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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Q&A with Ambassador Kim Won-jin on the relationship between Cambodia and South Korea

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Kim Won-jin, South Korean ambassador to Cambodia. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Q&A with Ambassador Kim Won-jin on the relationship between Cambodia and South Korea

Can you describe the history of South Korea-Cambodia relations and how have they developed over the years?

Korea and Cambodia established diplomatic relations in 1970, but those ties were severed in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge regime took power. The two countries resumed diplomatic ties in 1997, and the normalisation of diplomatic relations has led to the remarkable growth in our bilateral ties across the full range of political, economic development and cultural cooperation.

In particular, the exchanged visits by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the former President Lee Myung-bak in 2009 strengthened the basis for the bilateral cooperation. Furthermore, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Korea and summit meeting with President Park Geun-hye last December provided the opportunity to expand the scope and deepen the level of cooperation between the two countries.

South Korea has been a major source of development assistance to Cambodia. In what areas does the South Korean government provide most of its support? And in what areas has it seen the most improvement?

Korea’s development assistance focuses on four priority sectors – agriculture and rural development(technical cooperation in agriculture, and the transmission of New Village Movement); health and medical sector(construction of hospitals and medical facilities, support to development of health policies); transport and green energy infrastructure (development of master plan study on various industrial fields); and human resources development (support to the development of high level human resources, focusing on skilled labour force).

These priorities were set based on the country partnership strategy (CPS), which reflects Cambodian government’s development plan and Korea’s experience of economic development and poverty reduction.

The health sector seems to be the area where we have seen the most improvement for now. In particular, KOICA’s supports to “mother-and-child” health care have greatly contributed to reducing both maternal and infant mortality in Cambodia.

Furthermore, the projects such as the strengthening of Siem Reap Provincial Hospital, Batheay Referral Hospital and National Pediatric Hospital and the establishment of Preah Angduong Eye Hospital enhance exchanges of medical expertise and know-how.

When it comes to developing infrastructure, what are some of the projects the Korean Government has been involved in and how does this promote regional integration?

The Korean Government, through its EDCF (Economic Development Cooperation Fund), exerts its efforts to establish [infrastructure] in Cambodia. Especially in the transport sector, Korea is involved with construction and renovation projects of road networks including National Road No 2, No 22, No 48 and rural roads.

Alongside with the establishment of the AEC, Cambodia has the potential to become a major logistics hub for Southeast Asia by connecting Thailand and Vietnam. In this sense, I believe that these projects would certainly help the regional integration as well as the development of Cambodia.

Can you describe the aim of the New Village Movement Project, its history and how is it being undertaken?

There are many similarities between Cambodia and Korea. Like Cambodia, Korea went through a civil war and a period of poverty in the 1950s. Therefore, Korea better understands what Cambodia needs for its development, more so than any other country and tries to share its experience and knowledge from its own development process.

In this regard, Korea is supporting Cambodia’s New Village Movement Project (SMU: Saemaul Undong).

Inspired by Korea’s community-based rural development movement in the late 60s and 70s, which was the driving force behind Korea’s modernisation and rapid economic growth, the New Village Movement focuses on promoting the villagers’ voluntary participation in rural communities in Cambodia, through development of SMU masterplan, offering policy consultations, training Saemaul leaders and operating 30 pilot project villages.

As Korean ambassador to Cambodia, what are some of the goals you wish to accomplish?

My major mission as an ambassador is to enhance bilateral relations between Korea and Cambodia in all areas-politics, economy, development cooperation and culture, etc.

In particular, I would like to take the current economic cooperation to a higher level, establishing institutional frameworks for bilateral economic cooperation and expanding business opportunities for both Korean and Cambodian entrepreneurs. In this vein, we are now studying to launch the Joint Economic Committee, designed to accelerate the journey towards the co-prosperity of the two countries by working out more efficient and effective systems to boost trade and investment.

When it comes to business, what is the current level of bilateral trade? And how much has it increased over the years?

According to current statistics, the volume of two-way trade amounted to $750 million, a 14 times increase from $54 million in 1997. The major export items from Cambodia to Korea are garment related products, rubber, agricultural products. Major import items from Korea are garment materials, used cars, cellphones and medical products.

Under the Employment Permission System, how many Cambodians have gone to live and work in South Korea? How has this benefitted Cambodia’s labour force and strengthened ties between the two countries?

Currently, about 40,000 Cambodian workers live and work in Korea through the EPS program. I think this can help the Cambodian economy in many aspects. First, those Cambodian workers can earn money in Korea that is more than enough to support their families and help their livelihood. At the same time, after they come back, they can share their know-how learnt in Korea and contribute to their motherland’s development.

Also, for the Korean economy, Cambodian workers are very important, as they provide a very much needed labour force, especially for those industries suffering from a shortage of labour.

What are some of the things that attract Korean investors to Cambodia?

I think there are several factors to be considered. First, the Cambodian economy continues to show a high rate of growth and the economic outlook is very positive. Second, there is little discrimination against foreign investors, except real estate businesses. Third, its strategically beneficial location as the centre of the Indochina peninsula can also be attractive to investors.

How many South Korean businesses are operating in the Kingdom?

According to the Korea EXIM Bank’s data in 2015, 748 Korean businesses are operating in Cambodia. Most of investments go to the areas such as garments, construction, real-estate, restaurants and tourism. Currently, investments in banking and agriculture sectors are also increasing.

Are there any specific issues that are hindering South Korean investment into Cambodia? What changes could be implemented in order to promote deeper trade relations?

Though investments from Korea are increasing, Korean business people still encounter many challenges in Cambodia- insufficient infrastructure, bureaucracy and low transparency of the administration and sharp increase in minimum wage, etc.

The Cambodian government’s efforts to improve those business environments would be crucial to attract more direct investments from Korea.

With more flights than ever operating between Cambodia and Korea, how has this impacted tourism?

There are direct flights from Korea to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap every day. During the high season, from November to March, up to five or six flights operate daily between Korea and Cambodia.

The increase of direct flights between Korea and Cambodia has been accompanied by growing visits by Korean tourists. In 2013, about 430,000 Koreans visited Cambodia, which is the third largest number next to Vietnam and China.

How do you foresee the development between the two countries growing in the future?

Despite relatively short periods of the diplomatic relationship, Korea and Cambodia have developed strong partnerships in many areas such as politics, direct investment, cultural exchange and development cooperation.

There is a genuine friendship between the two countries at all levels – from high-level officials to business people and NGOs – and the two countries consider each other as a priority partner with shared values and experiences. In this sense, I am confident that Korea and Cambodia will continue to deepen and broaden the partnerships of trust and happiness for the generations to come.

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