THE BLOG
01/08/2015 04:16 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

The Middle East in Transition and Korea's Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East

The following speech was delivered on December December 21, 2014 at the Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum in Amman.

Your Excellency Minister Saif,

Secretary-General Elfaqih,

President Moon,

Secretary-General Chung,

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we approach the end of the year, people in Korea quite often say "phew, this has been an eventful year, fraught with many difficulties." In my view, for the world in 2014, particularly for the Middle East, there could be no better description. A series of old and new problems erupted in an unprecedented and simultaneous way or dovetailed each other, like Pandora's Box has popped wide open.

Despite the recent flare-ups in Gaza and its world-wide attention, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the only dominant conflict today. The core threats to the countries in the Middle East and beyond today include the rise of the Islamic State in war-torn Syria and volatile Iraq, the challenge of the WMD program and uncertainties engulfing North African countries.

The human toll and suffering of all this is deeply distressing. This century's worst humanitarian crisis in the region has shattered too many families. Millions of refugees are now flooding Jordan, Turkey and other neighboring countries without knowing when to return to their homes. Furthermore, these conflicts have claimed so many innocent lives even in this 20th anniversary of the Rwanda massacre.

As you are well aware, all these old and new troubles are manifestations of multi-fold causes: intra and inter-state conflicts, geo-political rivalry between regional actors, sectarian strife, the spread of violent extremism or radicalization to terrorism, problems of governance, under-development and poverty -- the list goes on and on. All these are rocking the region's stability, and clouding the region's future.

But the effects of these problems are not confined to this region. In our interconnected world, no country or region is insulated from the turbulent waves from the Middle East.

Korea is no exception to this phenomenon. What takes place in the Middle East immediately impacts our daily lives in many different ways. I will elaborate a little more.

First is the ever increasing economic interdependence between Korea and the Middle East. For example, Korea relies heavily on energy imports -- and more than 90% of that comes from the Middle East. Just a 10% rise in oil prices means a drop of 0.4% of our Gross National Income (GNI). That does not necessarily mean that a drop in oil prices is good for us -- the sudden downturn could be a new source of economic instability as well. Either way, events in this region can affect our vital economic interests.

Second, instability in the Middle East directly affects our national security as well as the safety of our citizens there. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the brutal beheading of a Korean at the hands of extremists for the first time in the mayhem of Iraq. And this year, ten years later, we had a sense of déjà vu when a Korean embassy staff member was kidnapped in Libya. Fortunately, he was successfully rescued, but not long after that, Korean tourists fell victims to a horrible terrorist attack in the Sinai peninsula. Even now, the rampant spread of ISIL in Iraq and Syria and the turmoil in many parts of the Middle East pose direct or indirect threats to the safety of many Koreans there.

On the nuclear issue, the ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations have implications on North Korea. What happens here has ripples there. North Korea is suspected of dabbling in the spread of conventional weapons or WMDs in this region. In this regard, we are closely following the ongoing negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue between Iran and the E3+3.

In a larger strategic context, our two regions are connected through U.S. global strategy. America's rebalance to East Asia cannot be divorced from events in the Middle East, as they could affect the available strategic assets in East Asia.

All these are reasons why the region is now high on Korea's foreign policy agenda. As a current member of three major UN bodies -- the Security Council, the Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council we cannot avoid being deeply involved in major regional and global issues, as well as in a bilateral context.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I have described, the Middle East faces a plethora of historical challenges, and Korea and the Middle East are connected to each other as never before. Under these circumstances, my government has to tackle two key tasks of forging an upgraded partnership, as well as playing a due role conducive to peace and prosperity in the region.

First is building a durable partnership based on shared visions and goals. Our economic partnership will feature two core elements: diversification and future-orientedness toward the coming post-oil age. Going beyond the existing areas of cooperation in energy and construction, we set out for collaboration in new areas -- such as IT, nuclear and renewable energy, health and defense. Our cooperation even covers joint projects in third countries. Korea is available to those countries who adopt a "Look East" policy.

