South Korean Ambassador Shin Hyun-suk, right, is a busy man. With only six Korean
staffers - including Shin - there's much work in accommodating Cambodia's biggest
tourist group for the last three years. South Korean tourists now amount for 15 percent
of all arrivals and their number is expected to reach 300,000 this year. Now, with
cultural and diplomatic ties in place, Ambassador Shin spoke to Dan Poynton about
Gyeongju, golf and going places.
* Where have you worked before now?
Cambodia is my first posting, which I took up in March this year. I used to be the
director of press and public relations for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I am
a career diplomat, so my first and last job will be as a diplomat.
* What has been the high point of relations between South Korea and Cambodia?
It's now. This November, we have the Angkor-Gyeongju World Culture Expo in Siem Reap
and Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's historic visit to Cambodia, which is the first
for a Korean president. The President will open the Expo on November 21.
Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Korea in March, and made bilateral agreements with
us. He has now been to Korea three times - in 1996, 2001 and 2006.
* What is the significance of the Angkor-Gyeongju World Culture Expo 2006, jointly
put on by Cambodia and South Korea in Siem Reap?
Gyeongju was the capital city of the Silla Kingdom of ancient Korea, more than 1,000
years ago. It is a kind of Siem Reap, which was the ancient capital of Angkor. The
Silla Kingdom lasted a millennium until the 10th century, coinciding with the Angkor
period which began in the 9th century.
* Whose initiative was the Culture Expo, and who will funds it?
First, it was a modest initiative from the Cambodian side. Gyeongju is now the capital
of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, with many ancient temples, tombs and museums. Because
of the province's wealth and infrastructure, it became the core organizer of the
Expo, in cooperation with the Cambodian government. Gyeongju has the know-how to
make this kind of cultural-tourism event successful, because Gyeongju has hosted
Gyeongsangbuk-do has contributed $4 million and Cambodia $2 million. But Cambodia
is doing much more because they have to build new roads and build new electricity
lines from the Thai border.
* What is it about Cambodia that has drawn so many Koreans recently?
The main reason is the Angkor site. Also Korean tourist companies offer very competitive
prices to Korean tourists, especially to this region, because there are so many Korean
hotel owners in Cambodia and other places. There are now about 10 to 15 direct flights
a week to and from Phnom Penh and Seam Reap.
* Do Koreans have a special love of ancient sites and cultures, or are they just
Really we travel almost everywhere, but Koreans are very proud of their ancient culture.
They expect to find this kind of culture in Japan and China, but in Cambodia they
found a particularly great Asian culture. China, Japan and Korea share similar cultural
heritages, and we also share Confucianism and Buddhism.
But here you have totally different architecture at Angkor Wat, and it's very interesting
for Korean eyes. Also Confucianism came to Vietnam, but not this area, so you find
a very distinctive culture here.
But they are not just visiting ancient cultural relics. I read Koreans are also the
number one travelers in the Philippines, and they are also visiting Thailand and
Vietnam. More than 10 million Koreans a year travel abroad these days.
* What sort of tourists are Koreans, and does the Cambodian tourist industry cater
They usually come and visit two or three countries on the same trip, and usually
only stay two or three days [in one place]. They stay in Korean-owned hotels and
eat at Korean restaurants, so it's not desirable from the point of view of Cambodian
This pattern of tourism was criticized by the French press, but I think the Cambodian
people should make more effort to attract Korean tourists to their restaurants. They
could offer a very good menu or low prices or this kind of thing. They are not trying
very hard at the moment. They don't have to make Korean food - they should offer
foreign tourists their own fine Khmer cuisine.
Also, they should develop some more tourist attractions, like shopping centers, as
in Bangkok. When you visit Bangkok you don't just visit the Royal Palace, you go
shopping, and you go to seaside resorts. You have to develop more things to attract
foreign tourists - ancient relics are not enough in the long term.
* Does the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism have a special plan to promote and accommodate
tourism from South Korea?
No, I don't think so. I advised them to study the pattern of tourism for foreign
countries like Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.
For instance, Koreans like to play golf. Because playing golf in Korea is very expensive
- more than $200 a game, many Koreans visit China, Japan, Philippines, and Thailand
just to play golf. They should have golf courses for Koreans here.
They should study the case of Thailand and how it became a paradise for foreign tourists.
You have a similar geography and weather, and you have better tourist resources like
Angkor Wat. You have a huge potential here to attract foreign tourists, if you develop
some more tourist attractions, like shopping centers, golf courses and resorts. But
they must know they lack some good infrastructure.
* What types of aid is South Korea giving to Cambodia?
