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The man from Seoul

The man from Seoul

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

one before.

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

great travelers?

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

to them?

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.

Fact file

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


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