Seeing the shared traits

SLOVAKIA remains attractive to foreign investors thanks to its strategic geographic location, political and economic stability, and high labour productivity. However, in the context of the competition presented by the neighbouring countries, there is room for improvement, “especially in such areas as reducing the tax burden, infrastructure development and efficiency of law enforcement,” said Sang-hoon Park, the ambassador of the Republic of Korea, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

Korean Ambassador Sang-hoon Park.Korean Ambassador Sang-hoon Park. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

SLOVAKIA remains attractive to foreign investors thanks to its strategic geographic location, political and economic stability, and high labour productivity. However, in the context of the competition presented by the neighbouring countries, there is room for improvement, “especially in such areas as reducing the tax burden, infrastructure development and efficiency of law enforcement,” said Sang-hoon Park, the ambassador of the Republic of Korea, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Sang-hoon Park about education challenges, the status of teachers in Korea, links between his homeland and the Visegrad Four, the impact of the free trade agreement, the differences in working habits and corporate culture between Koreans and Slovaks, and Slovaks’ openness to Korean cuisine.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): South Korean students traditionally perform well in international testing, and Korea’s education system has been applauded for helping the country achieve economic progress. However, the system is also described as very demanding and in Korea there is already a discussion on rethinking the education system. What are the current challenges of the education system in your homeland?
Sang-hoon Park (SHP):
As you rightly point out, education has been a driving force behind rapid economic development over the past half century. Korea ranks very high in most international academic achievement evaluations, and the Korean school system is often praised as an exemplary model by many, including US President Barack Obama. However, there are increasing concerns over, and growing dissatisfaction with, the current education system, as the intense competition to be accepted into top universities puts students under too much pressure and puts their families under a heavy financial burden.

The proportion of high school graduates attending university is the highest among members of the OECD. Korean students spend most of their time studying and nearly 80 percent of them attend cram schools. The average family spends 10 percent of its income on private tutoring, which contributes to a heavy household burden. There have been growing voices for the reform of the education system and it has become one of the top priorities for policy makers in Korea.

TSS: Over-qualification is a new phenomenon in your country. What are the reasons behind this development and what challenges does it bring?
Over-qualification has been an important social issue over the last decade, as this has been pointed to as a major culprit for increasing youth unemployment. There are many young jobseekers whose educational backgrounds are higher than what employers are looking for, consequently creating imbalance in the supply and demand of the labour market. Currently in Korea, it is estimated that more than 40 percent of college graduates are overeducated. Some three million people with university degrees are jobless. Twenty four percent of university graduates are reducing their expectations in searching for work. This figure is the highest rate in the 12 advanced nations in the OECD.

The Korean government is committed to strengthening vocational education in order to lower youth unemployment. But more fundamentally, a shift in the perception of higher education should occur in society, as a university degree no longer guarantees social success.

TSS: In Slovakia, the social status of teachers has often been described as declining in the past decades. What is the status of teachers in South Korea?
Traditionally, teachers have been regarded as respected and trustful figures in Korean society. Until now their social status remains relatively high. According to an international index concerning the social status of teachers for the year 2013, Korea ranked fourth among the 21 countries evaluated. A recent survey also shows that Korean parents who “strongly recommend” or “recommend” their children to become teachers account for more than 40 percent.

TSS: The Visegrad Group and South Korea held their historically first ministerial meeting in July, and Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se visited Slovakia on that occasion. What were the specific outcomes of the meeting?
The First Korea-Visegrad ministerial meeting turned out to be a success, producing a range of concrete results. An arrangement for development of cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the International Visegrad Fund was signed, and a ministerial joint declaration was adopted. The ministers agreed to promote cultural and people-to-people exchanges, with particular emphasis on youth exchange programmes, and identified R&D, energy and infrastructure as areas for further cooperation. The ministers decided to continue the dialogue between Korea and the Visegrad Group on a periodic basis, which reflects the strong will on both sides to maintain a long-term channel for dialogue and cooperation.

TSS: In mid July, countries of the V4 and the Republic of Korea also agreed to deepen cooperation in the fields of the economy, science, knowledge-based economy, education and culture. Why is the V4 region of interest to Korea?
Over the years, the ROK and the Visegrad Group countries have established close economic ties, as clearly demonstrated by the fact that the Visegrad Group as a whole is the second largest trading partner and the third largest investment destination of Korea within the EU. As both economies are complementary and mutually re-enforcing to each other, we think we can further enhance the economic cooperation to a higher dimension. We view the V4 countries as natural partners that share universal values such as democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and market economy. Furthermore, we believe that the V4 countries can make a positive contribution in the process of the eventual unification of the Korean Peninsula by sharing their experience gained during the process of transition to democracy and a market economy.

