Slovakia should innovate within existing sectors

INVESTMENT into research and development and nurturing start-up friendly ecosystem are key to innovative and creative economy, says Korean Ambassador to Slovakia, Sang hoon Park. This is an aim that Korea is looking to share with Slovakia as well as other countries of the Visegrad Group (V4).

Korean Ambassador Sang hoon ParkKorean Ambassador Sang hoon Park (Source: Jana Liptáková)

In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Ambassador Park describes the cooperation between his country and the V4 region, about Korean way to multiculturalism, and also about how Skalický trdelník made it to Seoul.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Immigration has been widely discussed in Slovakia recently due to the refugee quotas pondered by the EU. Korea went from a migrant-source country to an officially recognised receiving country in a relatively short time, and it is now trying to adjust to the new situation by embracing the concept of tamunhwa.

Sang hoon Park (SHP): Tamunhwa means multiculturalism in Korean. Korea has long defined itself as a homogenous country in terms of ethnicity, language and culture. With the increase of foreign residents now accounting for nearly 3 percent of its population, Korea is moving away from its homogenous identity and is actively embracing the concept of multiculturalism. As Korea is rapidly turning into a multiethnic and multicultural society, integrating different cultural groups into a harmonious society has become a key element in the country’s future progress. In this regard, the Korean Government has pursued various programmes and projects to eliminate prejudice against different cultures and to heighten the awareness of its people on multiculturalism. As part of these efforts, the Government has introduced multicultural education as a pan-curricular subject for primary and secondary education. In an effort to help foreigners adapt to life in Korea, the Government is currently operating 200 Multicultural Family Support Centres nationwide. These centres provide foreign residents with various services such as Korean language tutoring, interpretation services and counseling. The government has also initiated various cultural events not only to promote Korean culture to foreigners but also foreign cultures to Koreans. Events are held to celebrate the festivities of other countries. We try to learn about and respect immigrants’ original cultures in order to have a harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures.

We are living in an era of globalisation. Multiculturalism may not be an issue of choice but an inevitable phenomenon, especially in a small open economy, which is heavily dependent on export and foreign investment like Slovakia or Korea. I recognise that Slovakia has already become a multicultural society with increasing numbers of foreign investors, foreign students and migrant workers. I also recognise that Slovak people have a warm welcoming spirit, hospitality and willingness to give support to foreigners. Korean companies and the community based in Slovakia have commonly felt and experienced this Slovak spirit.

TSS: There are continuous concerns that unless Slovakia invests into innovations, research and development, it will cease to be attractive to investors, among them also some big Korean companies active in Slovakia. How do you view this issue? Do you agree with those who say that investors might simply move on to countries with cheaper labour force?

SHP: I do not agree with those who say that investors might simply move on to countries with cheaper labour force. Certainly low labour cost is one of the factors investors consider in their decision-making, but it is not the sole factor. Slovakia is an attractive investment destination thanks to its geographic location, political and economic stability and high labour productivity. However, Slovakia needs to pay further attention to the fact that competition to draw foreign investment gets fierce among neighbouring countries. In order for Slovakia to stay ahead, it should focus on strengthening its overall competitiveness. This is the reason why Slovakia should invest into innovation, science and research, if it aspires to remain competitive and attractive for investors in the long run.

TSS: Korea is the top innovator globally; Slovakia, based on the Innovation Union Scoreboard 2015, ranks in the performance group below that of the EU average. What lesson can Slovakia learn from Korea in this regard? What measures could help Slovakia improve its innovation skills?

SHP: I believe innovation is crucial to sustainable economic development. Indeed, Korea’s emphasis on R&D and innovation has been the main driver for bolstering its global competitiveness. Korea has seen the fastest growth in R&D expenditures among OECD countries over the last decade. It now spends more than 4 percent of GDP on R&D, which is the highest among the developed countries in the OECD. For Slovakia as a highly industrialised country, I think it is important to promote innovation in existing manufacturing sectors such as the automotive sector, to increase R&D funding, and to create a more favourable ecosystem that can promote innovation and entrepreneurship. In this regard, recent measures taken by the Slovak Government to support start-ups are an encouraging development. Currently, a Knowledge Sharing Program (KSP), a joint-cooperation programme between Korea and the V4 countries, is underway on the issues of mutual interests such as support for start-ups, strengthening cooperation between academia and business, and creating regional clusters for gaming and mobile application.

