Ambassador Carlos Victor Boungou of the Republic of Gabon in Seoul said that the volume of trade between Gabon and Korea has increased significantly over the last decade from US$41 million in 2010 to US$571.2 million in 2018. Speaking at a recent interview with The Korea Post media, publisher of 3 English and 2 Korean-language news publications on the occasion of the Independence Day of Gabon on August 17. Ambassador Boungou added that “Gabon and Korea also cooperate closely together through an e-government implementation project conducted by Samsung C&T Corporation and KT Network Corporation since 2008. Details of the interview follow:
Question: The Republic of Gabon celebrates her Independence Day on August 17. What is the significance of the National Day?
Answer: August 17, 2021 marks the 61st anniversary of the independence of Gabon, officially known as the Gabonese Republic when the country became independent from France colonization on 17 August 1960. August 17 is therefore celebrated as the National Day of Gabon. On the eve of Independence Day the keynote event is the President’s address to the nation. This address would usually emphasize national unity and solidarity, and also focus on the country’s achievements as well as goals going forward. To mark the occasion the Head of State, along with representatives of the various institutions of the country such as the national assembly, the senate, the constitutional court and members of the government gather to attend a military parade which attests the state of the nation, the solidity of the institutions and the stability of the country. Independence Day offers the opportunity for the President of the Republic to award honorary distinctions to dignitaries, soldiers, politicians, and civil servants in recognition for their loyalty in serving the nation or for particular achievements. Distinctions can also be awarded to foreign nationals who have contributed to Gabon’s development or its international standing. Abroad, the Independence Day celebration is usually organized by Gabonese embassies to mark the uniqueness of the occasion.
Q: What is the present volume of bilateral trade and its outlook in the next 12 months?
A: The bilateral volume of trade between Gabon and Korea has increased significantly over the last decade from USD 41 million in 2010 to USD 571.2 million in 2018. A downward trend (USD 312.1 million) was registered in 2019 owing essentially to the hazards of the oil sector. Gabon’s exports to Korea are mainly crude oil (90%), timber products (0.5%), and manganese (0.4%). It lists Korea as one of Gabon’s main oil importers. Imports from Korea include machinery and other devices (34.7%), cars (27.8%), electric appliances (10.1%), and chemicals (7.1%). From an institutional standpoint the Korean government provides significant support to Gabon through capacity building programs organized by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). In the same vein, Gabon Students benefit from the Korean government’s scholarship programs offered by the National Institute for International Education (NIIED). Gabon and Korea also cooperate through an e-government implementation project (RAG Project) that has been conducted by Samsung C&T Corporation and KT Network Corporation since 2008. The impact of the covid-19 pandemic is hard on the global economy, and Gabon is looking forward to the intensification of its cooperation with Korea in the framework of the post-Covid recovery.
Q: What are the areas in your country where you want Korean companies to invest and what are the areas where you wish your businessmen to invest in Korea?
A: Considering Gabon’s efforts to diversify its economy, the Republic of Korea can play a more significant role in a win-win partnership. The industrialization of the timber sector as well as the discovery of new deposits of manganese and other mineral resources should create a profitable interest for Korean companies. Today the primary sector in Gabon accounts for 5.7% of the economic activity, with the secondary sector representing 63.3% (of which 52.4% is for oil sector alone), and the tertiary representing 31%, There is a sea of opportunities in a number of sectors, particularly in the area of infrastructure. Discussions with Samsung for the construction of a new oil refinery have been stalled, to the extent that today Gabon imports a reasonable amount of the refined oil it needs. The remarkable economic development of Korea and its leading position in the ICT industry can contribute to help Gabon become a technological hub in Central Africa. The development of the ICT sector will facilitate the diversifications of the economy, and create new jobs in the area of services such as online shopping, e-educations, e-health. In short, ICT and the digital economy can constitute a major growth engine in Gabon.
Q: What are your competitive products and/over services attractive to Korea? Who are the companies of your country exporting your products to Korea?
