Korean ambassador Kwak to Yemen Times:”We have to move beyond just exchange and get into real interactions with each other.” [Archives:2008/1158/Reportage]

May 26 2008
Korean ambassador Won-ho Kwak.
Korean ambassador Won-ho Kwak.
Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Won-ho Kwak is the first ambassador from the Republic of Korea [South Korea] to Yemen since 1998, when the mission officially closed its doors in Sana'a. He had been working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1979 and has been posted to locales such as Bangladesh, the Holy See, Poland and Mongolia besides working in various posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Korea.

Yemen Times: What are the main challenges of restarting a diplomatic mission in Yemen after a disconnect of 10 years? What probed the re-establishing of the embassy in December 2007?

Kwak: Ten years ago as you may know the world had suffered from economic crises and so we had to close down 20 percent of our missions abroad including Yemen, which means that the ties between Yemen and Korea were disconnected, even though not fully. It took about two to three years of an adjustment period to recover from the economic crises, and then in 2001 to 2002 we were focusing on our own country.

In 2005 we started to rethink of establishing our embassy in Yemen and at the same time, [President] Saleh visited Korea. It provided a great momentum to upgrade the relations to a higher level, so we decided that as the country has recovered it could be time to re-establish our official connections with Yemen. Saleh was the first president to ever visit Korea since the establishment of the diplomatic relations back in 1985. At that time, we had diplomatic relations with North Yemen and when the unity took place we established relations with the republic of Yemen including the south.

We left physically from Sana'a, but our embassy in Saudi Arabia was taking care of some of the relevant issues in Yemen. So we were partially present, and last year we took the actual step in doing this. I came to Yemen in December 2007, being the first Korean ambassador to Yemen since 1998.

YT: Do you see this as a result of Saleh's visit to Republic of Korea in April 2005? What were the main outcomes of that visit?

Kwak: Saleh had come to request help from my government in the areas f economic cooperation. We talked about political relations as well as investment in oil and gas and other aspects, and to increase our aid to Yemen. Korea was a country that gave aid and soft loans to Yemen even during the time of disconnect. Before that, between 1991 and 1996 Korea had given Yemen in terms of soft loans with low interest of 1 to 2 percent and a grace period of 20 to 30 years of over 33 million US dollars.

The Korean National Cooperation has invested in the oil sector, we have an investment in Marib in Block 4, and we hope to expand the production up to 1,000 barrels per day. We are also exploring in other areas in east and the south of Yemen.

YT: What do you and the Korean government hope to achieve by reinstating your embassy in Sana'a?

Kwak: My main objective now is to revive the relations between Yemen and Korea face to face. I believe that states are like people and so we have to reconnect and move from stage to stage. We have to work closer to reality. The relations are not just give and take; it means an interaction and not just an exchange. I want to develop the relations between Yemen and Korea in cultural, economic, political and all other aspects but I want to reintroduce Korea at the people's level and everything can come from there. Any kind of understanding must come after we know each other in the cultural and people's level.

My personal ambition is that we help Yemen's investment and economic development especially the development of human resources. In the 1950s, Korea was shattered; there was nothing. We were told by foreign journalists that there was no hope

But we built our country from scratch because we invested in people. We capitalized in human resources and this is why we achieved what we have achieved today. Now we feel that we have a duty to convey this to the rest of the world and help countries like Yemen develop and overcome their challenges.

YT: What do you want from the international community and the Yemeni government?

Kwak: As one of the donors to this country we would like to meet with the other donors from time to time to discuss developments and the exchange.

With the Yemeni government, [we would like] to talk together with the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. There is the policy dialogue between the Yemeni government and Korean experts in July to discuss the level of aid. South Korea has pledged over US $51 million to the Yemeni government at the donor conference held in 2006 in London. It is very likely to raise its support for Yemen to US $100 million. This is not finalized, but we are very positive and this will probably be confirmed in July.

YT: What are the main fields of interest does Republic of Korea have in Yemen?

Kwak: The volume of trade exchange between Yemen and South Korea in 2007 increased to YR 34.3 million. Yemen's exports to South Korea in the same year stood at YR 19.4 million. The main exports from Yemen to Korea are crude oil, nonferrous metal, minerals (copper) and coffee.

