of the Rohingyas to their homes.

"Ever since the mass inflow of refugees in 2017, Korea has joined the international community in the support for UNHRC and UNGA resolutions, calling upon Myanmar to create conditions conducive to repatriation," he said.

Ambassador Lee appreciated the generosity of the people and the government of Bangladesh to host and support the displaced persons for the past four years. "We fully understand the enormous burden borne by Bangladesh."

He said Korea will continue to work with Bangladesh and the international community towards an early resolution of the crisis.

Rohingyas during COVID-19

This year the Republic of Korea has provided $4 million to UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, IOM, and IFRC to support their humanitarian efforts in Cox's Bazar.

Ambassador Lee said the contribution will be utilized for the implementation of projects supporting the Rohingyas as well as the host communities under the recently-announced 2021 Joint Response Plan.

Of the $4 million, $1 million was allocated to IOM to assist the emergency response to the massive fire outbreak in the camps in March.

"Addressing gender-based violence, supporting children and girls, supporting the host communities, and responding to emergencies and natural disasters including COVID-19 are among the priority areas for Korea in its support for resolving the Rohingya crisis," he said.

Since 2017, the envoy said, they have made a total of $20 million contribution to various projects implemented by international organizations that cater to these objectives.

Furthermore, he said, KOICA is collaborating with UNFPA to support the menstrual health of women and girls in Cox's Bazar refugee camps and the host community, a project worth $3 million for the period of 2021-24.

KOICA is also supporting and working with NGOs such as World Vision and Concern Worldwide in Cox's Bazar on various projects. In response to COVID-19 last year, KOICA, in coordination with IOM, donated $400,000 for several programs including the provision of PPEs, awareness programs, and training sessions for making masks.

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