The past five years have seen a quantitative leap forward in the relationship between South Korea and South America’s largest and most populous country, Brazil. The country’s top diplomatic representative here for more than four years, Ambassador Edmundo Fujita, oversaw much of that change.
In fact, through the 2000s and over the course of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration, Brazilian exports jumped fourfold and its imports as many as eight times over.
But it was Fujita who oversaw the largest increase the past decade, a doubling of total trade to $15 billion from 2009. The two countries are now working on upgrading that economic relationship qualitatively, the ambassador said.
“The trade relationship has really noticeably increased since 2009. So, I think Brazil and Korea should now become more cooperative in the fields of science and advanced technologies,” Fujita said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in the artsy Samcheong-dong neighborhood of Seoul on Tuesday.
“So, our work here in the embassy has been very much directed in this field, including contacts with research institutes and high-tech companies, trying to arrange partnerships, arranging delegations to visit South Korea in areas of nanotechnology, biotechnology,” he said.
Fujita took time out to survey Brazilian diplomatic relations with The Korea Herald after the embassy celebrated its 191st Independence Day on Sept. 6.
The Korea Brazil Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of Brazil’s multi-ethnic culture in South Korea, hosted a day-long festival at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies the following day, according to ACCB chief organizer Lena Sull. Brazil’s Independence Day is Sept. 7.
Brazil is South Korea’s most important trading partner in Latin America, a region of increasing importance for the East Asian mercantile powerhouse dependent as it is on continually finding new export markets and sources of raw materials.
While South Korea’s interest in Latin America did not start in earnest until the mid-2000s, Brazil’s interest in East Asia began in the 1970s, starting first with Japan, and then China close behind.
The arc of Fujita’s personal biography parallels the trajectory of Brazil’s relationship with Japan to some extent. His grandfather immigrated to Brazil in 1910, when many Japanese sought better lives there, as farm hands on one of the dozens of coffee plantations that dotted the southern sates of Parana, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.
Brazilian newcomers could make a new start, and etch themselves into Brazilian society for the benefit their children and grandchildren, Fujita said.
“Now the Koreans are accomplishing a lot in Brazil, like we Japanese did, but even faster,” he said. Beginning in the early 1960s, Koreans started crossing the Pacific in droves. Some 50,000 people of Korean heritage now call Brazil their home. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that immigration.
Joining the Foreign Service in 1974, Fujita was an eyewitness to Brazil’s recalibration toward Japan and East Asia in the 1970s.
“We were having a difficult time in our relations with the United States, because at that time we had a military regime in Brazil. The United States was criticizing Brazil at that time on human rights,” he said.
Fujita did not elaborate on how “the U.S. pressured the military regimes,” but new opportunities in trade with Japan, whose economy by then was recovering from the devastation of World War II, and in political sphere did attract Brazilian policy makers.
“It was because of this difficult relationship with the U.S. and to escape over dependency in terms of investment that the government at the time started to amplify relations with countries in Europe, like Germany, and in East Asia, with Japan,” he said.
Regardless of the reason, Brazil would have to solve a crucial technical challenge first.
In Fujita’s view, one man more than any other made opening the economic relationship with Japan possible: Eliezer Batista da Silva.
An engineer by training, Batista was also one of Brazil’s most powerful captains of industry in mining and metals. He even served as minister of Mines and Energy in the Joao Goulart and Fernando Collor administrations and as a former president of Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (Vale S.D.), then wholly a state enterprise, between 1961-1964 and 1979-1986. Vale S.D. is the largest iron ore mining interest in the world. His son Eike Batista is the richest man in Brazil.
A key moment occurred in the 1970s, when Brazil decided to open its diplomatic relations in East Asia. Eliezer Batista rose to the occasion, Fujita said. “Actually I was posted in Japan in the early 1980s, and one of (Batista’s) children was studying in Japan at that time. So, I met him many times and we became close friends.”
What the senior Batista understood was that in order for Brazil to become an important supplier of raw materials to growing East Asian economies, Brazil would have to make the transport of iron ore cost effective.
That meant the introduction of minerals-carrying supertankers and special super ports to launch and receive them. Fujita said that before Batista, 40,000 deadweight ton ships were typical. Ships 10 times that weight class are commonplace today.
This made Brazil one of Japan’s main suppliers of iron ore and Japan one of the world’s largest manufacturers of steel. That made the expansion of diplomatic and trade ties with other East Asian countries possible, such as China in the 70s and 80s and South Korea in the 2000s.
By Philip Iglauer (firstname.lastname@example.org