A: Gabon’s strategic location in central Africa Gives Korean companies good geographic proximity to other markets in the region. When it comes to opportunities and competitive products, the most attractive Gabonese products for the Korean market are oil, manganese, and wood products. About 90% of Korean import from Gabon is in oil Products. Opportunities also exist in the mining sector for companies interested in the prospections and exploration of iron ore, manganese, copper, gold and other minerals. In order to jumpstart the wood products sector downstream, Gabon decided in 2010 to prohibit the export of untreated wood and raw timber so as to support local production and encourage a wood-based manufacturing sector. There are opportunities for Korean companies interested in timber processing. The main companies involved in the export business include Total Gabon, Comilog, Gabon Oil Company, Gabon Wood Industries, Art Bois, and Rougier S.A.
Q: What are the Korean products and services that your country might wish to import?
A: Gabon’s main imports from Korea include cars, machinery, and electronic products. Bilateral economic relations would be significantly strengthened if Korea’s engagement could focus on the transfer of technologies and technical know-how particularly in two of the main sectors that have contributed to Korea’s economic development: ICT and agriculture. Skills and technology transfer can really make a difference. It is also advisable to reinforce bilateral Cooperation in the sector of information sharing and capacity building in the path of fighting COVID-19.
Q: Nowadays, economic cooperation is very important between the countries. Who are the major Korean companies actively engaged in bilateral economic cooperation?
A: Gabon initiated a e-government project to endow the public administration with its own secure, efficient and stable computer and communications network, under the name of Network of the Gabonese Administration (RAG). The contract for the implementation of the RAG project in Libreville was concluded and signed on December 23, 2008, between the Gabonese Government and two Korean companies, Samsung C&T Corporation and KT Network Corporation. The first phase of the e-government implementation project (RAG Project) has been conducted by SAMSUNG with the aim to interconnect the administrative network in Gabon’s nine provinces. The second phase of that project is being conducted by Korea Telecom Corporation. Ultimately, the project targets the fiber optic connection along Gabon’s maritime line.
In 2017, Korea Telecom Corporation won a contract worth 9 million euros to build a high-speed communications network project in Gabon. Through this Central African Backbone project, KT Corporation will connect Gabon to neighboring countries of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea with the fiber optic infrastructure and therefore contribute to enhance regional integration.
Q: Please introduce your Head of Government in detail, including major achievements.
A: His Excellency Ali Bongo Ondimba is Gabon’s third President, elected in 2009 following the death of President Omar Bongo. He was reelected for a second 7-year term in 2016.
Bilateral relations between the Gabonese Republic and the Republic of Korea were established on 1 October 1962, and reinforced a decade later through the opening of diplomatic missions in Seoul and Libreville in 1975. The Embassy of Gabon is the first diplomatic mission from an African country to open in Seoul.
Mutual high-level visits have contributed to the deepening of bilateral relations between Gabon and Korea. During the first and historic state visit of a Korean President to the African continent, President Chun Doo-hwan visited Gabon in August 1982, along with Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya. On the other hand, President Omar Bongo visited the Republic of Korea in July 1975, September 1984, August 1996, and August 2007, Incumbent President Ali Bongo Ondimba has visited Korea twice, in October 2010 in March 2012.
Gabon has made a significant impact on questions of peace and security and the resolution of conflicts in Africa over the years. On the question of Climate change Gabon has a long track record of conservation over the last three decades. Recently, the United Nations central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) has awarded Gabon 17 million USD for its efforts in reducing carbon emissions by protecting the rainforest. This year, Gabon has been elected to the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term staring on 1 January 2022.
Q: Korean people, especially the up-and-coming Korean businessmen need rest and recuperation. What are your tourist attractions?
