After the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has maintained extensive relations with the officials of both Seoul and Pyongyang and stresses the developments of ties with the two countries despite the conflicts they have among themselves. In an interview with AVA Diplomatic, the South Korean Ambassador explained the mechanisms of developing economic and cultural relations with Iran and a note on the relations between South Korea and North Korea stating the leaders of the latter have made wrong decisions at vital crossroads.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Kim Seung Ho,
Ambassador of South Korea to Iran
What diplomatic postings have you had before being appointed as South Korea’s ambassador to Iran?
I worked at the Korean mission to OECD (organization of economic cooperation and development) in Paris and Korean mission to EU in Bruxelles, and WTO in Geneve, respectively. I also served in Iran from 1999 to 2001 which is my previous post too. For domestic post in Seoul, I used to be assistant secretary to the President for trade affairs and Director General for bilateral economic affairs at the foreign ministry.
What is your top priority as the ambassador of South Korea to Iran?
As an ambassador my major priority is to stabilize and make balanced relations. Iran and Korea are both big countries. Our relations were focused on only several areas; trade, oil, machine, outside these areas, we have much more undeveloped cooperative areas. So we have to develop many cooperative areas in new fields to diversify our relations, make stronger relations. If we have stronger and diversified relations, we will have very stabilized and balanced relations with Iran. It is our major priority.
How did South Korea’s President’s visit to Iran affect the political and economic ties between the two countries?
Her visit infused a great moment in our relations, not only political and economic areas, but also in cultural areas. Two sides inked more than 60 documents. In culture area, it was agreed to establish Korean Culture center in Tehran next year, which is also declared as year of cultural exchange for Korea and Iran. She visited this time only Iran, while Korean presidents and presidents of other countries visits many countries in one travel. That means how important Iran is in Korean president view.
What areas do the most significant MOUs and agreements between the two countries cover?
we signed almost seventy MOUs, it is so much in various, diversified MOUs, so it is difficult to pick up what is significant but for example, I remember, first of all twenty five billion dollars will be ready to be lent to Korean companies who will participate in Iranian projects in any fields.
Has there been any priority set for cooperation between the two countries?
Oil, infrastructure, railroad, and even hospital and pharmaceutical, petrochemical, cultural field or activities in Iran would be reliable to be selected to get that fund.
What barriers are in the way of the development of ties between the two countries?
So far, I do not think any obstacle. It depends on the will for both governments and companies.
Following reaching the JCPOA, the banking system of Iran is bound to connect with those of other countries. Iranian officials say Iran’s banking system is linked with SWIFT, but South Korea does not apply that, is that so?
Perhaps you mean Korean banks cannot send foreign currency to Iran despite your linkage to SWIFT. Korean banks have to be intermediated by the European banks for sending Euro to Iran. However, European banks so far are very reluctant to do that. Korean banks also very much eager to see that this problem will be solved soon.
Why do European banks refrain from engaging with Iran?
European ambassadors would be more suitable to answer that question. But Korea also very much want European banks will freely engage in Iranian business. So we can send freely our money to you.
Is there a bright horizon for these problems to pan out?
I hope that this problem be resolved soon, so that Korean companies and Korean government can get benefit from international banking system.
While the South Korean government faces problems transacting money to Iran, how can you put into practice the project of building a large cultural center in Iran? How can you finance the project?
In Korea we have Iranian accounts for Korean currency (won), so for the time being we use that mechanism but it is not convenient. So this is why Korean government wants really eagerly that normalization of banking between Iran and Europe will be made.
Could you explain more if it is not confidential?
It is a mechanism for Korea and Iran trade. We import Iranian oil and we put that money in Iranian accounts in Korean banks. Iran buys and imports Korean goods and Iran have to pay to Korean people, then Korean people get the money from Iranian banks in Korea.
After one year went away from the implementation of the JCPOA, how much has the trade volume between the two countries changed financially?
Our import of Iranian oil has already doubled. Our export to Iran does not show instant increase despite the removal of sanctions because of heightened competition in Iranian market.
Have there been agreements between auto manufacturers between Iran and South Korea?
I have no authentic information on that. However, Korean car companies are very much interested in the Iranian market and I believe that they will not wait and see that this market being taken by European competitors.
Is it possible for the two countries to jointly manufacture cars?
It is their decision. I understand that now Korean car companies are closely watching what happen in Iran. What other car-makers do in Iran, whether joint venture is the best or assembly. Then they will decide the best option for them and Iranian companies.
What areas are more probable to receive joint investments economically and industrially between the two countries?
I think there are plenty of possible areas for joint venture. In order to diversify our relations, in order to stabilize our relations, Korean government wants to have many joint venture as many as possible. But what is more important that in order to invite foreign investment here, you should show foreign investors that if they put their money in Iran, their investment will be profitable. You have to persuade them and also your government should make general friendly environment for foreign investment. Money goes to where it is welcomed and stays where it is well treated.
What measures have been devised to further ease the trades between Iran and South Korea?
Customs authorities of Iran and Korea are working hard to facilitate customs procedures for each other’s goods and exchange relevant information. The more effective way would be Iranian accession to WTO, which Korea support.
Are there ongoing negotiations to lower the tariffs between Iran and South Korea?
There is no ongoing negotiation for that regard. That is why Korea support Iranian accession to WTO.
Over the past year, what measures were thought of to ease the visa issuance for tourism and commerce?
We received Iranian visa applications only for two hours per day, now we receive that application all day round from eight o’clock to four o’clock. Any time we receive visa applications. Before it took five days to get Korean visa, but now it takes only one day, if you give apply today, you get visa tomorrow. In the past seven additional documents was needed. Now you have to provide only two documents which are recommendation letter and your employment certificate. When it comes to tourism visa, in the past only two operators allowed to process Korean tourism visa applications. Now we expand tourism operators up to ten. Ten operators can get tourism visa applications.
