The Korean Embassy Office was established in 2004. You began your service here in late 2012. What have been your initial impressions of the Kurdistan Region?
As soon as I arrived here, I tried to avidly learn the Kurdish people’s history and culture. The more I learned about them, the more sympathetic I became. I also tried to travel as much as possible to understand this land and people. I wanted to meet as many people as possible, including diplomats, KRG officials, businessmen, scholars and ordinary people of Kurdistan. This has helped me to understand the Kurdish people’s frustration, their future, and their dream. I think this region and these people have a great future. They are blessed with beautiful natural surroundings, wonderful land, a talented population, and abundant natural resources. Over the past decade, they have been able to make great progress and remarkable development. They have established a vibrant and stable economy, which has benefited greatly from their hard won security. We take great pride in having been their true friends and faithful partners along the way. They obviously also have significant oil and gas resources, which further increases their potential.
What activities the Korean International Cooperation Agency [KOICA] has been engaged in?
Most of the focus has been on education and human resources development, as well as on providing assistance to elevate living standards on a basic level. We believe we are in a unique position in terms of our level of experience. In comparison to other advanced countries, we have more relevant technology and development strategies to share because we only achieved our economic and politico-social development in the past several decades. Our focus is moving more toward sharing our software knowledge and experience in development beyond providing simple hardware assistance. In addition to building a Vocational Training Center in Erbil, KOICA invited more than 1,400 Kurdish people to Korea under the Fellowship Program for human capacity building courses. In close consultation with the KRG, We are helping to build model comprehensive schools in Erbil, Duhok, and Slemani. This emphasis on education includes facilities for handicapped students and vocational training.
In what areas Korea is the most well suited to aid in the development of the Kurdistan Region?
Over the past 10 years, as part of the KOICA Fellowship Program, we have invited more than 1,400 Kurdish officials and youths for training in Korea. We paid for their travel and accommodations while they trained in Korea for 3 or 4 weeks. Some individuals also elected to pursue courses in computer programming, auto repair, vocational courses, or public administration. Others selected a one or two year Masters Degree courses. You name it, they wanted it! These are all key areas for developing countries, so it was important for them to be able to participate in the process. So, this was KOICA’s focus. From 1993 up to 2011, the net cost of implementation for these programs was more than $130 million for the Kurdistan Region alone. This is because the Region is safer, more stable, and perhaps more welcoming than other parts of the country. In the near future, more experts need to be sent to advise and consult. However, I think it will be more important that private sectors, including more private companies, come to Kurdistan to invest as partners.
Human Capacity Development Program [HCDP] is of vital importance for the future of the Kurdistan Region, so it’s very nice to hear that Korea is also emphasizing its value.
It’s very encouraging that the KRG, and in particular the Prime Minister, have attached great importance to both Human Capacity Development and Human Resources Development. I know that they have allocated $100 million per year to the HCDP and I think that this is an incredibly encouraging, far-sighted decision. The KRG isn’t simply depending on oil and gas; they’re trying to diversify their economy in order to empower their people. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has visited Korea many times; he said he likes kimchi and Korean green tea. We have heard from both his staff and other government officials that he has emphasized learning from Korea in particular. Korea has quite a bit to offer and I think that may also be a reason why the Kurdish people like Korea. We give them hope and promise, because we serve as an example of what they can achieve. Korea has no oil, gas, or significant natural resources. It has only human resources and human capital. It was invaded, divided, and its security has been constantly threatened. Yet, it has been able to be very successful. If the KRG is able to develop its own human capital in coordination with the development of its natural resources, it will certainly become an even more important entity.
Do you think that increased private sector involvement could also help further develop human capacity?
Compared to 8 months ago when I arrived, the number of Korean companies’ management staffs operating here has doubled. Soon it will triple, because of their expansion of projects. There are more and more interested parties in this emerging market. Moreover, Korean companies have been active here in the Region for a long time. For example, the Korean National Oil Cooperation (KNOC) is active in oil exploration here and they are making progress. KNOC is a pioneering company that was awarded its first contract here in 2007 rather than a year or two ago. At that time, few major companies were willing to take that risk because they were concerned about security and about alienating the southern part of the country. KNOC, which is partly state-owned, took that risk and invested in the Region. Now we have other companies that are active in power generation, housing, and construction. It is my hope that in the future our companies will expand into areas like agriculture, food processing, and even tourism.
Is there any hesitation on the part of Korean companies because they worried about safety and security in the Region?
Some companies are still hesitant to come to the Kurdistan Region for the reasons you mentioned. As a result, I am regularly visiting Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Amman to meet our business representations there and encourage them to come here. The same is the case for the Baghdad Embassy. Our officials there organized a business forum to convey the idea that Iraq is an emerging market with great potential. The Kurdistan Region isn’t a potential market. It’s already a reality.
The Kurdistan Region isn’t a potential market. It’s already a reality. It is certainly an emerging market, but it is also more established and more secure. With those ideas in mind, I fully expect an increased number of Korean companies to come here.
It is certainly an emerging market, but it is also more established and more secure. With those ideas in mind, I fully expect an increased number of Korean companies to come here.
What is your outlook for the future of the Kurdistan Region?
Some people the Region aspires to be another Dubai. I have visited Dubai many times. This land has more potential than Dubai. Dubai is in a desert, and I am continually amazed that they were able to build as much as they have there. However, these Kurdish people are blessed with very good land as well as their own traditions and culture. This land used to be the breadbasket, and could be once again. The Kurdistan Region has lovely mountains and beautiful scenery. So, they have the potential to be more than Dubai. I think the Kurdistan Region can be a shining star and a model in this part of the world that is plagued with conflict and frustration.