”Looking back on the two years since my arrival in Budapest, I am proud of having the opportunity to serve my country here,” the Ambassador of Republic of Korea, Gwan-Pyo Nam tells Diplomacy & Trade in a recent interview.
"I feel at home living in this beautiful and friendly country full of rich cultural heritage. The more I know of Hungary, the more I fall in love with the nation and the people. I am especially happy to note that Hungary and Korea have together taken steps forward in many areas during my time here,” Ambassador Nam says.
“Since I arrived here in September 2011, I have aimed at boosting the relations between Hungary and Korea in a mutually beneficial direction, namely, for the co-prosperity of our two countries, not just of Korea alone. I am convinced that there is a wealth of opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation between our two countries. I would like the two countries to work harder to look for and materialize untapped areas where we can achieve successful outcomes,” Ambassador Nam points out.
He says he is very satisfied with political relations between Korea and Hungary. “Both countries share the same values of democracy and market economy. Also, we are similar in that we, as a responsible stakeholder and middle power in our according regions, play an active role in global issues such as cyber terrorism, water management, energy security, and so on,” the Ambassador says. Hungary and Korea both have recently hosted highest-level international conferences on cyber space, water management and energy security.
”On top of this, I would like to stress that Hungary has always been a staunch ally of the Republic of Korea regarding North Korean provocations. Hungary was very quick to issue a series of statements condemning North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests. Also, Hungary has joined the international efforts to present a joint resolve against North Korea’s threat to the Republic of Korea. Thus, Hungary’s unwavering support of the Republic of Korea has contributed greatly to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula.”
He is of the view that South Koreans demonstrated their calmness in the face of North Korea’s threats in early 2013. “They maintained a dispassionate attitude towards North Korea’s tactics to shake Korean society. We did not play into North Korea’s strategy. I believe the North Korean leadership learned from their experience early this year that the South Korean society is solid and strong enough to be impervious to outside threats.”
Ambassador Nam is of the opinion that Korean-Hungarian economic relations are complementary rather than competitive. Korean companies active in Hungary have created a large number of jobs for Hungarians. “The high quality, yet modest cost of the Hungarian labor force strengthened the competitiveness of their employers, the Korean companies. We are now seeing a virtuous circle in our relations. Investment leads to job creation. Diligence of Hungarian workers generates high-quality products. The increasing sales revenue of Korean companies entails another round of investment accompanied by additional job creation.”
Joining the view of a number of Korean businessmen and trade officials, the Ambassador highlights the strategic importance of Hungary’s geographical location and well-educated, diligent workers. “Korean companies’ entrepreneurship, combined with
Hungary’s labor force can further produce mutual benefits for both countries as we have seen so far. I encourage Korean companies targeting the European market to take full advantage of the Hungarian market. Hungary is a gateway to the European market for Korean companies. Similarly, Korea is a vital connecting point to the Asian market for Hungarian workers and companies.”
As for the most important Korean investors in Hungary, he mentions HANKOOK Tire and SAMSUNG Electronics as being in first place. “Both companies have created about 6,000 jobs for Hungarians. They are continuously expanding their businesses and deepening their roots in the Hungarian society.” He says these big manufacturing companies are quite satisfied with the Hungarian business environment.
Given that they have long operated here and relied on the labor force of Hungary, these Korean companies are paying great attention to development of their local Hungarian community for they regard themselves as not only Korean but also Hungarian companies. “Also, many Korean companies are very active in promoting their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities and are thus greatly involved in contributing to the welfare of the local community and the employees,” he adds.
Recently, the Ambassador visited the town of Tatabánya and talked to the mayor about a possible Korean investment in the area. There, he also visited the successful Korean company ‘Samsung Chemical’ that is planning to expand its local facilities. “I also went to the Tokaj wine region to discuss promoting Korean tourism and possibility of exporting Tokaj wines to Korea,” he notes.
The two countries have signed several agreements over the past years, the latest being the one on nuclear cooperation (October 2013). Earlier this year, Ambassador Nam signed a bilateral Working Holiday Program with Hungarian Foreign Minister Martonyi.
“This program provides the youth of both countries with opportunities to experience each other’s culture and gain a better understanding of each other. These exchanges between young people will serve as a solid basis for the continuation of friendly relations between the two countries. Also, those youths who acquire the benefit of this program – experiencing foreign cultures – get a bigger sense of the world.”
Last year, the Ambassador visited the northeastern Hungarian city of Miskolc and discussed the economic development possibilities with its Korean sister city. It is just one example of NGO-type cooperation between the two countries.
