Korea seeks deeper engagement with Bangladesh with focus on young generation

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Momentum around 50th anniversary of relationship to take ties to new height: Ambassador Lee

South Korean Ambassador to Bangladesh Lee Jang-keun has said his country wants to take the “strong relations” with Bangladesh to a new height engaging deeply in every potential area giving much focus on the young generation in terms of cooperation and collaboration.

“The Golden Jubilee of diplomatic relations in 2023 would be a significant momentum for the two countries to take the strong ties to a new height,” he said, mentioning that the two countries now need to diversify the areas of cooperation.

He was delivering the keynote address at a webinar hosted by the Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, at its Ambassadors’ Lecture Series Dialogue premiered on Thursday.

The topic for discussion was "Bangladesh-South Korea Relations: Prognosis for the Future." Enayetullah Khan, Chairman of the Cosmos Foundation, earlier made the inaugural remarks.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a Singapore-based renowned scholar-diplomat and former Foreign Affairs Advisor of Bangladesh Caretaker Government chaired and conducted the session.

Ambassador Lee, stated that he keeps three key words -- elevation, diversification and generation -- in his mind always, and said Bangladesh is a young country with the majority of its young people that deserves attention.

He said they have to focus on the young people in their collaboration as the young generation owns the future of this country.

The envoy said Korea and Bangladesh have enjoyed close ties for the past five decades in every field.

Based on the success story in the RMG sector where Korea played a crucial role in the growth of Bangladesh’s RMG industry since 1970s, Korea and Bangladesh want to make success stories in other fields such as infrastructure, ICT and human resources development, he said. 

Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, Chairman and CEO of Youngone Corporation and KEPZ Corporation (BD) Ltd Kihak Sung, former BGMEA President and Mohammadi Group Chairperson Dr Rubana Huq, former Bangladesh Ambassador to South Korea Iftikharul Karim; and Research Fellow and Head at Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR) Shafqat Munir comprised the panel of discussants.

Enayetullah Khan echoed the Ambassador on what he says Bangladesh-Korea relationship “looks bright and will grow even brighter.”

“I hope our relationship will grow deeper and wider and I would say we’ll enjoy a strategic partnership of relations between Bangladesh and Korea,” he said.

One of the cornerstones of the Bangladesh-Korea relationship has been the Youngone Corporation, probably the most important foreign company success story in Bangladesh in the last four decades, Khan said, adding, “They’re the largest foreign investors in Bangladesh’s RMG sector.”

Appreciating the diversified role of Kihak Sung, Khan said the Youngone Chairman has not only created a world-class export processing zone in Chattogram but also has turned it into a place of nature conservation and biodiversity. “Kihak Sung has worked very silently to promote Bangladesh-Korea ties.”

He said the bilateral trade volume between Bangladesh and South Korea is almost close to US $1.6 and hoped that it will become US$ 2 billion soon.

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury said Korea has been the lead bird in the Asian region in what in development economics is known as the “flying geese paradigm”, and the Korean model is supremely worthy of emulation by others.

He said Korea’s global role has been concomitant with its economic rise and one example was the leadership at the United Nations provided by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon what he has personally witnessed.

Dr Iftekhar said bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Korea have grown by leaps and bounds and have been mutually most rewarding.

He stated that the relations have the potential to be even more robust, adding, “Our ties are a good example of how shared values can effectively drive positive collaboration between two nations.”

He recalled how the skilled labour market opened up in Korea which is different from the kind of market Bangladesh sees in the Middle East.  

Dr Iftekhar hoped this is something that they focus on as the two countries can benefit enormously from this.

He appreciated the enormous contributions of Kihak Sung to the Bangladesh economy and said, “I would like to state unequivocally that he’s a true friend of Bangladesh.”

Dr Debapriya said it is a matter of great anguish for him as an economist to see that Bangladesh could not really take the full advantage of the South Korean market even after duty- and quota-free market access and diversify its products beyond the garments and leather.

Talking about Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), he said Korean investment is also diversifying into non-garment areas, IT, technological upgradation and all other issues which he termed very fantastic. “I hope the FDI process will further take its momentum.”

Coming on the remittances, the economist said Korea has been one of the incremental sources of remittances beyond Bangladesh’s traditional sources -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and others. “We'll need much more skilled people to be working there and we need to prepare for the new markets,” he said.

If Korea continues DFQF market access beyond 2026, Dr Debapriya said, it would be a great gesture on the part of the Korean government to strengthen the partnership with Bangladesh.

But at the same time, he said, there may be much more selective and supportive international support measures for the diversification agenda which Ambassador Lee has rightly mentioned that they link it up with LDC strategy.

