Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which weighed down most of the world’s economies last year, the bilateral economic relationship between South Korea and Germany gained momentum even in the midst of market turbulence.
While the auto and biopharma businesses flourished last year, it is the green growth and hydrogen energy sectors that are likely to pick up speed down the road, according to the chief representative of German businesses here.
“Germany and South Korea are already moving toward a closer cooperation in the energy sector,” Barbara Zollmann, president and CEO of the Korean-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Korea Herald in an interview.
Last year, the German government adopted a National Hydrogen Strategy, while the Korean government included hydrogen in its Green New Deal initiative, each trying to gain the upper hand in the new market.
Also, both countries signed the Korean-German Energy Partnership in 2019, seeking to address various new energy topics, including hydrogen.
The two countries have all the more to share as their respective hydrogen strategies differ in details, Zollmann explained.
“Whereas Korea’s hydrogen blueprint tends to pivot on (how to use the novel energy in) mobility, Germany is more focused on the Paris climate agreement and replacing energy throughout all industries,” she said.
Also, Germany is specifically after green hydrogen, the cleanest-burning fuel, which eliminates emissions by using renewable energy to electrolyze water.
Having taken the post in 2013, Zollmann is now in her final year here and is set to move to Hungary later this year.
“I expect that I shall continue to hold ties with Korean companies in some way or another, as many major businesses such as Samsung Electronics and SK Innovation are performing business there, most in battery sectors.”
For Germany, Asia’s fourth-largest economy is the No. 2 export destination in the Asia-Pacific region, next to China. The export volume totaled 16.29 billion euros ($19.14 billion) in 2020, up 2.9 percent on-year. The figure especially contrasted with Germany’s exports to Japan, which contracted 18 percent on-year to 15.85 billion euros during the same period.
From the Korean perspective, the country’s imports from Germany marked an uptrend in 2020 despite the pandemic, mostly on the back of demand for German cars.
“One of the key reasons (for the advanced economic ties) is Korea’s well-managed handling of the COVID-19 situations, which kept economic activities afloat throughout the year,” Zollmann said.
“Also, Korea provided innovative solutions the COVID-19 field, including the export of test kits to Germany.”
Spearheading the trade between the two countries was the pharmaceutical sector, with Korea’s biopharma imports from Germany rising 6.9 percent to $1.2 billion last year.
The largest German importers in 2019, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, were Boehringer Ingelheim Korea and Bayer Korea with $215.7 million and $212.2 million, respectively.
In the auto sector, the lowered consumption tax, combined with an increased preference for driving instead of using public transport, led to a booming car market, working to the advantage of German carmakers.
As the first female KGCCI chief, Zollmann also has a strong dedication to gender issues in the business world here.
“During my time here, the Korean society has made visible steps in terms of gender equality and there is now widespread understanding on the value of having women participating in all parts of society,” she said.
“But of course, every country has its own pace and it will still take a while until the gender balance initiatives fully sink in people’s minds.”
The real dilemma, according to the KGCCI chief, is the lack of sufficient female talent in specific fields -- a problem that tracks back to education.
“While we see an increasing number of female executives in the financial, medical, bio industries, it is still difficult to find such women in the manufacturing area,” she said.
“In short, the pipeline is just not big enough to bring women to high-ranking positions.”
One answer to that problem was the WIR program, whose name means “us” in German and also is short for Women In KoRea.
WIR comprises female executives from various industries under the KGCCI umbrella and seeks to help Korean women in middle management accelerate their career.
Current participating members include Kyobo Life Insurance Senior Executive Vice President Huh Kum-joo, CJ Corp. Executive Vice President Min Hee-kyung and Korea International Finance Institute CEO Kim Sang-kyung.
Founded in 1981, the KGCCI is the first contact here for Korean-German business activities and the second-largest foreign chamber with some 500 members. It is part of the German Chambers of Commerce, or AHK in German, which comprises 140 offices in 92 countries around the world.
By Bae Hyun-jung (email@example.com