As one of the key development partners of Nepal, the Republic of Korea (RoK) has been assisting the former in a number of areas ranging from socio-economic development to technology transfer. The country has also been a lucrative destination for Nepali migrant workers. With Nepal gearing up to make strides for rapid economic development, Korea's support could be instrumental. The Korean development model could also be worth emulating. Against this backdrop, Gopal Khanal, Ballav Dahal and Jagadish Pokhrel spoke with Ambassador of the RoK to Nepal Park Young-sik for The Rising Nepal on issues concerning bilateral relations and enhanced collaboration between the two friendly nations. Excerpts:
How do you assess the Nepal-RoK relations?
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Nepal and the RoK in 1974, the two nations have built firm bilateral relations on all fronts, including people-to-people exchanges, development assistance and economic cooperation. A high-level delegation from Korea is likely to attend the Sagarmatha Dialogue scheduled to be held in Nepal in April next year. There is also a possibility for a Nepali delegation taking part in a climate conference to be held in Korea in June next year. As our relationship is almost 50 years old, this is the right time for us to reflect on the past half century and think about how to move forward.
Incumbent President of the RoK Moon Jae-in came here on two trekking trips and got involved in social services after the devastating 2015 earthquake. What can we infer from this?
The President visited Nepal twice on a personal trekking trip. During his last trekking to Langtang in 2016, he volunteered in the rehabilitation efforts of a school damaged by the earthquake in Nuwakot district. Against this backdrop, many Koreans feel the need for taking the current partnership to a new level. I hope to try to make more high-level mutual visits to happen. I believe that this is the right time, since Korean government is trying to expand its diplomatic horizons beyond four major countries of China, Japan, Russian Federation and the United States and is trying to strengthen relations with other South Asian countries in the name of New Southern Policy of Korea.
The Korean government has put Nepal on a list of priority for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). What is the level of its contribution?
Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) is the implementing agency for Korea’s ODA. As per Korea’s strategic partnership with the Government of Nepal, KOICA has been focusing on three priority areas in Nepal: health, rural development and education. These areas have been chosen as per the official development strategy of the Government of Nepal. Between 1991 and 2018, a total of $140.7 million investment was made: including 29 per cent in education, 28 per cent in health and 20 per cent in public administration. KOICA will continue to invest in these areas.
There are 12 ongoing projects of KOICA. Some of the key projects include Post-Disaster Health Service Recovery in Nuwakot, Inclusive Rural Development Project, Building Construction Sector CTEVT in State 2 and Constructing Disaster Recovery Centre.
KOICA Volunteer Programme is another project that has made positive changes in local communities of Nepal. As of 2019, KOICA dispatched 460 volunteers, primarily in health and education sectors. These volunteers are sent as per the local project’s demand. KOICA tries to match the project’s needs with the skill sets of volunteers. Most volunteers also try to learn Nepali with their own initiative, which helps in communication. They come from all types of professional backgrounds. That is why the volunteers have been doing well. There have been positive feedbacks from people and government agencies who have worked with these volunteers. KOICA will continue to send volunteers to Nepal in the future as well.
Many Nepali youths have been working in your country under the Employment Permit System (EPS). How has the Korean government rated their performance?
Nepali migrant workers in Korea work hard and have excellent Korean language skills. The Korean government appreciates their contribution to the economic development of Korea. EPS has been running successfully. However, we still need to see how we can improve this system. For example, some Nepali migrants were not able to adjust to their life in Korea and some of them committed suicide. Both governments are making efforts to prevent suicides by providing psychological and mental care at the orientation for workers before they leave for Korea and after they arrive in Korea. EPS is now focusing on skills of potential Nepali migrants, which should also minimise suicides or injuries in Korea. Work compatibility in Korea with the Nepali workers’ skill set is very important to have a successful transition. Another issue is how to reduce the number of illegal Nepali workers in Korea after they complete five years of work. I think, it would be helpful if these migrants are given opportunities to use their skills for Nepal’s development. I have had opportunities to meet members of Ankur, an organisation of Nepali workers who have returned from Korea after spending five years. They wish to utilise the skills and technology they learned in Korea for the development of Nepal. Most of Ankur members are already in some kind of entrepreneurship. The Korean government will strive to find suitable ways to implement industrial technology transfer with the cooperation of private and public sectors.
The 216-MW Upper Trishuli-1 Hydroelectric Project is going to materialise in Nepal with the direct foreign investment (FDI) from the RoK. What is the significance of this project?