The economist mentioned that geopolitically Bangladesh has become such an attractive attention globally. “We quite often don’t appreciate in this modern globalized world the relationship that happens here is not necessarily what happens here. It happens as a result of many other things which happen elsewhere in the world,” he said.

Inspired by his love of nature and outdoor pursuits, Sung founded Youngone Corporation in 1974 and started their operations in Bangladesh 40 years ago. “There’re lots of joys and lots of struggles if we look back in the past decades,” he said.

Sung hopes the textile zone at the Korean EPZ in Chattogram will become a "textile hub" in Bangladesh bringing a lot of businesses.

Bangladesh needs to make a lot of efforts to produce and supply more manmade fibre (MMF) so that such a supply chain is established successfully here.

Sung expressed optimism over an increased export from Bangladesh to Korea and other countries.

“I think going forward, Bangladesh needs to make a lot of efforts to make FTAs (Free Trade Agreements) with many countries so that these low hanging fruits of textile and clothing business can be harvested properly,” he said.

Before seeking to pluck new fruits, Sung said, there is more need to reap the existing low lying fruits further. “We need to do that. But we need to harvest textile and clothing business as much as possible going forward,” he added.

Sung made a presentation on what the Youngone Corporation is doing apart from highlighting the new initiatives at Korean Export Processing Zone (KEPZ). Korea Export Processing Zone (KEPZ) has recently inaugurated a 100-acre Hi-tech Park within KEPZ.

Dr Rubana Huq said Bangladesh supplies $323 million of garments to Korea whereas Korea buys $9 billion from other countries.

She said there is a mismatch between what they supply and what Korea buys. “We need to crack your better market and we need your support in value-added products. We’re doing better with Korea and we would just like to do more.”

Dr Rubana said light engineering is one thing that they all like to go into because only dependence on the RMG sector has to end. “We’ve to do that, and we need Korea’s support as well in this regard.”

She emphasized the need for a “virtual market”, adding that the online market is expected to go up to $872 billion by 2023 and Bangladesh should not miss this opportunity.

If Korea can extend a helping hand, especially while Korea concentrates on elevation, generation and of course diversification, Rubana said, adding: “I think your (Ambassador) expectations will soon be translated into reality if we’re all in it together.”

Former Ambassador Iftikharul Karim said he believes, first and foremost, political relations must be nurtured and strengthened through regular, periodic bilateral dialogue at the highest levels emphasizing sovereignty, mutual respect and cooperation at the bilateral, international as well as regional level.

Secondly, the former diplomat said, economic, trade and commercial relations need to be given priority while taking into account the fragility of Bangladesh economy and its needs. “Focusing on small and medium industrial enterprises could be a priority consideration and should be promoted and protected as Bangladesh economy shifts to industrialization,” he said.

Iftikharul Karim said diversification of the Bangladesh economy to engage in new sectors such as the ICT industry, where South Korea is already a giant, could become the engine of economic cooperation between the two countries.

Thirdly, he said, there has to be conscious and deliberate policies to promote and strengthen interaction between trade bodies and entrepreneurs for mutual confidence building and seamless sharing of information.

The future trajectory of Bangladesh-Korea relations has immense potential and if the political leadership sees fit they can together take this already established friendship to an entirely different and higher plane that will make the past 50 years, impressive as it is, look like a pale shadow.

Shafqat Munir shifted the focus on security cooperation, greater cooperation on strategic and geopolitical issues; and more specifically on defence cooperation that the two countries could potentially do in terms of innovating and diversifying the relationship.

He endorsed the statement by Dr Debapriya that the bilateral relations are no longer confined to what happens between the two capitals and it is essentially also a reflection of what happens in the region and what happens in the wider geopolitical space.

“In this context, I don't see a lot happening between Dhaka and Seoul at the moment - but there's a serious opportunity for us to do more,” said the analyst, noting that Korea is a significant geopolitical player in the international scene.

He appreciated Korea’s continued support for resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. “We really appreciate the support that you have provided us but as the crisis has now entered almost into its fifth year, we’ll continue to seek your support in the international arena and bring the situation to a peaceful resolution.”

Ambassador Lee, who had made a detailed presentation with historical references, concluded saying they need to move beyond RMG and diversify collaboration between the two countries as so far RMG occupies the largest portion of collaboration.

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury, the chair of the discussion, in his concluding remarks underscored that while bilateral relations between Bangladesh and South Korea are excellent, there is also ample room and scope for much greater cooperation.

As Bangladesh graduates out the LDC status, he said, it will need to upgrade and widen its export market and Korean support and technology transfer would be most useful.

