‘People and communities should unite for better future’

27 March 2014 05:39 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The outgoing South Korean ambassador, Jong-moon Choi speaks to the Daily Mirror about his experience in Sri Lanka, the exchanges between the two countries and his perspective about the social and economic development of Sri Lanka.



Q: What is the favourite memory of your three years in Sri Lanka?
I cannot forget my first trip to Nuwara Eliya by train. The scenery of tea plantations was breathtaking and the old, petite train stations added more charms.
Encountering elephant families in remote areas was a pleasant surprise. I also love seeing Hindu Kovils, Buddhist temples, Catholic churches, and Muslim mosques standing side by side.

The Natural beauty and diversities of culture and religion have appeared to me the most memorable elements of Sri Lanka.



Q: What is the favourite memory of your three years in Sri Lanka?There have been active high-level exchanges between the two countries. Would you tell me the specifics?
Yes, I made extra efforts to invigorate summit diplomacy between Korea and Sri Lanka. I remember vividly the proud moment when President Rajapaksa made a state visit to Korea in 2012 after 17 years. The following year the Korean Prime Minister Hongwon Chung made an official visit to Sri Lanka for the first time since the inception of the bilateral diplomatic ties in 1977. In addition, Speakers of the two Parliaments have also exchanged visits.

I do not expect such high-level exchanges to elevate the bilateral relationship to a higher plane overnight. I rather focused that it could trigger active interactions in the private sector. After all, it is the private sector that sustains and enriches the relations. As you might remember, throughout the 1990s Korea was the biggest investor in Sri Lanka but it faded away in the 2000s. I wanted to regenerate the momentum. Thanks to the high-level exchanges, currently Korean companies such as Hyundai, Samsung and POSCO are engaged in a number of government and private sector projects throughout the island.



Q: What is the favourite memory of your three years in Sri Lanka? What major changes have been made in the bilateral relations during your tenure?
Significant progress has been made in several areas. First, the provision of the Korean Official Development Assistance (ODA) has increased up to USD 80 million per year. The target areas have been water supply and road-building in remote villages. They might not be highly visible but I am proud to note that these projects are regarded as critical to the welfare of the people at the grassroots level.

Second, per capita-wise Sri Lanka came to receive the largest or second largest job quota from Korea. The employment of Sri Lankans was initiated by the-then Minister of Labour, President Rajapaksa, in the early 1990s and now the Sri Lankan community in Korea has grown to 25,000. They are playing an active role in promoting the two countries’ relationship and are much welcomed by the Korean government and people.

 Korean Airlines launched the direct flight connecting Seoul and Colombo in March 2013. The decision was made at the trilateral meeting among President Rajapaksa, Mr. Cho, Chairman of Korean Airlines, and myself, when the President visited Korea. It immediately led to a 20-30% increase of Korean businessmen and tourists visiting the island. An average load factor of 90% on that route shows the vibrancy of our overall relations. Air connectivity is a crucial factor to vitalise people-to-people exchanges.

More important and gratifying is the dramatic progress in the cultural field. Many Korean teledramas have been introduced and now Sri Lankan viewers can meet them every day on TV. Sujatha Diyani even became a social phenomenon and raised the public awareness on Korean culture to a great extent within such a short period of time. To meet the growing public interests in Korean language and culture, the Korean Embassy has introduced Korean language into the regular curriculum at the A level and opened the Korea Corner, a mini cultural centre, at the Colombo Public Library. Also, we are consulting the Ministry of Education to teach Korean economic and political developments in high school history classes.

I have to admit, all this would not have been possible without the collaboration of my Sri Lankan counterparts.



Q: What is the favourite memory of your three years in Sri Lanka? Reflecting on the course of economic development in Korea, how do you see the  situation in Sri Lanka?
I know that Sri Lanka has done its best to overcome the aftermath of war and successfully laid the foundation for economic development. The government has been investing its limited resources largely in infrastructure development, which was the key to Korea’s economic success as well.

Given the series of trials and errors that Korea has gone through, I would like to suggest that Sri Lanka refine further on its long-term economic strategy with the next 10-20 years in mind. Should Sri Lanka be an advanced agricultural economy or primarily focus on the manufacturing industry? Should the country pursue service industry-oriented developments?  It is a crucial question and should be answered based on the thorough analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. Of course, reaching a national consensus is a prerequisite in this process. With a relatively small size of land and a medium-sized population, Sri Lanka cannot have it all, so it needs to concentrate investment on selective areas, which will likely ensure better results.



Q: What is the favourite memory of your three years in Sri Lanka? What do you think are the most important factors for social development?
This is a big question but also easy to answer for Koreans of my generation.

Human capital is the backbone of national development. In retrospect, even when Korea was devastated by the War in the 1950s, Korean parents spent even their last penny to educate their children. They believed it would be the only way to lift the country out of poverty and to ensure a better future for their children. In that sense, there needs to be more opportunities provided for higher education and proper vocational training in Sri Lanka. Statistics say that merely 15 per cent of students eligible for university entrance are admitted to state universities and there are only 15 national universities. So except for those who are fortunate enough to go to private universities, or study abroad, the majority of students end up being left out of chances to further advance their education. Therefore, it is necessary for the government to make substantial investments in education. The net effect might be a drastic budget cut in other areas, but I trust the public will see education as a national priority and eventually accept the policy stance.


I know that Sri Lanka has done its best to overcome the aftermath of war and successfully laid the foundation for economic development. The government has been investing its limited resources largely in infrastructure development, which was the key to Korea’s economic success as well.


Also, innovative thinking is required to respond properly to the shortage of universities and increasing demands for higher education. Under the circumstances, it seems necessary to encourage the private sector to establish universities to fill the vacuum. I know there are oppositions and concerns over some side-effects. But it is the well-established trend followed by many countries. In the case of Korea, the entrance rate has reached around 80% and private institutes constitute 86% of the total number of universities.
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