We were able to witness the financial agreement signing ceremony of Upper Trishuli-1 Project. It has been a long journey to bring this project at this stage but it is a great achievement for all of us and we should celebrate it. This is a privately funded project. Many foreign investors are looking at this project as a litmus test for whether a foreign privately funded project will work in Nepal or not. The Hedge Fund and Dollar PPA that this project signed with the Government of Nepal may become templates for other privately funded foreign hydropower projects. I hope everyone will cooperate so that construction of this project will start soon. I believe the success of this project will help Nepal attract more foreign investment from not only Korea but other countries as well. Since Korean investors are looking for opportunities in South Asia, Nepal’s hydropower, manufacturing, herbal medicines and software development could be major attractions. But we need success stories. In my opinion, it is more important to attract FDI than ODA grants/loans. The global trend now is that developing countries are relying more on FDI than ODA for development. FDI is even more relevant in the case of Nepal because domestic resources and foreign grants/loans are still too low to fulfil Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Government of Nepal has also stated that private investment (both foreign and domestic) is the key to building infrastructure here. So in the grand scheme of things, the success of the Upper Trishuli-1 Project is very relevant. Once you build a good momentum, it is easy to attract more foreign investment.
Korea has made great strides in technological and economic development within a short period. What could Nepal learn from Korea’s development?
One of the similarities I see between the economies of Nepal and Korea is remittance. In Nepal, remittance contributes almost 29 per cent to gross domestic product (GDP). In Korea’s economic history, it also has experience of sending workers overseas. From 1966 to 1979, Korean nurses and minors went to Germany for employment. In the 1970s and 80s, about 2 million Korean workers were dispatched to oil fields in the Middle East. But I think the difference lies in what these two countries used the remittance for. In Nepal, most of the remittance is used for consumption. But in Korea, it was used not only for the individuals' entrepreneurship and their children’s education but also for Korea’s national economic development.
I believe Nepali migrant returnees can also play similar positive roles in the process of Nepal’s economic development. On July 25 this year, the Korean Embassy and Ankur held a seminar in order to share the experience and know-how on how migrant returnees can start a business in Nepal successfully. Migrant returnees do not seek any jobs in Nepal because the expected salary is too low for them. Therefore, they wish to become entrepreneurs so that they can contribute to the creation of jobs. EPS returnees are certainly in an advantageous position to become job creators because they have gained the experience and the capital during their stay in Korea.
Which Korea-funded project is the most relevant for Nepal and why?
I believe there is a great disparity between what Nepali employers are looking for in their employees and what workers are learning in schools. There is a great demand for technical workers but Nepali workforce is extremely low-skilled. When I talked to Ankur members, they informed me that one of the difficulties in running their companies is the lack of qualified technicians to run their machines. They have to hire Indian workers. I am sure other Nepali companies have similar issues. Bridging this disparity is important.
Therefore, there is a demand for qualified vocational centres in Nepal to create workers that Nepali companies could use. Korean government has assisted Nepal in building two vocational training centres: KNIT (Korea-Nepal Institute of Technology) in Butwal and KUTTC (Kathmandu University Technical Training Centre). KNIT has been a very successful model for establishing other training centres. Korea University of Technology and Education is conducting a project called “enhancing the quality of CTVET through capacity building of CTVET instructors”. Under this programme, technical school instructors in Nepal will undertake training in both theoretical and practical classes to become better teachers so that they could pass on relevant skills and knowledge to their students. In addition to this project, the Korean Government is currently consulting with the Government of Nepal on establishing two new technical schools.
What could be other areas of comparative advantage for Nepal?
It may not be feasible for Nepal to go for large-scale manufacturing industries because logistics costs are now quite expensive. I think that the country stands to benefit from agriculture and herbal medicines. The Middle East could be an important market for Nepal's agro-products. Besides, Nepal can also focus on the Information Technology and Communications (ITC) as Nepalis are good in English. They can develop software and other ITC-related products and export them to different countries.
The RoK is one of the major tourist source markets for Nepal. What are the key attractions for Korean tourists in Nepal?
Seventy per cent of Korea's land is made up of mountains, and Koreans have long thought that the source of beauty lies in nature represented by mountains and water. Therefore, Koreans have gone to the mountains to see and learn that the nature made people's nature and ember clear and nurtured vast spirit. Confucius said, "The wise like water, and the gracious like mountains." Why does the wise like water, and the gracious like mountains? Finding the answer during the hiking was the course of studying in one's life for Koreans.