TSS: Have the possibilities of cooperation between Slovakia and Korea been fully tapped so far? Do you have any information about potential arrival of new investors or extension of existing investors from Korea in Slovakia?

SHP: Korea has proven to be a stable and reliable economic partner of Slovakia over the past years and I believe this will be the case in the future. The trade relation between Korea and Slovakia has been strengthened, despite the recent economic crisis in Europe, showing a steady trade volume at around $4.5 billion dollars, according to our statistics. The cumulative amount of Korea’s investment in Slovakia reached almost €2.3 billion last year, confirming Korea’s continuous position as the biggest investor among non-European countries. There are around 100 Korean companies actively doing business in Slovakia. The number of Slovak people working for Korean companies reaches around 26,000. Korean companies established in Slovakia have been constantly increasing their investment. For example, Kia Motors in Slovakia plans to invest €140 million in Slovakia this year, while the company invested more than €48 million in 2014. I believe that we still have a potential for further cooperation to tap into in such areas as ICT, energy and R&D.

TSS: The Korean government has been running a programme of scholarships for Master’s and PhD students from Slovakia. What are the experiences with the academic exchange between the two countries so far?

SHP: The academic exchanges between the two countries have become quite active in recent years. The Korean Government has been running a scholarship programme to provide international students with the opportunity to conduct advanced studies at higher education institutions in Korea. From 2004 to 2014, 20 Slovak students have been chosen to participate in this programme. I believe that these students are important assets for enhancing cooperation between our two countries. Comenius University, in cooperation with the Korea Foundation, established a bachelor’s degree course for Korean language and cultural studies in 2012. This year we expect initial graduates from the course. Traditional Korean Medicine has been taught for two years as a pilot programme at the Jessenius Faculty of Medicine in Martin. An academic exchange on the level of Korea-V4 cooperation has also been made recently. The University of Economics in Bratislava hosted the International Conference on “Mutual Relations between Korea and V4 Countries in Trade and Investment” from 22-24 June 2015. The University of Economics in Prague, the Corvinus University of Budapest and the Pusan National University of Korea participated in this conference co-funded by the International Visegrad Fund.

TSS: The Republic of Korea is facing challenges connected with an ageing population, which is expected to have a negative impact on the economy of the country in the future. Slovakia stands before a similar challenge according to recent demographic statistics. What is the course the Korean government plans to take to tackle this problem?

SHP: With the increase in the number of senior citizens, welfare for the elderly has emerged as an important social issue. The country adopted long-term care insurance for the elderly and a basic old age pension system.  Reforms are being made to improve labour market prospects of older workers by maintaining work incentives and improving job quality for older workers. Korea is also trying to tackle the problem of a low birth rate together with an ageing population. In fact, Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, at 1.3 children per woman. This is even lower than that of China, with its long-established one-child policy. While the previous governmental policies on a low birth rate focused on providing low-income families with support for child care expenses, the Second Basic Plan (2011-2015) has expanded support to dual-earner couples.

TSS: Korea is among the countries with a big online retail market, with some large retailers running mobile shopping platforms. In Slovakia, online shopping for groceries is still far from popular. Why do you think Koreans are so keen on online shopping?

SHP: Korea’s mobile shopping market is a thriving business that is currently worth US$9.8 billion. Many Korean people are opting for online shopping using their tablets and smartphones, because it is convenient, safe and reliable. Online shopping also saves time, a very precious commodity. Korea has the highest internet and smartphone penetration in the world, with broadband speeds that consistently outpace countries in Europe or the US.  

