It was 25 years ago that South Korea set up its first diplomatic relations with a communist country. The establishment of formal ties with Hungary in 1989, which came months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, prompted other Central and Eastern European countries to forge diplomatic relations with Seoul despite protests from Pyongyang in the following years.
The Nordpolitk pushed by South Korean President Roh Tae-woo’s government culminated in normalizing ties with the Soviet Union in September 1990 and China in August 1992. Seoul’s rapprochement with the crumbling socialist bloc led Pyongyang to sign an agreement on improving inter-Korean relations and made it possible for South and North Korea to join the United Nations together in 1991.
In retrospect, the Roh government took the diplomatic initiative in a timely manner, based on a correct reading of the changing international situation. At the time, the South pledged to help the North set up diplomatic ties with its allies. The Nordpolitik consolidated Seoul’s diplomatic prevalence over Pyongyang, which ultimately locked itself into deeper isolation, going against the global tide of openness and cooperation toward co-prosperity.
It was Hungary and other Central European countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia that opened the way for Seoul’s epoch-making diplomatic pitch by going beyond Moscow’s influence to set up ties with South Korea. Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, which have since separately operated embassies in Seoul.
It is welcome that efforts have recently been strengthened to further advance cooperation between South Korea and Central Europe. South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held the first meeting with his counterparts from the four-member Visegrad Group comprising Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in July in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. The meeting came just a month after assistant minister-level officials from the five countries gathered in Seoul for their first consultative talks.
Trade volume between South Korea and the “Visegrad Four” reached $13.7 billion last year. More than 330 South Korean companies, including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, operate there, with their investment exceeding $4.9 billion in 2013. In Slovakia, which has a population of 5.5 million, South Korean manufacturers employ about 27,000 workers.
The potential of cooperation with the Visegrad Group, which was named after a Hungarian city where leaders from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia gathered in 1991 to launch it, has yet to be fully achieved. Its economy has grown by an annual average of 3.5 percent in recent years, far above the comparable figure for the 28-member European Union, which has remained below 2 percent. This economic vitality coupled with their location at the heart of the European continent is increasing South Korean companies’ interest in the value of V4 countries as consumption markets and production bases for exports to the rest of the EU.
Cooperation with the Visegrad Group may also be conducive to leading North Korea to take a path toward reform and openness. Seoul may gain useful information and assessment from its members because Poland and the Czech Republic maintain embassies in Pyongyang, with the Hungarian and Slovakian ambassadors in Seoul concurrently serving as envoys to Pyongyang. Their experience in regime transformation at the end of the Cold War could also be considered by the North as a possible reference model if it chose to take a step toward change.