Amb. Oh Joon: Korea Needs to open and connected to world

Oh Joon, Korean Ambassador to Singapore

Oh Joon, Korean Ambassador to Singapore, said that Korea needs to emulate Singapore in opening up and getting connected to the world.

In an exclusive interview with The AsiaN, he noted that both Korea and Singapore have come a long way from their penury ridden stature in the sixties (60s) to this stage that they are among the best economies in the world.

He asserted that “Singapore unlike Korea are very open and connected to other parts of the world. That is as a result of the policies that Singapore pursued during their journey to development and the place the country is located in the world map.

He said that Korea should try to follow the lead given by Singapore by striving to be open.” He said, “to make another significant ‘leap’ forward, we need to re-examine the way we think and act. My view is that, more than ever before, it matters now how open and connected we are to the world and how much creativity and innovation we can bring to our productive efforts.”

He went on to say that “for Korea, Singapore can offer an example of the effect of economic openness and connectedness to the world. Its steadfast policy of opening up to multinational enterprises and foreign talent has been pivotal in building up its economy. At the same time, Singapore’s 18 bilateral and regional free trade agreements, including one with South Korea, has contributed substantially to its large trade volume”

Asked why Korea did not embrace openness from the bginning and why they chastised the Free Trade Agreement with U.S., the Ambassador’s response was as educating as it was instructive. He alleged that Korea is afraid of competition with talents and products from other countries. However, he said that Korea has the ability to compete as they have done in some sectors like cinema.

He continued that “Koreans were afraid of the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) because Koreans have feared to compete with foreign talents and products. But Koreans can survive any competition just like they did in the cinema (movie) industry”. He elucidated more by saying that “I am trying to correct the wrong impression about the economics of open economy. The idea that Korean companies will lose their market when Korea opens the economy is not correst. It is the opposite because there are lots of gains that comes with openness of the economy of which Singapore is a shining example.”

He, however, pointed out that openness is not the sole agent for Singapore’s miracle. The sea lanes which connect Asia (East) to the West (Europe and US) played a cardinal role as well. He believed that the location of Singapore as well as their continual improvement in areas like logistics, transportation, seaport, banking, medical and culture are what propelled Singapore to success. He said that the above mentioned areas are the reason Singapore is a tourist attraction center.

According to him, “Singapore is a major player in the Meeting, Incentive, Convention and Events (MICE) industry. Their excellent finesse in the MICE industry is why they have huge tourists each year”. He went on to state that Singapore is an international hub center where seminars, workshops, conferences and conventions are held.

He also recommended for Singapore to emulate Korea’s mounting comeptitiveness in the culture industry. That, he said, is important because such competitiveness will develop the cultural tourism in Singapore just like K. pop and Hallyu helped Korea. He recalled his remarks he used to make when asked by Singaporeans that what Singapore should do to develop cultural industry like Korea. “I always told them that diversity will set in their creativity and cultural industry. Diversity can flourish when you know the fact that someone who sings and dances can make more money than people who went to school.”

He continued that  “Singapore, in turn, may want to take note of how Korea has been able to nurture competitiveness in areas requiring creativity. For example, Korea’s pop culture, typically in the form of movies and pop songs, is growing in popularity in Asia and beyond. Last year alone, the revenue credited to the export of the ‘Korean wave’ totaled US$6 billion”.

He continued, “There are several explanations for this phenomenon but I would like to attribute it to the expanded room, by the mid- 1990s, in Korean society, allowing for creativity to flourish. With social changes encouraging more creative minds, coupled with the explosive spread of information technology and the Internet, Korea has ended up with more ‘crazy young people’ who do not mind spending days and nights in studios and workshops, even when it is obvious there is not much immediate gain in what they are doing. Without such passion, Korea’s advancement in pop culture, as well as in IT products such as mobile phones, or in cyber games, would not have been possible”.

Singapore never had a casino house sequel to their traditional Chinese belief, Oh said. But in 2010, they opened two casino houses to attract more tourists and  make money. Within two years, the two casino centers account for five percent (5%) tax income in the country. Although the casino tax may sound heart boggling, Singapore is still considered as a ‘tax heaven’. They keep a very low corporate tax to lure investors from all over the world to come and invest in their country.

But Ambassador Oh pointed out that, “The social problem that Singapore is facing with the casino houses is gambling addiction. The youths are so addicted to gambling that it is a problem that must be tackled for the good of the country”.

He said that the relationship between Korea and Singapore is symbiotic and positive. He pointed out that he is in Korea because of the Singapore’s day in the Yeosu expo to be held on August 4-6. He stated that the Singaporean ambassador in South Korea is “trying to teach the Koreans something about Singapore through the expo”

He also stated that Korea embassy in Singapore do host Korean wave (hallyu) festivals from October through December of every year. Through this festival, Korean wave is propagated in Singapore and it is already paying dividends. Oh noted that,” Generation X and baby boomers in Singapore love Korean drama whereas, generation y cherish K.Pop”.  He explained how this year’s festival will look like.

He said, “This year, we will have paintings. We will invite American based famous Korean painter, Kang Ik-joong to paint with sick Singaporean children in the hospital, have a K.Nite where Singaporean youths will have time to eat chicken and drink beer while also going to Nure bang to sing K. Pop song”.

He admired Singapore for their excellent global economic knowledge and adaptation. He is pleased with the way Singaporeans are learning Chinese in order to do business there after China became relevant to global economy.

Amb. Oh is a career diplomat who has served various  government posts. He has served Singapore since in March 2010. Prior to this position, he was Deputy Minister for Multilateral and Global Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Seoul for two years from 2008, with the responsibility of overseeing and coordinating the departments of the Ministry covering international organizations and global issues such as development, human rights, peace-keeping, and disarmament.

From 2005 to 2007, he was Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of Korea to the United Nations in New York. Ambassador Oh served as Chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC) for the 2006 session, in addition to representing Korea in many meetings of the UN bodies. During the Korean Presidency of the 56th session of the UN General Assembly from 2001 to 2002, he worked in the President’s office as Deputy Chef de Cabinet.

From 2003 to 2005, he was Director-General for International Organizations at the Korean Foreign Ministry. During this time, he also chaired the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) from 2004 to 2005 and traveled extensively to represent the MTCR as chairman in its outreach activities.

He joined the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and has served as Special Adviser to the Foreign Minister (2007-08); Minister, ROK Embassy in Brazil (2002-2003); Deputy Director-General for Policy Planning (1999-2001); Counselor, ROK Embassy in Malaysia (1997-99); Director, United Nations Division (1995-97); and Second Secretary, Permanent Observer Mission of Korea to the UN in New York (1985-88). The Korean Government awarded him an Order of Service Merit twice, first the Order of Green Stripes in 1996 and the Order of Yellow Stripes in 2006.

He received an M.A. in International Policy Studies from Stanford University (1991-92); a Diploma in International and Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (1982-83); and a B.A. in French Literature from Seoul National University (1974-78). He was also a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (1990-91).

Born in Seoul on 4 October 1955, he is married to Kim Miri. They have two children. 

Uwalaka Temple U.B Intern Reporter

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