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[Herald Interview] Not the same old Colombia

There is a new and positive feeling in the air at the Colombian Embassy, not only because of the Colombian president’s visit but also because of plans to heighten overall relations with Korea.

The once-small embassy has doubled in size to welcome three new attaches who will work to promote science and technology, education, culture and sports, and tourism.

“The focus of the embassy was very different before, concentrating on the political and diplomatic relationship, but now President (Juan Manuel) Santos has a very clear vision” in terms of international politics and the Latin American country’s place in Asia, said recently arrived Colombia Ambassador Jaime Cabal.
Colombian Amb. Jaime Cabal
Colombian Amb. Jaime Cabal

The purpose of the state visit, which runs from Sept. 14-16, is commercial but will also touch on international affairs.

“Both governments are thinking that this is the best moment to increase relations because of the dramatically improved business and investment opportunities in Colombia,” he told The Korea Herald.

Over the last decade, Colombia has been winning the war against insurgents and narco-traffickers by demobilizing 54,000 paramilitaries and guerrillas, which has fueled foreign investment and tourism.

As a result, in the last decade kidnappings have fallen 90 percent, homicides 46 percent and terrorist attacks 71 percent.

Tourism, an almost dead industry a few years ago, has nearly tripled in the past five years and there is a sense that Colombia is now on its way to becoming a strong contender as one of the top economies of Latin America.

“Foreign investments have increased 300 percent in the last five years,” he said.

The excavation and exploration of oil will be on the table during the talks between Santos and President Lee Myung-bak.

The once impossible to reach oil region of Colombia is now freed from the hands of the FARC guerrillas, explained Cabal.

Colombia has considerable mineral and energy resources, especially coal and natural gas reserves, all sectors that both presidents will discuss.

Both leaders will also “discuss when to sign the (free trade agreement). Maybe in December or the beginning of next year when President Lee goes to Bogota,” said Cabal.

Two areas of contention during the three previous rounds of FTA talks were agriculture and the automotive industries.

“The (automotive) industry in Colombia has been very protected,” he said. “But Colombia is clear; we will open our automotive industry if Korea opens their agricultural industry for us.”

Korea and Colombia are two countries waiting for the ratification of their FTAs with the United States. Cabal gave an indication that there is hope in Colombia that both treaties will be ratified by U.S. Congress by Oct. 31.

Once signed, the FTA “Golden Triangle,” between Korea, Colombia and the United States as Cabal puts it, will pave the way for goods to be produced at a reduced cost in Colombia before being shipped to the United States under reduced or eliminated tariffs.

Now that the war is almost over, Colombia is looking towards this part of the world for partnerships and in doing so, plans on making Korea the hub for their operations in East Asia.

By Yoav Cerralbo (yoav@heraldcorp.com)
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