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Interview with the Korea-Africa Foundation President Choi Yeon-ho ‘We'll become the platform of mutual cooperation bridging Korea and Africa.’

People > Interview with the Korea-Africa Foundation President Choi Yeon-ho ‘We'll become the platform of mutual cooperation bridging Korea and Africa.’
Interview with the Korea-Africa Foundation President Choi Yeon-ho ‘We'll become the platform of mutual cooperation bridging Korea and Africa.’

For many Koreans, the words “globalization” and “internationalization” are no longer unfamiliar. Yet this same familiarity and the public’s changing attitude toward the outside world have yet to extend to the African continent. Indeed there still remains a great distance that we have yet to bridge. In 2018, a turning point came in this regard with the launching of an organization that will bring Africa closer to Korea through accurate, easy-to-access information, as well as diverse activities supporting exchange. This organization is the Korea-Africa Foundation. The KF interviewed Choi Yeon-ho, President of the Foundation, who affirmed that his organization would soon become the premier platform for mutual cooperation between Korea and Africa. The career diplomat talked about the importance of exchange between the two sides.

Could you introduce your Foundation by telling us about your goals and the work you do?

The Korea-Africa Foundation was officially established on June 25, 2018, on the basis of the Korea-Africa Foundation Act enacted in October 2017. It is the fourth organization established as an affiliate of the Foreign Ministry. Its purpose is carrying out long-term, comprehensive research and analysis on Africa, and promoting partnership between Korea and African countries in such fields as politics, economics, culture, and academic pursuit.
  Our work can be divided into four categories—grasping tendencies by nation and by blocs; education and publicity for promotion of mutual understanding between Korea and African countries; supporting Korean business and private organizations’ exchange and cooperation with countries in Africa; and projects and activities needed to realize the Foundation’s purpose. Our Foundation carried out 11 primary tasks in its inaugural year in 2018. Particularly noteworthy were hosting the Africa International Business Forum and the Korea-Africa Youth Forum; the organization and operation of Af-Pro (African Professionals); and holding the Model African Union Assembly. We also published 10 books, including Africa with Stories, Africa Business Guide, and African Major Issues Briefing. I would say that we strived in our first year to pave the way for the public to learn about Africa in an easy and friendly way.

The Korea-Africa Foundation will celebrate its first anniversary this year. What plans do you have for your encore?

We conducted 11 projects in six months last year. That means we held roughly two projects every month, and our staff must have had an extremely hard time. Let me say thank you to all my staff. This year we will be undertaking more than 20 projects, and our staff will again be called upon to carry a heavy load. All members of the Foundation will need to actively promote exchange between Korea and Africa. The most significant projects will involve education and the training of next-generation experts in Africa; sending interns to African international organizations; and holding the African Youths Start-up Ideas Contest and African Week. As the name suggests, African Week will aim to introduce the colorful culture of Africa to Koreans over an entire week, rather than just one or two days. We are also planning to screen a number of African films, which are seldom seen by Korean cinemagoers. It is not very well known that Nigeria is the home of Nollywood, being the third-largest film-producing country in the world after the United States and India. Through these events, we hope to make African culture more widely known to our people. We will bring in traditional African dance, music, arts, and fashion, too. We will also hold an academic forum and a business forum. To enhance exchange and communication through people-to-people contacts and cooperation between civil societies, we will conduct a diplomatic program for public participation. For this, we will look to tap into the expertise of the Korea Foundation.

You have been a diplomat for more than 30 years and served as Korean ambassador to countries in Asia, North America, Europe, and then to South Africa. You must have seen a great deal in this time. Could you share some of your memories of Africa?

While serving as ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, I concurrently served as ambassador to Lesotho, to Botswana, to Eswatini (previously Swaziland), and to Madagascar. As my assignment incorporated many countries, my memories are just as numerous. When I first landed in Africa, I envisioned that I would be sharing and transferring my experience to the locals, but my service there turned out to be a time of much learning and awakening on my part.
  The most memorable thing for me was the African culture of debate and compromise. As the birthplace of humanity, Africa boasts a culture wherein, in times of trouble, village chieftains gather in one place so that they can seek solutions and compromises through discussions and debates. There is an African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As this saying shows, the community spirit still remains strong in Africa, and I was rather envious of this proud tradition. In Korea, the concepts of dure and pumasi were once prevalent, through which people cooperated and shared labor, but such practices have all but disappeared. In Africa however, such communal culture is well-preserved. The spirit of ubuntu, meaning “I am, because we are,” made a particularly strong impression on me.
  Finally, some people think that K-pop is less popular in Africa than in other continents, but Africans’ interest in and love for K-pop is as strong as anywhere. During a comprehensive cultural event at our embassy in October 2015, a South African government minister’s daughter reprimanded me for not knowing about BTS. I remember her saying that I should remember BTS because the group will soon become a global sensation (laughs).

