The following article was contributed by Ambassador Dionisios Sourvanos of Greece in Seoul on the occasion of the 195th anniversary of the Independence War of Greece.?Ed.
On March 25th 1821, the Greek War of Independence started and later, in 1830, the independence of the Modern Greek State was recognized by the International Community. Greece, officially known as the Hellenic Republic, therefore, celebrates this year the 195th anniversary from the beginning of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Rule and the 186th anniversary from the Declaration of the Independence of Greece.
Over almost two centuries, Greece gradually consolidated its current borders, joined important international organizations, such as the UN, NATO and the EU, while, at the same time, played and keeps playing a key role in the southeastern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean. The recent global economic crisis which has affected, though to a different degree, all European states, has deeply impacted Greece.
Further to the aforementioned adversities, during the past year, Greece has been faced with another exceptional challenge which has allowed our country, once again, to amply demonstrate its steadfast and unwavering commitment to the principles of humanitarian assistance as well as to the respect and protection of fellow human beings by welcoming and providing shelter to unprecedented numbers of refugees that reach the Greek islands of the Aegean, after having faced severe life-threatening situations at their struggle to survive and escape the flames of war and conflict that have ravaged their countries over the past several years.
Greece, through time and even more in present day circumstances, remains an island of stability in a troubled wider region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Its foreign policy at this difficult period, when the majority of its population is faced with serious financial challenges, has to be by necessity pro-active and multidimensional, building bridges, opening new channels of communication and cooperation, venturing new avenues and exploring all possibilities around the world.
The current Greek government, which took office seven months ago, is committed to co-operate with all our partners and honour our obligations, in order to bring the country back on track towards sustainable growth. In this context, it is important for us to secure the cooperation and active support of the Republic of Korea.
This year, Greece and Korea celebrate a new important milestone in their excellent relations as the year 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral Diplomatic relations between our two countries.
The first ever customer of Hyundai Shipyard in 1971 was the Greek ship owner Yiorgos Livanos, who placed an order with the shipyard, before it was even built, when he was shown a Korean won bank note with the picture of a “turtle ship” invented by Admiral Lee. This order made it possible for Mr. Chung Ju-young, founder of the Hyundai Group, to attract further investment in order to build and expand his business to the booming conglomerate of today.
Greece and Korea have had a longstanding tradition of friendship and cooperation through our common struggles for peace and democracy. Most importantly, though, the two countries have forged unbreakable ties of brotherhood through Greece’s participation in the Korean War. Ten thousand Greek troops fought under the United Nations Command, and 187 young Greek soldiers lost their lives while more than seven hundred were wounded in action, in order to protect the freedom of the Korean people and guarantee their right to live in a democratic country.
The Greek community in South Korea is relatively small (around 350 people) and mainly consists of personnel involved in work on Greek-owned ships at the shipyards of Ulsan, Pusan and Mokpo as well as a growing number of university professors, teachers and researchers, as well as students and business people. The Orthodox Metropolis (Church) of Korea maintains eight churches and two monasteries and plays a substantive role in preserving and enhancing the presence of orthodoxy in Korea which goes back 110 years!
Lastly, the lively and continuous interest of the Korean people in all things Greek is proudly manifested by the successful presence of the Greek Studies Department at Hankuk University, which features a four-year programme of studies covering ? in addition to Modern Greek ? Greek history and literature, thus transforming several hundred Korean students into Ambassadors of Greece in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Korea and Greece have excellent economic relations that can be further developed. There is a Korea ? Greece Agreement for Economic Cooperation which can play a significant role. A joint ministerial committee provided by this agreement is due to convene in Athens on May 23, 2016. Both countries are working hard to make this meeting a new starting point for enhancing bilateral economic relations.
The Korea European Union Free Trade Agreement will also be beneficial for trade between the two countries.
It should be mentioned that currently Greece faces a severe economic crisis, which is caused by the public sector’s excessive debt. With the help of the European Union we managed to stabilize our public finances. We have also restored the competitiveness of our economy through drastic economic reforms. Meanwhile, the Greek banking system has been fully recapitalized.
At this critical moment, Korean companies could take advantage of immense opportunities by investing in Greece, in sectors such as energy, telecommunications, maritime technologies, banking, tourism, fiber optics, logistics, transportation and many others.
Despite the crisis, Greece remains a developed country that plays a vital role in its geographical area. Greek companies have significant trade and investment ties in South East Europe. Thanks to its location Greece is an ideal gateway to Central and East Europe, including Russia. It should be noted that the center of gravity of economic activity in Europe is moving eastwards. Greek ports are very close to these new emerging markets.
Major regional projects are underway, such as the TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline) and a large investment by the Chinese company COSCO in Piraeus port, with an aim to make it the basic gateway to Europe for Chinese products.
Korea, on its part, has become a world class industrial powerhouse; thus, definitely, it has a strong interest in this part of the world, as well. Greek and Korean companies, in several fields, have complementary activities and could possibly establish joint ventures both in Greece and in third countries.
Besides, Greece is one of the biggest maritime nations in the world, whereas Korea is the largest shipbuilding country. It is estimated that around 25% of the orders of vessels received by Korean shipyards originate from Greek ship-owners.
Korean ? Greek shipbuilding cooperation is particularly important for both nations. Indeed, Korean shipyards face strong international competition, mostly because of the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, the appreciation of the won against the yen. It is well understood that Greek ship-owners remain too important for the Korean shipbuilding industry.
On the other hand, Greek ship-owners may enhance their competitiveness by building their ships in the technologically advanced Korean shipyards, especially high tech ships, such as LNG Carriers.
Moreover, there is a strong interest by Greek maritime equipment manufacturers to supply with their products the Korean shipyards. Last October, 12 Greek maritime equipment manufacturers participated in the Korean international exhibition KORMARINE 2015, with very positive results.
Apart from shipbuilding, Greece is a very good market for Korean industrial products, such as automobiles and electronics. Also, Korean companies have been assigned with the implementation of large projects, such as supply of subway rail vehicles and public transport electronic ticketing.
Greek exports have still limited presence in Korea but recently there is increasing interest for Greek products, such as food & beverage (e.g. canned fruits, top-notch olive oil, fine wine, dried fruits, mastic, herbs etc.), cosmetics, chemical products, minerals, tobacco, marble and others.
Tourism is the largest industry in Greece with up to 23 million foreign tourists yearly. It accounts for 15% of GDP and employs 17% of the country’s workforce. Greece has a magnificent natural beauty and unique historic and cultural treasures that make it a very attractive and highly interesting tourist destination. Lately, several TV broadcasts, including the world famous drama “Descendants of the Sun”, which was shot in the Greek island “Zakynthos”, have increased the interest for Greece among Koreans. Last summer, there have been, for the first time, charter flights to Greece. Of course, establishing a direct flight is a prerequisite for increasing both ways tourism and business cooperation.
Greece has a policy to increase its R&D expenditure significantly. The country has a huge pool of talented young scientists and researchers. There are several success stories of Korea - Greece research cooperation, such as a joint research project in microelectronics between Samsung and the Greek cluster Corallia. The EU program ‘Horizon 2020’ offers many opportunities for mutually beneficial research cooperation between the two countries.
Finally, there is the untapped area of cultural exchanges, that is less explored and may help the peoples of the two countries comprehend the culture and civilization of each other.
I wish the best for the further improvement of our relations with the Republic of Korea, in honour of the 25 years of excellent diplomatic relations.