Other imports include transport machines (including automobile), electronic products, petrochemical products and industrial machines. Currently we will be handing over two gas tanks to Yemen to use in transporting its gas through the sea around the world.

We also are very interested in investing in human resources in Yemen. By this I mean education, poverty reduction… etc. Through training, technical assistance, what we want to do is to encourage Yemenis to develop their skills and cultivate human capital. We offer scholarships in higher education through providing masters degrees in various fields in five prominent universities in Korea. We have not given a PhD degree but we can start it if there is need. I encourage Yemenis to investigate them and make use of them. There are shorter opportunities under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the International Cooperation Agency. We have courses in Satellite navigation systems, health and medical care, information and communication policies, economic development strategies and trade promotion. Currently we have three Yemenis doing their master degrees in international development, international trade and international management. We can always expand and include more disciplines and I encourage Yemenis to apply.

YT: How do you hope to foster Yemeni-Korean interpersonal relations?

Kwak: One of the things I hope to accomplish during my stay in Yemen is to create a Korean-Yemeni Friendship Association. I hope that Dr. Al-Kibsi as well as businessmen and diplomats can establish this association together. We have a small community here – no more than 120 people, and about 70 are in Sana'a and most of them are workers. So we want to create a more inclusive relationship. We have to move beyond just exchange and get into real interactions with each other. Not just functional categories but true relations between people.

The Republic of Korea also supports the Project for the Institute of Advanced Technology Training. Can you please explain this Institute?

This project aims at establishing the Yemen-Korea High Technical Institute in Sana'a specializing in Information and Communication Technology in advanced areas to create the skilled manpower required for the development of Yemen's economy. This is a shared project between Korean and Yemeni government with total cost over US $19 million.

It will provide two years of vocational training for Yemenis in information communication systems, multimedia, electronics, automation control, refrigeration/air conditioning, and civil engineering. Yemenis have to have a secondary degree as well as some basic level of vocational training for being accepted.

Then we have advanced courses to train the trainers, and this will target skilled Yemenis whom we hope will become the future trainers. They will be sent to Korea to upgrade their teaching skills and capabilities to cope with [new] technologies; it will take three to six months of training.

YT: What about Yemen's business environment and security issues? Is this a concern for you as a diplomat?

Kwak: According to the “Doing Business Indicator” by the World Bank Group, Yemen has fallen from 107 in 2007 to 113 in 2008. This is because of security issues, especially because of the recent attacks targeting foreign interests. So if you want foreign investment then you have to provide a secure environment to attract such investment.

At the GCC and traditional donors meeting held in Sana'a last February, there was a concern about the deteriorating security and stability of the country.

I know that the Yemeni government is doing its best but it should be more sensitive to such issues. They know their country better and are the ones who should be able to stabilize it because security attacks are hindering the progress of current projects or stopping new ones from coming into the country.

Also tourism is affected and although many Koreans would love to come to Yemen, they are afraid. We know that Yemen is the Queen of Sheba's home but security issues stops Korean from visiting this country. Whenever an incident takes place, I get calls asking me if I am all right. I tell them that I am fine and it is not as big as it sounds. If you stay three or more months in Yemen, you start to get to know your way around and use your own judgement. But they hear the news and read on the Internet and so the lack of security does not help.

However, I am still positive about the business opportunities available in Yemen and I believe that there are developments in this sector and that it is improving. We are also expanding our work and projects in Yemen, and if we did not believe in Yemen's future we would not do this.

YT: What are the Korean non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Yemen?

Kwak: We have three Korean NGOs working in Yemen, and seven Koreans members of international NGOs working in Yemen.

They are mostly working in the health and poverty reduction sectors. They work in rural areas and places where they are needed such as in Sa'ada, Mukalla, Aden, Taiz and other places around the republic. Currently we have some aid workers in Sa'ada from the World Services under fierce fighting but they don't want to leave because they feel they are needed there.

YT: What is your impression of Yemeni people?

Kwak: So far my impression is that Yemen is great and Yemeni people are kind, generous, sincere, and hospitable. I meet a lot of people on my way and when I walk sometimes they shout out “Hello Sadeeq [friend]” and it makes me very happy.

I had three options before coming here and I volunteered to come to Yemen because I wanted to and because of what I had heard about this country and Yemeni people.