A: Gabon’s mainland is covered at 85% by tropical rainforest. In order to preserve the natural environment and contribute to the fight against global warming Gabon has designated 11% of the nation’s territory to be part of its national parks system, with 13 national parks constituting one of the largest proportions of nature parkland in the world. The main attractions for tourists visiting Gabon include the LOPE National Park, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. The LOPE park is home to more than 50% of the surviving forest elephants in Africa, which is a key indicator of sound natural governance. This natural reserve is also a unique place to see the mandrills, a species of large, colorful and shy monkeys living in the rainforests of equatorial Africa. The LOANGO national park is also perfect for a safari experience with its famous surfing hippos, gorillas, elephants walking on the beach, whales, dolphins, and buffalos. The LOANGO natural park is one of the last places on earth where these animals live in the wild and have access to the sea. The city of Lambarene is equally worth visiting. It is famous for the presence of a tropical hospital built in Gabon in 1913 by the Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Albert SCHWEITZER, whose graveyard is also on the premises of the hospital.
Q: What are the most important festive days in your country? Please elaborate.
A: The vast majority of the Gabon population is of Christian faith (76%), with the Muslim community representing 11% and other traditional beliefs around 6%. The main festive day is Independence Day when the Nation comes together to celebrate the end of French colonial rule and Gabon’s access to international sovereignty. It is a meaningful milestone for all citizens and is usually celebrated on 16 and 17 August. Other festive days are generally enjoyed on a religious basis. Christians celebrate Christmas Day on 25 December but also other Christian events such as Whit Monday in May, while Muslims festive moments generally occur during the celebration of the end of Ramadan in May and the Aid-el-Adha or feast of the sacrifice in July. All communities in Gabon celebrate New Year’s Day marking the first day of the year on the modern Gregorian calendar.
Q: Do you have Honorary Consul(s) in Korea? If yes, how are they contributing to the promotion of cooperation and friendship between the two countries?
A: Gabon has no Honorary Consul in the Republic of Korea. The Embassy had started consultation aiming the appointment of a consul for Gabon in the city of Busan but this type of consultation and also the diplomatic procedure usually take time before any conclusion is reached. Up to now, the promotion of bilateral cooperation is under the umbrella of the activities of the Embassy. On the same topic, the Embassy of Gabon in Korea also covers the kingdom of Thailand and the Republic of the Philippines. Gabon has an Honorary Consul in Bangkok to promote the country’s interests in Thailand, and also a Consul in Manila that performs the same duty in the Philippines.
Q: Your Excellency as the Ambassador of your esteemed country perform the important role of a bridge between the two countries. And the government, business and various other circles in Korea wish to learn more about Your Excellency. Please introduce yourself in detail, including your career, family and hobbies.
A: I am a career diplomat with 24-year experience on the job. I started my diplomatic career as First counsellor at the embassy of Gabon in Paris, then I served in London as Chargé d’Affaires for one year before my appointment as Ambassador extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Gabon to Libya. Then I served as ambassador to Spain before my posting in Washington DC where I served as ambassador to the US and to Mexico. I presented my credentials to President Lee Myung-bak in November 2011 so I will complete 10 years as ambassador of Gabon to Korea this coming November. This seniority in the diplomatic precedence has enabled me to become the Dean of the African Group of Ambassadors and also the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in the Republic of Korea. It is a great honor but also a huge responsibility. I feel humbled and I take pride in my involvement in the conversation on ways and means to facilitate diplomatic life in Seoul. I live in the beautiful area of Seongbuk-dong with my wife, and my hobbies include music, jogging and walking in the mountain.
Q: Please add whatever other details that Your Excellency might consider to be important.
A: I will conclude by saying that it is a remarkable experience to be a diplomat in the Republic of Korea. I have been fortunate to witness various developments as well as important events such as the inter-Korean summit of April 2018 between President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un which resulted in the Panmunjom declaration. Over the years I have also been able to see the Republic of Korea strengthen its position as a middle and a global power. Its international role in numerous sectors including Official Development Assistance (ODA), global health, innovation and of course the leadership in ICT is recognized worldwide. I hope that Korea will seize the opportunity of its standing to deepen cooperation with Gabon and other African countries especially now that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has opened a large new market of 1.3 billion customers.