Second, our diplomacy will be geared up towards contributing to Middle East peace. As a stakeholder in the region's peace and stability, Korea will do its part commensurate with its enhanced status and capability.

It takes many diverse forms: political, security and humanitarian. UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and South Sudan; robust implementation of UN Security Council resolutions including non-proliferation and counter-terrorism; humanitarian aid; and security cooperation with some regional countries. Korea will continue to join international efforts to help countries in transition in the nation-building process, bilaterally and multilaterally. Last summer, we opened a new resident representative office in Ramallah.

Third, heart-to-heart diplomacy will be conducted in a way to reinforce economic partnership and political cooperation. As I remarked at yesterday's dinner, the better you know someone, the deeper your friendship can be. People-to-people and cultural exchanges are the glue that bind us. For the future generation, education exchanges foster understanding. And this very forum, the Korea-Middle East Cooperation Forum as well as the Korea-Arab Society, are bridges we have built to link the minds and hearts of our peoples -- not only in the present, but into the future.

Fourth, our bilateral diplomacy will be synchronized with our regional diplomacy in a holistic and comprehensive manner. In order to reinforce our bilateral diplomacy we launched new channels of annual ministerial dialogue with bodies such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperative Council. We have just begun working with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

In this regard, I wish to remind you that just yesterday, I chaired the regional ambassadors' meeting here in Amman. The reason is because I want to take a close look at the region in a comprehensive way. For Korea's diplomatic agenda in 2015, next year will be the year of the Middle East.

Fifth, to achieve all these important goals, we will enhance our strategic communication through diverse means, such as summit diplomacy, strategic dialogue, joint committee meetings and policy consultations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The day before yesterday, I visited Za'atari refugee camp to donate 'caravan' houses and see the situation on the ground. What struck me was the resilience and aspirations of the uprooted refugees for the future. What made this possible was thanks to the international communities' support, in particular the generous assistance provided by the Jordanian government to Syrian refugees in addition to the well-known help to Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in the past. In particular, this visit reinforced my belief that the region's problems cannot be fundamentally resolved without addressing the values of human dignity -- from the fight against ISIL to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to other humanitarian emergencies.

After all, Za'atari camp is a microcosm of this region's conflicts. It tells us that aspirations for a better life and human dignity may be checked but not arrested. And indeed, in its golden age, the Islamic world led the rest of the world in its respect for human dignity. And rediscovering this value is the path for prosperity as well.

This may be why so many governments are putting people first. And in line with such trends, the Korean government is putting forward a vision of "global happiness." This means we are seeking the happiness of the Korean people as well as people all over the world. In this regard, my government will join hands with our friends in the Middle East to enhance well-being and human dignity here and in other parts of the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Middle East has a proud tradition as a beacon of civilization. Some may think that fixing the region's problems is a Sisyphean task, but I believe it still has the potential of reviving such glories. Although the Middle East has been going through ordeals and tribulations stemming from past legacies, it is also in a process of exploring new possibilities in earnest. Indeed, despite many difficulties the Middle East has moved forward during the past decades.

In this regard, the coming years could be a decisive transition period. How the region responds to the challenges will decide what its future will look like.

At a time of tectonic shifts like now, we must not be left behind but stay ahead. For this, we should heed the words of the famous management guru Peter Drucker, that the best way to predict the future is to create it. What is needed most are leadership and the people's aspirations for a better future, among other things.

When the Middle East is meeting the momentous challenges, I think that Korea, which has similar experiences, is a perfect partner.

In closing, I would like to thank the Jeju Peace Institute, the Korea-Arab Society and the Arab Thought Forum of organizing and hosting this important occasion. I also appreciate the warm hospitality of the Jordanian government, as well as the participation of many Middle Eastern and Korean leaders. I hope this Forum will result in fruitful and constructive ideas, and add to our partnership and the deepening ties between Korea and the Middle East. Thank you.