This is a very important link for our two countries. Cambodia is a late starter for
national development, and Korea is very late to return to Phnom Penh [for diplomatic
relations] compared to other Asian countries.
But now Korea has become a donor country, and in 1996 we became an OECD member. When
we returned to Phnom Penh, we started to provide some modest-level aid to Cambodia,
but this year we are giving almost $7 million in grant aid, almost doubling in two
years from $3 million in 2004. This includes aid for health, water, road, and training
Also, many Korean NGOs doing similar things, and it's laudable that they donate many
funds in health care and education. The prospect is good for the future, because
there are so many needs here [that meet Korean criteria].
* Do South Korean laborers come to work in Cambodia, and do Cambodian laborers go
to work in South Korea?
I don't think Korean laborers are coming here, only investors and their employees.
More than 3,000 Cambodians are working in Korea, in sectors such as manufacturing,
construction or agriculture.
We have a high unemployment rate, but we have many skilled workers and some people
avoid working in menial jobs, because they are dangerous or dirty.
Korea is the first country receiving such a large number of Cambodian workers. In
March, Prime Minister Hun Sen visited a Korean company in Seoul, and met about 30
Cambodian workers there. The Cambodian Government would like to send more workers
to Korea because they can send back their salaries to their families. But more importantly,
they will come back after three years and can contribute to Cambodia's economic development.
* What characteristics do Korea and Cambodia share? And what differences exist between
the two nations?
Our known histories are both about 2,000 years old, and both started around the first
century. Buddhism was introduced to Korea in the Fourth Century, and became the national
religion in the Silla dynasty. Although Confucianism became the dominant philosophy
in the 14th Century, Buddhist beliefs continue strongly to this day.
Cambodia built a grand empire, lasting six centuries. Korea did the same: we occupied
over a third of Manchuria, so we are proud of our history and culture.
But both countries fell victim to imperialism: Cambodia under the French, and Korea
under Japan. During the Cold War we became divided in the Korean War for three years.
Cambodia was also embroiled in the Cold War confrontation between America and China.
Since 1953, although we have been divided, there has been no major conflict, while
Cambodians had to fight each other until 1989. So we both became the victims of war,
colonialism, imperialism and the Cold War.
* Why do you think Christianity is so popular with Koreans?
Christianity is prospering in Korea, but Buddhism has roughly the same numbers. Christianity
took hold at the end of the Joseon dynasty in the 19th century, when our ruling elite
continued to stick with Confucianism, which was old-fashioned and not good for development.
Korea had been neglecting the new ideas and values from the West, and found new light
in Christianity, which also introduced modern education.
• What is South Korea's official standpoint on corruption and human rights abuse?
Is South Korea like China, in that it makes no demands on these when providing assistance?
We don't demand any improvement to human rights or this kind of thing when we provide
aid, [as] there is no direct link between them. But we are members of the OCED and
donor groups, and when they meet with the Cambodian government, they raise issues
like the anti-corruption law and illegal logging.
As Korea is part of the donor groups, we endorse their voice from the perspective
of human rights or corruption issues. When the World Bank complains about the misuse
of funds, Korea is also a member of the World Bank, so it is also Korea's concern.
* What do you think about the possibility of the reunification of North and South
People have asked about this for many years, and nobody knows. But when you think
about the process of the German reunification, reunification may visit the Korean
peninsular in a very unexpected way.
But can you compare North and South Korea? South Korea is a much more stable country.
When people use the term "implosion" or "collapse," they are
invariably speaking about North Korea, not South Korea. It [South Korea] is a very
stable democracy and a very rich country, so our reunification could come very suddenly
in a very unexpected way, but on South Korean terms.
Ambassador: Shin Hyun Suk, 53, married with a daughter, 23, and son, 18.
Diplomatic history: This is the 10th anniversary of the Republic of Korea's
Embassy in Phnom Penh. A South Korean consulate was established in 1962, diplomatic
relations began in 1970 but were severed in 1975. Full diplomatic relations were
restored on October 30, 1997. North Korea also has a mission in Phnom Penh: the Embassy
of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.
Amount of South Korean aid to Cambodia in 2006: roughly $7 million in grants
and $90 million in "soft loans" since 2001.
Number of Koreans living in Cambodia: About 2,000; mostly investors engaging
in the tourism sector, especially in Siem Reap. There are 31 Korean-owned textile
and construction companies.
Business organizations: Korean Garment Investors' Organization, Korean Residents
Association, and a government-affiliated organization called the Korea Trade Investment
Promotion Agency. A Korean Chamber of Commerce is in the planning stages.
- Korean Embassy