South Korean Ambassador to Bangladesh Park Young-sik on Saturday said Bangladesh and South Korea both could further develop the existing bilateral relations in a mutually beneficial manner.

"Korea is not India, China, or the United States and does not have strategic interests (in Bangladesh)," he said while delivering his keynote speech at Cosmos Dialogue.

Building on what both countries have achieved over the past five decades, the ambassador said, it is now high time for both countries to make the next 50 years even more prosperous.

To do this, he said that both countries need to expand high-level contacts.

Cosmos Foundation hosted the dialogue - the latest edition of Ambassadors' Lecture Series titled "Bangladesh-South Korea Relations: Prognosis for the Future."

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Cosmos Foundation President, scholar-diplomat, and former Foreign Affairs Advisor of Bangladesh Caretaker Government chaired and conducted the session.

Enayetullah Khan, Chairman of the Cosmos Foundation, delivered the closing remarks while Masud Khan, Deputy Managing Director of Cosmos Group, delivered the welcome remarks.

Former Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim, Honorary Adviser Emeritous, Cosmos Foundation; Rubana Huq, Chairman of Mohammadi Group; Lailufar Yasmin, Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University; and Parvez Karim Abbasi, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, East West University comprised the panel of discussants.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Republic of Korea and Bangladesh in 1973, the two countries have been enhancing cooperation in various fields, such as politics, economy, culture, development cooperation, and human exchange.

The two-way trade has surpassed 3 billion dollars recently.

South Korea's investment in Bangladesh is the fifth largest in terms of accumulated amount.

The South Korean ambassador identified footwear and leather, ICT, pharmaceutical, shipbuilding and ship breaking industry, Blue Economy and deep sea fishing, agricultural and agricultural machinery, greenhouse and carbon trading scheme as new areas of bilateral cooperation.

He said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met in New Delhi on September 9 on the sidelines of G20 and vowed to further deepen cooperation in trade and commerce, culture and people to people contacts.

Issues related to diversifying Bangladesh's exports, Economic Partnership Agreement between the two countries, cooperation in education sector, climate change, foreign direct investment, collaboration in fashion design and ways to add values to existing trade were discussed.

Ambassador Young-sik said Bangladesh requires the diversification of export items and in addition to the RMG, footwear, leather and pharmaceuticals are potential items.

Man-made or synthetic garments occupy more than 85% of the world market. However, he said, Bangladesh exports more than 75% of cotton-based garments.

"Increasing man-made synthetic garments requires huge capital and advanced technology. This is a big challenge for Bangladesh," said the ambassador.

Global buyers control the entire process from providing raw materials to setting the profit margin. The degree of value added for Bangladesh decreases while orders are received at the lowest prices.

"Bangladesh should increase the labor productivity and need to enhance the order price of global buyers," said the Korean envoy.

FDI of Bangladesh is the lowest in terms of the GDP ratio. During July-September of 2023, 36% was decreased.

"Every country offers similar incentives. Visa issues, customs clearance, rational tariff policy, repatriation of profit with no holding tax are more important. FDI requires a comfortable life in host countries. Instead of Foreign Direct Investment, Bangladesh needs to focus on borrowing soft loans and develop infrastructures, just as Korea did in the past," said the ambassador.

For doing this, he said, the cost of infrastructure development should be reduced.

Bilateral trade reached a record high of USD 3 billion in 2022. It shrank in 2023, mainly due to the limited items from Bangladesh other than the RMG goods.

"Korea runs a trade surplus with Bangladesh. However, the EPA (Economic partnership Agreement) between the two countries, if reached, will result in a more balanced trade. The trade surplus is also offset by the Korean investment," said the envoy.

Overcoming the post-LDC difficulties will require a lot of hard work from both the government and the private sector, he said.

The Bangladesh government needs to focus on strengthening the manufacturing base and improving productivity, said the ambassador.

"Entering global competition without adequate preparation could damage the existing manufacturing sector," he said.

The envoy said Bangladesh has great potential for infrastructure development and Korea aims to become a major partner in Bangladesh's infrastructure development, as they have already achieved in the RMG sector.