Koreans still seem to regard Africa as an unknown continent. As the President of the Korea-Africa Foundation, could you briefly introduce Africa to Koreans?

You are right. We Koreans tend to think of Africa as if it were a single country. Africa has 55 nations, all of which but one are United Nations members. The continent is so vast as to cover 30 million square kilometers and has a population of 1.26 billion people. The average replacement fertility rate stands at 4.7 children, and the population is growing explosively. It is a young continent where 70 percent of the population is aged 30 years or younger. It is well-known as a treasure trove of natural resources, rich in such minerals as gold, platinum, diamonds, chrome, and cobalt. A considerable number of African countries are experiencing rapid development, recording an economic growth of over 6 percent over the past 10 years. It is a continent of infinite possibilities. It is also becoming an attractive market with all its outstanding manpower and ever-increasing consumers with strong purchasing power. I thus hope our business people and youths will recognize the continent for the land of opportunity that it is. In the past, the European powers engaged in conflict to conquer Africa, and nowadays the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Britain, France, and Germany are competing to woo their African counterparts. Korea’s interest in Africa is relatively low, but exchange with Africa is expanding. Beginning last year, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon visited Africa twice, and it is encouraging that the government seems to be more aware of the importance of the continent than in the past.

Government-level exchange and humanitarian support for Africa by Korean civil society are steadily increasing, but it seems cultural and other private-level exchange have failed to keep pace. What are the prospects for exchange between Korea and Africa in terms of public diplomacy?

So far, NGOs and many religious organizations, including Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, and Won Buddhist groups, have carried out humanitarian projects with the help of 24 Korean embassies across Africa, providing medical and educational support and aiding community development. The late Catholic priest Lee Tae-seok devoted himself to the people of Sudan, while the missionary Lee Jae-hoon in Madagascar and many others are today delivering love to Africa through medical, educational, and other activities. There are many more anonymous people who volunteer their services to the people of Africa, and they are planting wonderful images of Korea in the continent through their work. One might even call them ambassadors of public diplomacy.
  It is also my hope that exchange will be invigorated in the field of culture and arts. In Africa, there certainly is an interest in and demand for Korean culture, but performances and exhibitions cannot be held commensurate with this demand due to budget constraints. Generally speaking, the people of Africa are very open-minded toward other cultures, and they prefer active learning and participation to simply observing and listening. If we consider their inclinations and conduct exchange in the form of collaboration, I think we have every chance to build even stronger relations with African countries.

As you said, more than a few countries see Africa as a region of hope and opportunity. What do you think are the reasons Korea should keep an eye on Africa and promote relations with countries there?

As I said, Africa has 54 members of the United Nations, or one quarter of the whole. When it comes time to elect the UN Secretary-General and heads of other international organizations, and even when allocating the hosting rights for the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, securing the support of African countries is vital. We should not overlook the fact that the 54 countries are important not only in terms of politics and diplomacy but also in economic, social, and cultural terms. At the time of the Korean War, there were only four sovereign states in Africa, and South Africa and Ethiopia dispatched combat forces to Korea while Liberia and Egypt sent material support. Yet in the postwar period, Korea has more or less neglected its relations with Africa, as it turned its focus to security and economic development. This is most regrettable. However, President Roh Moo-hyun’s visit to Africa in 2006 led to the announcement of “Korea’s Initiative for Africa’s Development,” which became a turning point. Now, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy are promoting diverse cooperative projects on a regular basis. Economic exchange still remains limited and Korea’s trade with Africa stands at a meager 2 percent of Korea’s external trade, and this figure is shrinking. However, the current situation also represents an opportunity. Considering Africa’s potential for development, a long-term approach is needed, making investments with an eye to the future instead of seeking immediate dividends. Market booms in China and Southeast Asia cannot go on forever. Korea needs a new market, and Africa looks to Korea as a potential ally and a model for development. The two sides can be good partners.

Would you offer a closing message for our KF Newsletter readers? Perhaps you would like to talk about your plans as the Inaugural President of the Korea-Africa Foundation.

Let me highlight something from our website. Our Foundation has the vision “to become the platform of mutual cooperation bridging Korea and Africa.” As the first President of the Foundation, I have no shortage of ideas or drive but I am limited by the lack of infrastructure. To make our Foundation grow as a solid public-private cooperative organization in accordance with the purpose of its establishment, I will exert more efforts to secure finance and manpower in the short term. The National Assembly's Forum for Africa's New Era, presided by Hon. Ju-young Lee, and many other organizations are supporting and cooperating with us, and it is crucial that the government, the National Assembly, and businesses pay greater attention to exchange with Africa. As such, our Foundation will dedicate its efforts to exploring and carrying out projects that will contribute to enhancing our partnership with Africa. Through such efforts, our Foundation seeks to grow into a truly “solid public-private cooperative organization” and continue to develop in the years to come.

Interviewed by Kim Daniel


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