TSS: The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and the Republic of Korea has been effective since 2011. What has its impact been, either positive or negative, on Korean-Slovak trade or economic cooperation?
In a nutshell, I would like to underline that our bilateral trade relationship for the first two years of the FTA in fact shows a positive consequence. If we look at the trade figures between 2011 and 2013, the trade volume between Slovakia and Korea increased by 8 percent, Slovakia’s exports to Korea increased by 32 percent, and Korea’s exports to Slovakia increased by 7 percent. This is indeed a remarkable performance, considering all the difficulties the world economy was facing during that period. I believe that the benefits of the FTA will further increase because the global economy is recovering.

TSS: What are the biggest differences in working habits or corporate culture between Koreans and Slovaks? Do these differences have any influence on the investment decisions of Korean companies?
In fact, Koreans are the hardest working people in the world. According to OECD statistics, Korea has one of the highest weekly average of work hours in the world. South Korean business was built on this extraordinary work ethic. However, Korean businesses, instead of unilaterally imposing a Korean work ethic on Slovak people, have tried to understand and respect the differences stemming from the historical and cultural background of both nations. I am happy to observe that Koreans and Slovaks, based on the spirit of mutual tolerance and respect for one another, cooperate efficiently, striving together for the same goal.

Slovak people share many more common traits with Koreans than it might seem, such as natural warmth, friendliness, hospitality, politeness and respect for others. These qualities undoubtedly contribute to the success of Korean companies in Slovakia.

TSS: The presence of Korean companies has contributed to opening a department of Korean Studies at Comenius University. How do you assess the interest of Slovaks in studying Korean? Are there any fellowships or opportunities for Slovaks to study in Korea?
Thanks to the cooperation between the Korea Foundation and Comenius University, a bachelor’s degree course in Korean language and cultural studies was established at the University’s Faculty of Philosophy in 2012.

I had a chance to meet all the students studying at this course and was impressed by their genuine interest and strong motivation in learning Korean language and culture. The Korean Embassy tries to involve the students in its events and activities whenever possible in order to bring Korea closer to them.

For those who are interested in studying in Korea, the Korean government runs a scholarship programme to provide international students with the opportunity to conduct advanced studies at higher education institutions in Korea. From 2004 to 2013, there were 16 Slovak students chosen to participate in this programme. This year four Slovak students are given the opportunity to attend the graduate programmes.

TSS: Your embassy also traditionally organises Korean cooking competitions. How have the locals responded to these events? Do you feel that Slovaks and Koreans know enough about each other? What aspects of Korean culture do you perceive as the most attractive for Slovaks?
This year’s Korean cooking competition took place in June at Na Pántoch Hotel Academy in Bratislava, while 15 young apprentices participated in the competition. The winner, Mr Radovan Baláž, will have a chance to travel to Korea in September for the International Finals of the Korean cooking competition. This competition provided Slovaks with an opportunity to discover Korea through gastronomy, which is beyond doubt one of the most attractive and enticing aspects of its culture, besides music, dance, taekwondo and many others.

I am pleased to know that Korean cuisine is becoming popular in Slovakia, as more and more Slovaks are nowadays exploring different culinary styles. However, there is still wide room for mutual learning between Slovaks and Koreans. I firmly believe that cultural events such as the Korean cooking competition will enhance the mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries.

TSS: Has the tourism potential between Slovakia and the Republic of Korea been fully explored? What should Slovakia do to attract more Koreans to Slovakia and spend more than a few hours here?
In recent years, the number of Korean tourists visiting Slovakia has been increasing, reaching 27,179 last year. This is the highest number among Asian countries, compared to that of Chinese and Japanese tourists, reaching 15,882 and 9,444 respectively. There is, however, a lot of untapped potential for improving tourism between our two countries. Slovakia has a special aura for Koreans, who are enchanted by the country’s natural beauty and above all the exceptional warmth of its people. These aspects need to be more rigorously promoted in order to raise the public awareness of Slovakia in Korea.

We are also equally interested in attracting Slovak tourists to Korea in order to promote mutual exchanges. I am sure that travellers from Slovakia will treasure the diverse aspects of Korea, from the bustling energy of the city of Seoul or Pusan, to the majestic mountain ranges, picturesque villages, splendid beaches and island resorts, the gastronomy, and the historical sights, among many others.

TSS: In the recent past, three Slovak doctorates joined the nuclear research at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). Can you share any details about this initiative?
The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) is a science and technology research institute in Korea with the aim of achieving energy self-reliance through nuclear technology. In November 2007, the then Prime Minister Robert Fico visited KAERI on the occasion of his official visit to Korea and discussed the institute’s possible cooperation with the relevant Slovak institution. In 2009, Mr Vladimír Slugeň, head of the Institute of Nuclear and Physical Engineering (UJFI) at the Slovak University of Technology, visited KAERI. This visit served as an important opportunity to introduce this Korean research institute to UJFI. Recently, three Slovak doctors have come back from Korea after their one-year research at KAERI.

This is an excellent example of bilateral cooperation between our two countries in the field of science and technology. As the Korea-Slovakia Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, signed last year when the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák visited Korea, took effect in April this year, I expect that more exchanges of researchers and sharing of technology will follow suit.

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