"Korean companies do not delay any project intentionally or inflate the cost of the project deliberately, and focus on timely completion," he said.

He hoped that the Magna Bridge and the BSSMU Water Supply Projects under the discussions will progress smoothly.

The Economic Development Fund (EDCF) can be utilised by Bangladesh with the condition of 0.1-0.5% of interest rate and 30 years of the maturity, said the envoy, adding that the size of the EDCF has been increased to USD 3 billion until 2027.

In the question-answer session, the ambassador said any country reaching a certain level of development, needs to improve democratic process, accountability, enhance transparency and promote good governance.

"If not, overcoming the middle income trap will not be that easy. Accountability and good governance is very much important," he said.

He also observed that Bangladesh's economic decisions are too much influenced by the businessmen and tackling the high inflation is not well-handled.

The ambassador also said Bangladesh needs to increase trade with neighbouring countries including India, Nepal, Thailand, and Myanmar and with the BIMSTEC region.

He said they have expertise in the areas of blue economy and deep sea fishing and he will pay attention.

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury said Bangladesh and South Korea, on many global subjects, speak in a common voice. "I know we will continue to do so," he added.

The foreign affairs expert said they should work together to create norms and conditions on the basis of values which he calls Asian values.

"This is going to be a very important year in global politics. We will have to work together. Around the world, there will be many changes this year. Friendship should be tested positively and friendship between Bangladesh and South Korea will not fail in this test of friendship," he added.

Describing Korea as a country very close to his heart, Enayetullah Khan said the opportunities are endless.

"I believe that if there is one country that Bangladesh can learn the most from, it is Korea," he said.

Khan also said with zero natural resources, Korea has come this far today which is nothing but a miracle.

He said two things are very important to look into - education and human resources - and mentioned that primary school teachers are the most highly paid in Korea because investing in children means investing in their future.

Masud Khan highlighted Bangladesh's growing bilateral relations with the Republic of Korea, a country that has emerged as a strong partner on the Asian matrix.

"Our diplomatic relations began just over five decades ago, in 1973. It expanded rapidly to encompass varied, yet enormously significant areas of collaboration. These included development cooperation, trade and commerce, investment, education, human resources development, ICT, defense and cultural exchanges," he said.

Masud said this friendship between the two nations will continue to strengthen over time.

Farooq Sobhan highlighted the transformation that took place in Korea towards a democratic form of government, achievements in the areas of primary, secondary and higher education, and in the areas of research and development.

"I think these are all important lessons which we need to learn," he added.

The former ambassador said today Youngone is the largest employer in the garment sector as well as shoe manufacturing.

Tariq A Karim said, "You are already a middle power now. We are an aspiring emerging middle power in terms of location, population and resources and the potential that we have is still un-utilized."

He said they still have pressures coming from all those big powers. "This is where I think we need to form a fellowship of emerging powers with common goals. We want to have good relations with everyone but do not wish to be dictated to or kicked around."

Rubana Huq said Korean fashion is taking the world by storm and there is a huge possibility for them to have some kind of fashion collaboration as well.

"If you can send your designers here if we can optimise, ultimately it is value addition. Bangladesh should not be known as just a producer of basic garments. There is huge scope for value addition," she said.

vice chancellor of Asian University for Women (AUW) also said, "We would also encourage any kind of collaboration at university level."

Prof Lailufar Yasmin emphasised the strategic aspects and said the Indo-Pacific Strategy that was unveiled by Korea late 2022 has tremendous similarity with that of Bangladesh.

She highlighted the importance of "inclusivity" and said Korea identified that inclusiveness is the key to work in the Indo-Pacific area, taking all parties who promote universal values and follow rules based on international order.

Prof Parvez Abbasi said they (Korea) do not have natural resources like Bangladesh but they are successful in terms of education and investment in research and development (R and D).

"We have invested in quantity, now it is time to go for qualitative improvement. South Korea can help us in terms of basic science and technology and set up a university here," he said.

Abbasi laid emphasis on promoting electric vehicles and set up manufacturing plants in Bangladesh in this regard.

Former and current diplomats, foreign affairs experts, business leaders and economists were present at the dialogue.

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