Based on these reasons, for Koreans who have loved the mountains from their birth, the Himalayas seem to be a dream that they want to see and they want to come once in their lives. The Himal means this much for Koreans.
In addition, the Himalayas are sacred places that go well beyond the concept of mountains. That's why people standing at important moments in their lives come to get the good energy of the Himal. However, is it only because of the Himal? That's not true. These days, we are gradually moving to a multicultural country, but there is still a strong perception that South Korea is a single country which is not a country where diverse ethnic groups and cultures coexist. In this sense, Nepal, where diverse ethnic groups and cultures coexist peacefully, comes to be very different and attractive to Koreans.
Nepal looks forward to welcoming more Korean tourists during the Visit Nepal 2020. What could Nepal do to attract more Korean tourists?
One of the biggest obstacles in trying to attract more foreign tourists to Nepal is a shortage of air connectivity. Also many flights have delayed landing, sometimes taking more than one hour in the sky of the Kathmandu Valley. The cost of aviation fuel is also very expensive compared to other international airports. If the government subsidises the price of aviation fuel, operating costs of airlines should go down which could in turn mean cheaper tickets for passengers.
Besides, it is also a matter of surprise that there are disparities in domestic airfares for different foreign nationals. Even the Changragiri Hills Limited sells its cable car tickets at different prices to different nationals. Such price disparities should not be there.
However, Nepal is best known to Koreans as home of the Himalayas and the beautiful natural scenery. More than 37,000 Koreans are visiting Nepal annually in order to go on trekking or to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The number could be even higher if Korean travel agencies are allowed to provide custom-made tour packages for Korean tourists. For example, most Koreans would prefer shorter durations for trekking because they cannot get long holidays. Also trekking in the Himalayan routes could be made safer. Nepal has very unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns, so it is necessary to install early weather alert systems. Adequate shelters and food should be provided. Regarding Buddhism pilgrimage tours, the Government of Nepal should target Buddhists in Korea by organising tourism fairs in Korea or giving more publicity through media such as books. I believe that Visit Nepal 2020 will offer good momentum to promote tourism in Nepal.
Let us change the topic. Korean President Moon has taken the initiative to establish peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula since he assumed office in May 2017. What are the main achievements of this initiative?
Since President Moon took his office, he initiated a breathtaking journey in pursuit of peace on the Korean Peninsula. The journey has continued through three rounds of inter-Korean and North Korea/United States dialogues. Since December 2017, no incident of North Korea firing long-range ballistic missiles and conducting nuclear tests has taken place. As both Koreas reached the Inter-Korean Military Agreement in September 2018, shots are no longer heard in the air, on the ground or across the seas. We still have a long way to go. In order to enhance inter-Korean relations, including economic cooperation, the lifting of UN sanctions against North Korea is required. The lifting of UN sanctions depends on the progress of denuclearisation talks. I hope that the dialogue between North Korea and the United States will be in progress.
Having worked as the Ambassador of the RoK to Nepal for two and a half years here, what are your experiences?
I have found that the Korean wave called ‘Hallyua’ which refers to spreading popularity of Korean music, movies and drama, is present in Nepali youths. Nepali cable operators are also showing Korean channels like Arirang TV and KBS. I notice that common Nepali youths are starting to have vocabulary like ‘bibimbab’ and ‘kimchi’ which are popular Korean dishes. In Kathmandu and Pokhara, I see many Korean restaurants. I would expect cultural exchanges in food and language to increase because many Nepalis are going to Korea under EPS. When they come back, they bring back the essence of Korea with them. So my point in case is cultural exchanges between the two countries are good.
Another striking thing about Nepal is diversity. Nepal is slightly bigger than South Korea but it has so much diversity in ethnicity and language. The peaceful coexistence among the different ethnic groups is amazing, and I hope this goes on forever. It continues to amaze me that when you drive north-south from the Tarai to the Himalayas, in a few hours, the land and people change so quickly. Every 3-4 hours, you get to experience a culture and land that is so different and unique. Another aspect is the laid back Nepali culture. In Korea, everyone is so busy and tense.
Finally, would you like to add anything?
I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere congratulations for the Nepali team which secured the second place in the 13th South Asian Games, with 51 gold, 60 silver and 95 bronze medals. There were 12 gold medals in taekwondo. I am confident that Nepali taekwondo players will put up a good fight in the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics Games.
(Photo: Kabita Thapa/TRN)
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