Friday, April 21, 2006

Jane Coombs: Korea hungry for knowledge and ripe for picking

Korea is a nation on the move. Driven by a national sense of "baly baly" or "hurry hurry", the country and its achievements are remarkable.

In the 1950s it was one of the poorest countries in the world and its landscape was ravaged by war.

Fifty years on, Korea has rebuilt itself to become the world's 11th-largest economy. With Japan, it is one of the most advanced economies in Asia.

Its consumers are increasingly affluent - and love to shop. The opportunities for New Zealand businesses are excellent.

It is a nation with which New Zealand has longstanding links, stemming from the Korean War, but in a modern context extending beyond traditional industries into exciting developments such as film and co-operation in research, science and technology.

The visit to Korea this week by Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright provides an opportunity to celebrate the strength of the relationship, and to signal New Zealand's keen interest in taking the relationship forward.

Korea is New Zealand's seventh-largest trading partner, and sixth-largest export destination. Korea is New Zealand's fifth-largest source of tourists, with more than 100,000 Koreans visiting here last year.

One booming industry is in education. Korea is our second-largest source of international students behind China, with more than 15,000 coming to study each year.

And New Zealanders are increasingly travelling to Korea to work as English language teachers. Auckland University now provides undergraduate study in the Korean language and culture.

The importance Koreans attach to education cannot be understated. Step into an international hotel or company in Seoul, and you will find extremely well educated, fluent English speakers. Koreans spend more per capita on education than any other OECD country.

With 80 per cent of students carrying on to tertiary education in Korea, and many of those institutions teaching their subjects in English, the need for English language training will remain a potential area of growth.

A promising new development is in film. The phenomenon of the "Korean wave", or "Hallyu", shows no sign of letting up. Korea has a vibrant national film industry, not only with creative talent but significant investment power.

Several recent Korean films have been partly filmed and produced in New Zealand. More are in the pipeline. Koreans are showing keen interest in our leading edge film technology, post production facilities, skills and diverse locations.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has thrown her support behind film links, signing at Apec in Seoul last November an Audiovisual Co-operation Arrangement with Korea which provides a framework for developing joint projects. Just last year, a New Zealand film festival toured five Korean cities.

Korea has a well-funded, state-of-the-art sector. It is also one of the world's most "wired" countries, with more than 80 per cent of its 48 million people having access to broadband technology.

Last September New Zealand and Korea's respective science funding organisations signed a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at promoting co-operation between our respective scientists. That has led to successful visits by scientists to attend workshops and investigate potential joint projects in areas such as biotechnology, environmental science and ICT.

New Zealand-born Nobel Prize Laureate Alan McDiarmid was in Korea just last week to open the Dr Alan McDiarmid Energy Laboratory to be housed in Chonnan University, Kwangju.

So how do we build on these successes?

We have been steadily promoting the idea of a free trade agreement.

Korea has concluded a deal with Chile (a competitor of New Zealand in some key products in Korea, such as kiwifruit), with Singapore and with EFTA. It is negotiating with Asean, Canada, India, Mexico and Japan. And it intends to begin negotiating with the United States, with a view to concluding a free trade agreement by next July.

That leaves New Zealand among the second "tier" of nations Korea might negotiate with. Pursuing a free trade agreement with Korea continues to be a key ambition for New Zealand.

One concern that is frequently cited around trade talks is the sensitivities of the Korean agricultural producers. However, this need not block co-operation as New Zealand does not produce rice, the most sensitive item for Korean farmers, and does not export items such as chili, sesame and garlic.

Meanwhile, Korean consumers enjoy New Zealand's beef, dairy products, fruit and vegetables.

More New Zealand wine is available in Korea. Up until 2001 there was only one New Zealand wine available - now 22 wineries are represented.

And the amount of our wine being consumed has increased dramatically, by 80 per cent last year, and by 100 per cent the previous year.

New Zealand's relationship with Korea has its roots in this country's participation in the Korean War. This week 30 New Zealand veterans are visiting Korea as part of an annual visit sponsored by the Korean Government.

While the Armistice of 1953 has held for the last 53 years, North-South issues remain an ever present aspect of life in South Korea.

New Zealand provides four New Zealand Defence Force personnel, stationed with the United Nations Command Military Armistice Committee. Their role has been to monitor the terms of the Armistice, but increasingly they are also helping move trucks and people across the Demilitarised Zone, to both the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the Mt Kumkang tourist area in the North.

These two projects are interesting new explorations in inter-Korean relations. Already 13 South Korean companies are working in the pilot phase of the Kaesong complex, while more than 100,000 tourists crossed into Mt Kumkang last year.

In other words, there is a lot more traffic across the zone than people might think.

Of course, the nuclear problem remains. It is unclear when the stalled six-party talks might resume. While New Zealand does not play a direct role in this process, as one of 14 countries accredited to Pyongyang from Seoul, we are in a position to monitor developments closely and to register key messages on the nuclear issue with the North Korean Government.

With New Zealand home to about 35,000 Koreans, or nearly 1 per cent of our population, we are closely connected not only through history, economics and politics, but increasingly through people. These people-to-people links tie our countries together in a fundamental way, and form an excellent basis on which to take forward the relationship.

* Jane Coombs is New Zealand's ambassador to Korea.

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