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TT, South Korea builds closer ties

Ambassador Sung Moonup, the Korean Republic’s representative to TT, has only been here for three months but already feels at home.

“TT and Korea share common values. We are both democratic societies with an open and free economy, and we both have a passion for education,” Sung told Business Day last week at the Korean Embassy in St Clair.

His mission, then, for the three years he’ll be posted here will be to strengthen those ties, both culturally and through improved bilateral trade.

“The economy of both our nations are highly dependent on trade and so are vulnerable to the international economy,” he noted.

That said, TT and South Korea have a symbiotic relationship, where each country produces things for which the other has a high demand. “The items we exchange are complementary to each other, rather than competitive. The prospects for trade can be brighter,” Sung said.

South Korea primarily exports consumer electronics, automobiles and parts to TT, while this country exports liquefied natural gas, ammonia and petrochemicals. As South Korea moves towards cleaner energy, Sung expects the demand for LNG, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, will increase, giving TT an opportunity to increase its market, as the country moves to 20 per cent clean energy by 2030.

Sung believes there is still room to for relations between both countries to grow. This is the 33rd anniversary of diplomatic relations between both countries. “TT may regard Korea as one of their reliable partners. Our aim is to promote bilateral relations that will be mutually beneficial and sustainable that will bring future prosperity,” he said.

As part of that economic cooperation, Sung acknowledged the importance of TT’s strategic location and role within Caricom as a trade hub. He also noted the country’s ability to stabilise its economy after the effects of the global recession. “Economic activity is picking up and this can attract more attention from Korean companies,” he said.

Some of South Korea’s biggest brands are well-known in TT, including electronics giant Samsung and car companies Hyundai and Kia. These companies, as multinationals, are quite capable of making their own business decisions and may not need their government’s help to invest, but Sung is eager to work with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who are trying to expand their market into TT.

For TT SMEs, the Korean embassy is willing to share its expertise and has engaged the Ministry of Labour to share knowledge about that country’s policies for developing SMEs. They also want to engage local chambers of commerce to encourage companies to learn about doing trade with South Korea. For companies who want to export, the ambassador recommends firms do some market research to see which products are right for the Korean market. One of the products Sung can already see a possible market for is handicrafts, and he was eager to form some sort of exchange where local handicrafts men could learn traditional Korean techniques and vice versa. The embassy is also willing to engage businesses who want to import Korean products, especially popular items like beauty products.

TT and South Korea are also working on a double-taxation policy. Discussions started in 2016 and are expected to continue next year, Sung said, and once that’s settled it can help make TT more attractive for Korean firms that want to invest.

An interesting area for development is tourism. Out of a population of 50 million, over 20 million travelled abroad last year, mostly to places close by like China and Japan. TT, by contrast, is 20 hours away by plane. But, Sung said, the Caribbean is a dream destination for many Koreans and as people start to travel, despite the distance, his goal is to promote the region for tourists — and also encourage Trinidadians to visit Korea.

Part of promoting tourism will be promoting culture. Aside from economic development, Sung has also made it his mission to show off Korean culture to TT. The embassy tries every year to have Korean performers come to TT, as well as food-tasting events and a Korean film festival. “My hope is that we can get to know each other, how we can promote TT to Korean people and Korea to TT. Cultural understanding can pave the way for exchange of people,” Sung said.

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