With a number of high-profile official meetups, including the first joint economic commission in 17 years and three important agreements inked on July 9, South Korea’s ties with Kenya are stronger than ever.
But a recent spate of deadly terrorist attacks in the East African country could crimp those ties, and could even threaten Kenya’s crucial revenue from tourism.
There have been a number of travel warnings for Kenya recently, including a U.S. warning on June 19, and, on July 12, the U.K. issued a warning for its citizens about some of Kenya’s coastal areas and its border with restive Somalia.
South Korea issued a travel alert earlier than that ― on April 14 ― warning travelers to stay away from the entirety of Kenya’s east coast and the region bordering Somalia.
Kenya is very sensitive about such travel alerts because some 20 percent of its economy depends on its tourism and hospitality industry, now more than ever as the peak travel season looms.
“But for Korea it has not been so bad. Korean Air stopped flying to Kenya at that early stage because everyone panicked,” said Kenyan Ambassador to South Korea Ngovi Kitau during a small press meeting at his office in Seoul on Monday.
“Now Korean Air is flying to Kenya. We do not have a problem.”
The Kenyan ambassador noted that the areas in the travel warning do not include the Masai Mara wildlife reserve, where many travelers visit.
The travel season during the dry season reaches its peak this month, when migrations of wildebeests arrive in the Masai Mara National Reserve. The herds are centerpieces of popular safari trips made by Europeans and by an increasing number of Koreans.
The herds and the tourists populate the reserves until October, when the wildebeests move back to the Serengeti in neighboring Tanzania. Korean travelers are only beginning to enjoy Kenyan safaris, but some 9,000 Koreans visited in 2013. Ambassador Kitau expects that number to increase to 12,000 this year and match the number of visitors from Japan ― about 15,000 a year ― by 2015.
The current figure is more impressive considering two factors. First, it is twice as large as the number of Koreans who visited just five years ago. Second, the increase could be attributed to the efforts of Kitau, who is not a professional diplomat by trade but a businessman and appears to take Koreans’ image of his country personally.
|Kenyan Ambassador to South Korea Ngovi Kitau speaks during a small press gathering at his office in Seoul on Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
The former auto executive insisted South Korea’s warning for the coastal areas is not necessary, saying that what is happening now in Kenya is similar to what happened here in April 2013 when, according to the Kenyan ambassador, the international media became apoplectic over North Korean threats and an American B-2 bomber was seen flying overhead.
“People panicked then as well, but those expatriates living here knew better, that the reports from the media exaggerated the actual danger,” he said. “Also, allowing ourselves to be unnerved like that is tantamount to giving in to terrorists. The tactic is very basic. It is just to create fear. Many countries, when they panic then they issue a travel alert. But once you issue a travel alert then the terrorists have won. Well, that is what they wanted.”
The ambassador said he received assurances from Kwon Hee-seog, director general of the Bureau for Africa and Middle East Affairs, that the ministry would revise the warning in August during a meeting they had on July 11.
On South Korea’s April travel warning for Kenya, a ministry official said the ministry would not revise that alert until after the holy month of Ramadan ends on July 28, and its decision would depend on whether conditions improve on the ground.
Korea issued a travel warning on Kenya once before, but just briefly, in the aftermath of a dramatic assault that killed 72 people at a Westgate shopping mall in 2013.
Korean national Kang Moon-hee was among those killed when 15 gunmen from the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group Al Shabaab stormed the upscale shopping center in the Kenyan capital on Sept. 21.
Despite that dramatic incident and others more recently, diplomatic ties between Kenya and South Korea continue on an upward trajectory. Korea-Kenya ties are more than 50 years old, but Nairobi opened an embassy here for the first time in 2007. From then, it was Kitau who led his country’s more vigorous diplomatic engagement here.
In addition to a doubling of people-to-people exchanges, Korean Air started direct flights between Incheon International Airport and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, making three trips weekly.
Korean Air stopped flights to Nairobi for one week in April after the warning, but then resumed them.
Despite the consternation and hand-wringing over travel advisories and other issues in the U.K., the U.S. and South Korea, China has continued ramping up commercial and diplomatic relations with Kenya uninterruptedly.
Kitau appeared to have a personal stake in the travel warning, perhaps even more now on the eve of Kenya’s peak travel season. The Kenyan ambassador highlighted recent visits by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in May and United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon in June.
In May, China’s Li was in Kenya with his wife to wrap up a battery of some 17 agreements, including a $4 billion railway deal that will link Mombasa (an area included in South Korea’s travel warning) on Kenya’s east coast with Nairobi. The rail line will then be expanded to include Uganda and Rwanda.
In June, Ban attended the United Nations Environmental Assembly forum, which took place from June 23 to 27 and was attended by 1,200 participants from 160 delegations and 112 ministers from around the world.
South Korean officials were in Kenya recently as well. Deputy Minister for Political Affairs Lee Kyung-soo attended the second bilateral Joint Economic Commission on July 9 and concluded three bilateral agreements, including a Framework Agreement on Grant Aid; Convention on the Avoidance of Double Taxation and Prevention of Fiscal Evasion; and Agreement for the Promotion and Protection of Investments.
By Philip Iglauer (firstname.lastname@example.org)