Potential New Areas of Cooperation

Speakers at the virtual dialogue, hosted by Cosmos Foundation, have laid emphasis on having a broader collaboration between Bangladesh and South Korea focusing on a number of new areas from technology transfer to virtual marketplace, fashion, startups and innovation as Korea eyes more success stories with Bangladesh going beyond RMG.

“We need to move beyond RMG and diversify collaboration between the two countries,” said Ambassador Lee.

Enayetullah Khan thinks technology transfer is a very critical element in the development of any nation and Korea is a burning example to the whole world how critical it is to have technology and technological capability.

He said Samsung has created a research and development institute in Bangladesh that employs a significant number of local engineers. “This makes a very noteworthy contribution in terms of technology transfer.”

Samsung R&D Institute Bangladesh (SRBD) started its operation in June, 2010 and was officially inaugurated in February 2011. It is also the first R&D hub of a multinational company in Bangladesh.

Khan mentioned that Korea gives much importance to R&D and no other country is near to Korea in that area which actually helped Korea earn today’s position in the world.

“I think Korea can help us in guiding and in initiating some R&D organizations as Dr Rubana talked about fashion to food, digital space and online marketplace. In many fields, I think we can collaborate together,” he said.

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury said the Korean support in the transfer of technology will help Bangladesh grab the higher market and reach the higher fruits.

The foreign affairs expert particularly mentioned the support from Korea in bringing the virtual marketplace in fruition. “Korea is a remarkable country in terms of its achievements. Korean support has been crucial to Bangladesh’s achievements,” he said.

Dr Debapriya appreciated Ambassador Lee’s three areas of focus - elevation, diversification and generation and shared his thoughts on the past, present and future relations between Bangladesh and South Korea.

In the future, he said, South Korea will turn out to be possibly one of the most steadfast, most substantive and the most effective partners in Bangladesh’s development transition.

Kihak Sung briefly talked about their journey in Bangladesh for four decades, noting that there are lots of joys and struggles if they look back at the past decades since their beginning here.

He made a presentation on what the Youngone Corporation is doing apart from highlighting the new initiatives at Korean Export Processing Zone (KEPZ). Korea Export Processing Zone (KEPZ) has recently inaugurated a 100-acre Hi-tech Park within KEPZ.

Dr Rubana Huq said they look forward to Korea for technology and Korea’s technology transfer would mean a lot to Bangladesh because in terms of fashion and innovation Korea could probably help Bangladesh at an end-to-end digital workflow. “So, that's another area that you can help us with.”

She also said Bangladesh needs Korea’s support regarding 3D printing and if Korea could provide Bangladesh with printing equipment and even the spare parts it would help.

So, the former BGMEA chief said, Korean collaboration in technology and innovation would be greatly appreciated by Bangladesh.

Dr Rubana urged Korea to look at a virtual marketplace for Bangladesh. “Why is it only about B2B, why can't we be B2C? And if you want to be B2C, we need your help because we can then design a full virtual marketplace and you can help us with technical capacity building so that we can go to the next level.”

The ex-BGMEA President said they had extensive discussions with the Ministry of Finance about a virtual marketplace for Bangladesh.

“What the ministry says, you go build your own platform and we’ll give you policy support. But we need more than that. We just don’t need policy support from the government as we also need friends from all around the world, and especially Korea could come forward and help us build this virtual marketplace and it would benefit the industry a lot.

Former Ambassador Iftikharul Karim said diversification of the Bangladesh economy to engage in new sectors such as the ICT industry, where South Korea is already a giant, could become the engine of economic cooperation between the two countries.

As ROK progresses to become the third largest economy in the Pacific region after China and Japan, he said, its trade and commercial footprint cannot be ignored.

“Already in Bangladesh, Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc. are trusted household brands poised to seriously challenge European and western consumer goods manufactures that have dominated our markets,” said the former diplomat.

Shafqat Munir said they are to achieve a lot in terms of bilateral relationship in the realm of trade, investment, economics, culture, and culture.

“We would like to see greater people-to-people contact being enhanced between the two countries,” he said.

In his presentation, Ambassador Lee talked about the establishment of the e-Government Master Plan for Digital Bangladesh and their support in capacity building of universities in Bangladesh to promote youth entrepreneurship and safe cyberspace for digital Bangladesh.

So, going beyond RMG, he said, they see potentials in other areas such as ICT, infrastructure and pharmaceuticals.

With inputs from Abdur Rahman Jahangir, Muhammad Syfullah & Md Ishtiak Hossain

  • Bangladesh-South Korea Relations
  • Prognosis for the Future
  • Cosmos Foundation
  • Cosmos Dialogue

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