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His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, during a reception at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi in 2018 Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

What were the key milestones in Korea and the UAE’s four-decade long bilateral relations and what are your focus areas now when it comes to strengthening relationships with the UAE?

The cooperation between the two countries started in earnest when a Korean company won the bid for the construction of Musaffah bridge in 1975, the second bridge built in Abu Dhabi. This relationship developed into a strategic partnership with the signing of the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) contract in 2009. On the back of continued strengthening of cooperation made possible by the construction of Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010; the joint development of the UAE’s first satellite in 2013; and the establishment of the only Korean Cultural Centre in the Gulf region in 2015; the relationship between two countries has been upgraded to a special strategic partnership on the occasion of President Moon Jae-in’s visit to the UAE in March 2018.

This strategic partnership has been bearing fruit across various fields. Korea and the UAE have continuously developed reciprocal cooperation in the fields of diplomacy, national defense, nuclear power, energy, construction, healthcare, science and technology, and now the scope of our cooperation has extended to agriculture, and areas related to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) such as AI and education, including e-learning.

In particular, cooperation in high-tech agricultural technology is an area of special interest to our leaders. Despite logistical difficulties posed by Covid-19, Korea and the UAE have made important progress in improving food security by successfully completing the first-stage of a rice cultivation project in the UAE in May. The second-stage of the project is underway.

Economic cooperation is one of the key areas of special strategic partnership between Korea and the UAE. Can you provide up-to date figures of exports and imports between the two nations? What are the major products that are being traded between Korea and the UAE?

The UAE has become Korea’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, and currently there are more than 130 Korean companies doing business in the UAE. The total trade volume between Korea and the UAE was only $19 million (Dh68.4 million) in 1980, but this has increased rapidly as bilateral economic cooperation between our two countries picked up, reaching $25 billion in 2008 on the back of high oil prices. In 2019, the total trade volume stood at $12.5 billion.

Korea and the UAE have continuously developed reciprocal cooperation in the fields of diplomacy, national defense, nuclear power, energy, construction, healthcare, science and technology, and now the scope of our cooperation has extended to agriculture, and areas related to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) such as AI and education, including e-learning.

- Kwon Yongwoo, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the UAE

Korea’s imports from the UAE consists largely of raw materials such as crude oil and aluminium, with crude oil and naphtha accounting for 90–95 per cent of imports. Korea’s export items to the UAE are diverse, including automobiles, electronic products, machinery, plants, tobacco and synthetic resins. Korea’s exports to the UAE reached a record high of $7.3 billion in 2011, gradually decreasing to $3.5 billion in 2019 because of a reduction in demand due to low oil prices. Bilateral trade between Korea and the UAE has ample potential to rebound in the future as these two nations continue to broaden the scope of economic cooperation.

How is Korea working to improve cooperation in areas of healthcare and education?

Medical tourism to Korea by UAE citizens began in earnest in 2011, with around 3,000 patients visiting Korea annually in recent years. An example of our healthcare cooperation is the valuable contributions made by a team from the Seoul National University Hospital towards the successful operation and management of the Sheikh Khalifa Specialty Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah, bringing world-class healthcare to the UAE medical community.

Our healthcare cooperation has taken on an even greater importance in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, illuminating enormous untapped potential for further cooperation. I am pleased that both Korea and the UAE have been recognised by the international community as among the countries that have successfully responded to Covid-19 as a result of close communications between our two leaders, the sharing of medical supplies and response models such as drive-through diagnosis centres.

Education is the key to the future of any country. Korea’s success story, as an advanced high-tech democracy, owes much to its efficient education system, and I can understand why the UAE leadership attaches so much emphasis on establishing efficient and competitive educational system in the country. Korea is ready to share its experience with the UAE in this area. We have put in place R&D and other types of cooperation programmes in high-tech areas including nuclear science, and are trying to expand exchange programmes for the young generation.

How many tourists from the UAE visited Korea in 2019 and vice versa? What steps have you taken to promote tourism opportunities in Korea?

We estimate that about 200,000 Korean citizens visit UAE annually, and last year more than 13,000 Emiratis travelled to Korea showing more than 15 per cent increase compared to the year before.

Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) has been working nonstop to attract tourists to Korea exploring all possible avenues including participating in major travel exhibitions, conducting seminars, road shows and social media campaigns, hosting leading social media influencers and celebrities, organising cultural events and forging partnerships with airlines and travel industry. Currently, however, all the promotional campaigns have shifted to online and digital platforms due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, held talks with Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha during his visit to Korea in July. He was the first foreign minister to visit Korea after the Covid-19 outbreak Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

How does Korea plan to bring tourists back to the nation after the pandemic?

With the tourism industry being one of the hardest hit areas by Covid-19, the Korean government has been taking measures to help alleviate its financial hardships. At the same time, Korea has been focusing on devising strategies to strengthen its tourism infrastructure as well as to make its tourism industry more competitive. For instance, Korea intends to promote itself as a safe destination for foreign visitors utilising the success of the K-quarantine in curbing Covid-19. KTO has already begun to gradually increase its global campaigns highlighting unique experiences tourists can enjoy in Korea as well as the warm hospitality and hygienic tourism environment.

What are the latest developments in Korea’s participation at Dubai Expo next year?

Korea is excited to be part of Expo 2020 Dubai, the first-ever registered Expo to be held in the Arab world with the over-arching theme of Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.

Korea, the 12th largest economy and the 7th largest trading country in the world, is ready and willing to do its part to make this Expo aresounding success. The Korea Pavilion, which will be completed next month in the Mobility District, is the fifth largest country pavilion of Expo 2020 Dubai with more than 4,500 square metres of total space. The Korea Pavilion, whose theme will be ‘Mobility-Smart Korea, Moving the World to You,’ is certain to be one of the most popular venues, showcasing an exquisite combination of Korea’s advanced technology and dynamic culture.

How many Koreans are currently living in the UAE and how is the Covid-19 outbreak affecting the Korean community in the UAE?

We have a Korean community of about 13,000 people in the UAE, the largest Korean community in the Middle East. Many of them are white-collar workers and engineers employed for important national projects such as the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant and representatives of Korean companies and public entities living with their families in the UAE. Given the characteristic of the Korean community such as this, the number of Korean residents has remained largely unchanged in the course of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Are you expecting any high profile visits from Korea later this year?

We don’t have any high-level visits from Korea planned at this point. Considering the close ties between our two countries and a variety of issues of mutual interest, however, I would not rule out any possibilities of high-level exchanges happening later this year.

It is noteworthy that Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, paid a visit to Korea in July in his first oversea trip since the outbreak of Covid-19, becoming the first foreign minister to have been received by the Korean government after the coronavirus pandemic. We believe that this visit reflects the state of our partnership which has grown even stronger than before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Finally, what kind of activities is the embassy planning to organise this year to mark the 40th anniversary of bilateral relations?

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, Korea and the UAE have declared this year to be the Year of Cultural Dialogue. This is expected to accelerate human and cultural exchanges between our two countries, thus strengthening mutual understanding and bonds of sympathy.

Governments of both the nations have agreed to extend the ‘Year of Cultural Dialogue’ into next year to minimise disruptions caused by Covid-19 and will make efforts to hold planned events without cancellations.

As is well known, the Korean Embassy has been organising the Korea Festival in the autumn annually. Due to Covid-19, this year’s festival will be held online from November 1 to 18. It will feature a variety of interesting programmes such as the screening of Korean films, K-pop performances and art exhibitions, and I will be looking forward to your active participation in it.