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‘Korea ties symbolic for Hungary’

Opening of formal ties between Budapest and Seoul on Feb. 1, 1989 was seen as an act of betrayal by Pyongyang

Once a Warsaw Pact nation with ties to North Korea, Hungary was the first nation from the communist camp to break ranks and establish diplomatic relations with South Korea.

Hungarian ties to the North date back to the Korean War. It built a hospital, the Rakosi Matyas Hungarian Hospital, outside Pyongyang, and hundreds of doctors and medical staff worked there through the 1950s, treating patients and further developing the facility. The two nations supported each other. Some 200 North Korean war veterans studying in Budapest reportedly joined with Hungarian students in the 1956 Revolution lending their military experience.

But all that changed after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed.

The opening of formal ties between Budapest and Seoul in February 1989 was seen as such an act of betrayal by Pyongyang that it removed its ambassador, Kim Pyong-il, and sent him to Bulgaria. The Hungarian Embassy in Pyongyang later closed and bilateral relations precipitously chilled.

Today the building in Pyongyang that once housed Hungary’s diplomatic mission is home to a Swiss aid organization.

“We were the first former Warsaw Pact nation to open relations with South Korea, and our efforts were certainly noted by North Korea,” said Hungarian Ambassador to South Korea Gabor Csaba in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Monday.

“North Korea reacted predictably, but establishing diplomatic relations as early as we did was very much in the mood of the time, when Hungary was moving toward freedom and democracy, and toward Europe and becoming a part of the international democratic community,” he said.

Hungarian Ambassador to South Korea Gabor Csaba gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)
Hungarian Ambassador to South Korea Gabor Csaba gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)

Csaba arrived here to begin his diplomatic posting in September last year. Hungary and South Korea celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations this year.

“We took advantage of the opportunity of the opening. We want North Korea to open up, too, and we are ready to help them accomplish that,” he said.

Since ties were first established in 1989, South Korean investment has poured into Hungary. South Korea has invested more than $2 billion in FDI, providing about 25,000 Hungarian jobs, according to an announcement Hungarian National Economy Minister Mihaly Varga at the Hungarian-South Korean Economic Cooperation Forum in Budapest on Jan. 29.

Hankook Tire Company expanded its investment in its Racalmas facility to $1.1 billion last year.

Samsung has a manufacturing facility for LED displays, and Korea Development Bank’s regional headquarters is located in Budapest. The two nations run six science research facilities there.

“Over the past 25 years, our relationship with South Korea grew rapidly. Hungary is strong in basic research and South Korea is strong in applied sciences. So, we can cooperate a great deal in the area of scientific exchange,” Csaba said.

In an official letter on the eve of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, President Park Geun-hye described Hungary as a gateway to Europe for South Korea.

Hungarian President Janos Ader in a corresponding letter stressed the symbolism of bilateral ties because they were established at a time when Hungary was undergoing a dramatic transition toward freedom and democracy.

Csaba outlined ambitious goals for his posting here, including a visit this year by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, saying he could possibly come to Seoul after parliamentary elections in Hungary in April.

Commercial contacts are high on his agenda, in addition to cultural and people-to-people promotion.

The government set up its first Korean Cultural Institute in Hungary in 2012. Csaba said the embassy will support South Korean-Hungarian friendship groups. “Young people who are fond of Korean dramas, films and music, and are lining up to learn the language.”

Csaba said political cooperation deserves special attention, too.

He said he wants to energize South Korean political engagement in his part of the world by “highlighting the Visegrad Group,” which includes Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. “I want to keep Korean interested in our part of the world.”

Hungary and South Korea are both have planned a number of events and cultural exchange programs this year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations including Hungary’s National Day on Aug. 20 and its commemoration of the 1956 Revolution on Oct. 23.

By Philip Iglauer (
Korea Herald Youtube