TSS: Slovak media recently reported about a success of two Slovaks, who began making and selling a typical Slovak pastry, Skalický trdelník, in Seoul. Are Koreans open to new tastes? How do you see Slovaks in this respect?

SHP: Koreans are very open and ready to try new and exotic things. So, I am not really surprised that such a tasty product, as Skalický trdelník, has found its way in Korea. The success story of trdelník can be inspiring. Two students – one from Slovakia and the other from the Czech Republic – met in Korea where they received government scholarships to study in Korea. After finishing their studies, they decided to venture into opening a trdelník shop in Seoul. They started to produce the traditional sweet delicacy, which appeals to many Koreans. Trdelnik serves as a gastronomy flint that sparks interest of Korean customers to learn more about both countries. I think Slovak people are more traditional than Koreans but I am observing that more and more Slovaks are nowadays exploring new tastes and culinary styles. Thanks to this trend, Korean cuisine is also gaining popularity in Slovakia.

Read also:Skalica typical pastry “trdelník” is a hit in South KoreaRead more 

TSS: A festival of Korean culture, Hangukon, has taken place for several years now alongside the festival of Japanese culture. Do you feel interest in Korean culture among the Slovak public? Which aspects of Korean culture do you think are most appealing for Slovaks?

SHP: Hallyu or the Korean Wave is widely used to refer to the popularity of Korean entertainment and culture across Asia and other parts of the world. One of the most rapidly growing genres is K-pop or Korean pop music. The rise of K-pop on the global stage is probably best represented by Psy’s Gangnam Style, which took the world by storm as soon as it was released in 2012.  International film communities have recently shown a keen interest in Korean films. Some of the Korean film directors and stars are enjoying outstanding international reputations. For example, Kim ki-duk became the first Korean director to win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival with Pieta in 2012. The Korean classical music community has continued to produce artists of the highest international standard, winning prizes at the internationally renowned music competitions such as the International Tchaikovsky Competition. The Korean Wave now seems to be expanding to other cultural areas such as food and culinary traditions. Kimchi, Bulgogi, Bibimbap and other dishes loved by Korean people are now appearing in homes around the globe and restaurants serving traditional Korean food are springing up in the world’s major cities.

The Korean Embassy in Slovakia is trying to meet the increasing interest in Korean culture among the Slovak public by organising various cultural events. Over the past couple of years, the Ambassador Cup Taekwondo Competition in Bratislava has gained a lot of success and attracted numerous followers and fans. The Slovak-Korean Friendship Concert and the Korean Cooking Competition have become annual traditions. Last year, the Traditional Korean Dance Performance with Slovak Lucinica and the glamorous Korean Traditional Fashion Show stirred waves of vivid interest among the Slovak public. This year we have already successfully finished the 2015 Slovak-Korean Friendship Concert at Reduta, where we had a joint performance of the Slovak Philharmonic and acclaimed Korean and Slovak soloists. There are more exchanges in this classical music field scheduled for the latter part of this year. The Korean Symphony is going to participate in the Bratislava Music Festival, while the Slovak Philharmonic is travelling to Korea to take part in the Tongyeong International Music Festival.  

TSS: Which places in Slovakia have caught your attention so far, what would you recommend potential visitors from Korea to visit here?

SHP: Slovakia is endowed with natural wonders. Foreign travellers will treasure diverse aspects of Slovakia such as majestic mountain ranges, picturesque villages and cultural-historic treasures. Although I have yet to discover more of the country’s natural and cultural beauty, the place which impressed me most so far was the High Tatra region. I think the region is a truly magical place with snow-covered mountain peaks, mysterious forests and picturesque lakes. Spiš castle and city of Levoča in the Spiš region also caught my attention with their impressive historic sites and cultural treasures. Korean people are especially enchanted by the country’s natural beauty and the exceptional warmth of its people. Whoever comes to Slovakia, I recommend to go beyond the capital city and to see the mountains, caves and medieval castles. I believe that these aspects should be promoted more rigorously abroad.

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