|Dominican Ambassador to South Korea Grecia Pichardo discusses bilateral ties during an interview with The Korea Herald at Pichardo’s office in downtown Seoul on Oct. 8. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
As the top representative of the only Caribbean nation with an ambassador-level mission here, Dominican Ambassador Grecia Pichardo is, in many ways, the diplomatic face of the region in South Korea.
Though Koreans sometimes look to her to find out about the Caribbean in general, Pichardo said she is not sure she is the best person to turn to.
“It depends on your point of view. We are culturally different from most of the rest of the Caribbean, because the Dominican Republic ― and Cuba, by the way ― are the only Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean and ones that share a Spanish colonial history,” Pichardo said.
South Korean ties to the Caribbean have been extremely shallow for most of their half-century history, but in the mid-2000s East Asia’s third-largest economy began to upgrade its foreign policy presence there, as it raised its profile in terms of diplomatic relations with developing nations around the world.
Along with South Korea’s regional ties with the Caribbean, bilateral ties between the Dominican Republic and South Korea stepped up a notch in the mid-2000s.
“The turning point in the enhancement of our ties was the official visit carried out in 2006 by President Leonel Fernandez,” said Pichardo. The Dominican president’s visit ushered in 20 cooperative agreements between South Korea and the Dominican Republic, one of the region’s biggest and most important countries.
South Korea took another qualitative step in expanding regional ties by inaugurating its first-ever high-level economic meeting with the Caribbean in October 2011, discussing development assistance, green projects and trade. Another ministerial forum followed suit on e-government, marine environment management, and renewable energy in July 2012.
This year’s forum on Oct. 22 at the Foreign Ministry’s main building in downtown Seoul will tackle ways to enhance tourism, the hospitality industry and people-to-people exchanges.
Vice Minister of Tourism Rafael Duluc arrived on Sunday to represent the Dominican Republic at Tuesday’s forum. He returns home on Oct. 26.
About 4.5 million tourists visit the Dominican Republic annually, according to the nation’s Tourism Ministry, a figure it would like to see grow to 10 million. Koreans make up barely a trickle of the flow now, and expanding ties with the region is expected to help bridge people-to-people exchanges.
South Korea’s interest in the Caribbean is more strategic than commercial.
“As Korea’s economy grew, its international responsibilities strengthened as well, including foreign assistance and agencies like KOICA and specific programs like KSP (Knowledge Sharing Program),” said Kim Won-ho, executive director of the Korean Council on Latin America and the Caribbean. “Korea’s relations with developing countries multiplied. It has really reached a different dimension now.”
Korea’s efforts paid immediate dividends. South Korea secured Caribbean support for Ban Ki-moon’s bid in 2006 to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations.
In South Korea’s bid for a 2013-2014 nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque announced the region would throw its support behind South Korea as early as August 2012.
South Korea still only has two ambassador-level diplomatic missions in the Caribbean, one in the Dominican Republic and one in Jamaica. The only country with which South Korea does not have diplomatic relations is Cuba.
In recent years, however, South Korea permitted limited diplomatic contact with Cuban officials to further cooperate on cultural issues, according to the Foreign Ministry.
By Philip Iglauer (firstname.lastname@example.org)