“I am making efforts to boost our relations in a comprehensive manner, say, at all levels and in all areas. I believe that municipal governmental partnerships and civilian cooperation are equally as important as central governmental relationships. Korean universities (more than ten of them) have signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with altogether five Hungarian universities with the aim of expediting academic exchanges and strengthening joint research projects.”
Local governments in Korea have also signed cooperation agreements with Hungarian municipalities. Some of them led to the establishment of a sister relationship while others promoted the exchange of people between these cities.
As for further possibilities in this area, Ambassador Nam has recently visited the town of Dunaújváros (near Hankook’s Hungarian facility) to make arrangements for a sisterhood relationship with the Korean city of Kumsan where the main factory of Hankook Tire is located. There is also a Korean sister city possibility for Tatabánya, he says.
The Ambassador believes cultural relations between Korea and Hungary are still young compared to other relations. “Our similarity, however, outshines our short history of interaction with each other. The Korean Cultural Center in Budapest is less than two years old. Yet, the statistics on bilateral cultural exchanges imply that our cultural relations did not simply jump rapidly over a short period of time, but that a greater potential for stronger ties is apparent. Korean language courses started with three classes and have grown into twelve classes within a year. The Taekwondo class was expected to be held as a one-time class, but with great demand from Hungarian applicants, it became a permanent program. With the establishment of the Korean Cultural Center, our cultural relations have become more systematic, constant and comprehensive because we now have a permanent location where Hungarians can immerse themselves in Korean culture.”
He also mentions that the Korean TV drama ‘IRIS’ was filmed in Budapest and presented a beautiful impression of Budapest to many Korean viewers. As a result, there are increasing numbers of Korean tourists visiting Hungary who have been inspired by the drama. A similar attraction in Hungary for Koreans is the statue of Ahn Eak-tai, the author of the Korean national anthem who studied at the Music Academy in Budapest.
The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul were one of the most successful Games for Hungary. To celebrate the 25-year anniversary, Ambassador Nam invited the Hungarian medalists of that event for a dinner where, he says, the participants “remembered the times when they were young and became national heroes.”
Gwan-Pyo Nam has been the Korean ambassador in Budapest since 2011. He lives here with his wife – and a small dog, the Ambassador stresses – as their two children (a university professor and a dentist) are grown and live in Seoul. “Hungary is the first post in Europe in my diplomatic career which has been mostly focused on North America and Asia. However, it did not take long before I accommodated myself to life in Hungary,” he says, adding that he feels comfortable and at home as if he lived here for a long time.
“This may be related to my personal affinity to Hungary. This feeling of being connected with Hungary might come from the fact that we have many aspects in common. Our languages originated from the same language family. Our racial traits are deemed to have been similar to each other a long time ago. We have also shared similar historical experiences. We maintained our national identity against all the odds. We have suffered invasions from outside forces and survived severe tribulations. In this regard, the people of the two countries share similar sentiments, as well. Our culture and feelings are deeply intertwined with the feeling of melancholy for the historical tragedies suffered.”
He has also found similarity connected to taste and flavor. Hungarian cuisine is based on paprika and garlic just like in Korean cuisine. As for differences, he mentions that “Koreans are generally used to a hectic life style. I feel relaxed with the slow and calm pattern of Hungarian life. At the same time, I sometimes become nostalgic of the hectic and fast-paced life in Korea. On the one hand, Hungary’s similarity to Korea makes me feel comfortable. On the other hand, Hungary’s difference from Korea makes me both homesick and refreshed from Korea’s hustle-bustle.”
In the past two years, he has had the opportunity to travel in Hungary extensively, including to towns like Tihany, Eger or Visegrád. He likes Hungary’s rustic scenery and local peoples’ kind attitude towards foreigners.
“They are understanding and ready to help foreigners. I have a good memory of all the places that I have visited because Hungarians, whether they live in the city or country side, have always shown kindness to me. The oft-seen strings of garlic or paprika hanging under the eaves in the rural village homes of Hungary also warm my heart by making me feel as if I am standing in a Korean hamlet, as it has the exact same practice.”
His favorite Hungarian dish is goulash, which, he says, tastes like Yukgaejang, which is a spicy, soup-like Korean dish made from shredded beef, scallions, and other ingredients simmered together for a long time. “Red-colored goulash with paprika makes me feel at home – and Hungary evokes that feeling in many other Koreans, too.”