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‘Africa still not on Korea’s mind’

‘Africa still not on Korea’s mind’

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Published : 2013-12-29 19:55
Updated : 2013-12-29 19:55

Cote d’Ivoire Ambassador to South Korea Sylvestre Bile gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Hannam-dong, Seoul, in early December. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)

Sylvestre Bile, the ambassador of Cote d’Ivoire, knows South Korea well. After all, this is his second posting here. His first was for eight years when he opened the West African nation’s embassy in 1997.

His current posting as ambassador started almost exactly one year ago. After more than a decade, one thing has not changed for the career diplomat: Putting his country on the map in the minds of South Koreans remains a singular ― perhaps even frustrating ― challenge.

“South Korea has a very low profile as far as Africa is concerned compared to its neighboring countries of China and Japan. They fear something, but I am not sure what it is they fear,” Bile said in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul in early December.

“We have to change the perception of Africa. It is very important to promote African countries here, because the Koreans need to be encouraged to be more daring and to not have this low profile in Africa.”

Bile cited the government’s decision to hold an annual conference of South Korean envoys not in Africa but in Europe as something that “disappointed” him. When asked about the Paris conference of Korean envoys in Africa, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said they met in Paris because of logistical concerns.

“We are very sorry that the Korean ambassadors in Africa held their annual conference in Paris, because they are envoys in Africa. Why are they holding this conference in France?” Bile asked.

While the lack of knowledge about Africa can be frustrating, he said it is good that the government is expanding the African division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The World Bank for the first time opened a South Korean branch office in Songdo, Gyeonggi Province, and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim came to Seoul for the branch office’s inauguration ceremony on Dec. 5. For Bile, Kim’s visit was an opportunity to raise awareness about Africa, and “to promote investment in Africa.”

The level of Korean investment in Cote d’Ivoire is very low, and it could be much better, he said. The West African nation is organizing an investment trip in Abidjan, the largest city and the country’s cultural and economic center. The trip is scheduled to take place from approximately late January to early February.

“We need to promote the people’s perception of Africa, because Africa is a huge region with 54 countries, many of which are bigger than South Korea. There are plenty of opportunities for enterprising Korean businesses to have fruitful relationships with partners in Cote d’Ivoire.

Cote d’Ivoire’s economy posted 9.8 percent growth this year, and most analysts project double-digit growth for 2014.

South Korea is leading plans to build three 350-megawatt electric power stations which are expected to be ready before the end of 2016, as well as a light rail project in Abidjan, the first public rail system for the city’s five million plus residents.

Bilateral trade between the two nations was about $100 million in 2011, based mainly on South Korean exports of autos and plastics.

By Philip Iglauer (ephilip2011@heraldcorp.com)

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