How long does the issuance of a touristic visa take for Iranians?
If tourism operators bring visa applications here, it just takes only one day.
How can touristic visas be applied for and received by those who intend to make individual trips to South Korea?
Since our consular section is very small, we do not receive individual tourism visa applications. Instead, we increased ten operators to do that. So they gather individual visa and they deliver them. If you want to go to Korea, simply go to Korean visa tour operators, apply and submit that applicants and then they will bring to us. Other than that, we don’t have any obligations, restrictions for Iranians to apply to Korean visa.
What is the annual average of the Iranians who apply for and receive touristic or business visas to South Korea?
Around six thousands.
You recently made a trip to Markazi Province and the city of Arak. Has any agreement been inked?
There I didn’t sign any document. I explained Korea’s strategy to strengthen mutually beneficial relations with Iran to the businessmen of Markzi and encourage them to expand business with Korea.
In a visit with Iranian businessmen, what did you identify as their major concern?
Our strategy is to make strong relations with Iran, first of all we have to restore our previous level of trade as soon as possible. We need to diversify our cooperative areas beyond trade. And we have make our relations more interconnected one, not simple transactions of goods.
What has been done for the marketing purposes of saffron, handicrafts and Iranian carpets? Can you contribute to these marketing processes?
Iranian side has to do marketing activities in Korea for these items. So far we do not have any restrictions to import these products and also Iranian carpet and Iranian caviar are very much well-known in Korea. So I think there are plenty of potential in Korean market.
How many South Korean tourists pay annual visit to Iran?
Not many. There is also another area that your tourism businessmen can do more in Korean market.
Is there an invitation plan on your agenda to bring the tourism officials of South Korea to Iran?
We already did several years ago but after the sanctions, we are thinking similar idea. First of all in early October, our vice-minister for tourism and culture will visit here. Iranian side also needs to do similar things, your people go to Seoul and show how beautiful is your country. Do not wait here that Korean people come here. You go first to Korea and explain how many things in Iran deserve to see.
Is it possible to launch a direct flight between the two countries?
Recently two civil aviation authorities agreed to allow eleven flights per week if Iran and Korea flight companies start services. Now it is private companies’ decision to start direct air service.
Is it possible for the foresaid possibility to happen before the arrival of 2017?
It is private companies’ decision so they will decide on their own schedule. I cannot prejudge the decision but I think Korean companies and Iranian air companies are now studying very much the market situation.
Will the presidential election in the US affect the Iran-South Korea ties?
It is difficult to prejudge now. But what I can say is that Korea wants Iran and P+5 countries including US, all the JCPOA participants continue to implement their commitments fully.
How do you think the US presidential election affect the implementation of the JCPOA?
It is difficult to prejudge. Simply, we and many other countries want all JCPOA participants will keep their promise.
Over the past few years, various articles have been written on the cultural relations between South Korea and the US, including the one which explains the US has managed to change the traditions and culture of South Korea. Do you confirm that?
No. in Korea we have very full history and diversity of culture. Korean culture has been and continues to be nurtured in the way Korean people choose.
The news had it that following the threats posed by North Korea against South Korea, the US deployed its THAAD missile system in the country which brought about the objections from Russia and China. Wouldn’t the development of collaborations between South Korea and the US break the power balance in the region?
Recently Iran imported Russian missile here and Israel is very much upset. Will Iran cease to deploy Russian missile, simply because Israel don’t want them?
Iran is sealing closer ties with Russia and that is quite logical, since they are being threatened by common sources. What is your take on this?
The very same logic can be applied to Korea too.
In the case of the outbreak of a war between North Korea and South Korea, would the US back up Seoul?
It is a hypothetical question. I do not answer hypothetical questions.
How is the peace trend working out between North Korea and South Korea? Is its implementation possible?
Korean government during past fifty years and until now is desperately working hard to defuse tension between the two Koreas and lay foundation for peace and security in the region. We will never give up our hope and efforts to realized it.
In your opinion, what factors are effective in the realization of peace between the two countries?
Patience and continuous efforts would be necessary. Korean peninsula issue is not easy and simple task. Strenuous efforts with determination supported international engagement would be required just like Middle East peace process.
South Korea and North Korea are neighbors, but they are vastly different from one another in terms of technology. Why is that?
The major reason is that North Korean people have no effective leadership. North Korean leaders have made wrong decisions at every crucial crossroad of history. Their leadership is not as effective as South Korea.
Do you think the young leader of North Korea is ready to negotiate with South Korea?
Their recent provocation does not implicit any sign of sincerity for dialogue with South. However, South Korea will continue its effort for dialogue, as it has been up until now. What we minimally expect from North is trustful sign of sincerity before starting dialogue.
In March, the leader of North Korea announced that this country is ready to bombard the presidential palace of South Korea. Do you think peace negotiations are still practical?
They always say similar thing, this is why we asked them just show your minimum gesture, minimum readiness to talk, so that we can trust, then start to talk.
How are the political relations between South Korea and Russia? North Korea’s approach to Russia is OK for South Korea?
Russia is one of our strong partners. So not only foreign Minister, Prime Minister even president visit Russia many times. Since both Russia and North Korea are sovereign countries, their relations will be toned and implemented on their mutual decision. What South Korea justly expects is that their relations shall be developed in the supportive way to the peace and stability of the region.
Is it possible for South Korea and North Korea to join each other quite like what happened with West Germany and East Germany?
I cannot foretell the identical thing can be repeated in Korea in the same manner because situation and context is different. What I can say is that all Korean people want to unite two Koreas through the peaceful manner as it was done in Germany.