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[Herald Interview] ‘Turkey, Korea can reap economic fruits from historic ties’

“The international order is changing fast, from a unipolar and bipolar one to a multipolar order. The complex nature of global challenges requires the inclusion of emerging and middle powers more than ever.”

March 19, 2018 - 17:59 By Joel Lee
Since successfully completing several joint infrastructure construction projects in Turkey -- including the Eurasian Tunnel, an underground tunnel bridging Europe and Asia beneath the Bosporus Strait, and Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, one that carries rail and motor vehicles above the strait -- Turkish and Korean companies have gone beyond Turkey to win bids in third markets.

One of them is a consortium consisting of Korea Highway Corp., SK Engineering and Construction and Turkish companies Alarko and Makyol, to build a $737 million, 66-kilometer highway in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Part of Kazakhstan’s section in the China-led “One Belt, One Road” global infrastructure initiative, the project -- with an implementation agreement signed on Feb. 7 -- is a prime example of Turkey-Korea economic partnership, according to newly appointed Turkish Ambassador to Korea Ersin Ercin.

In Turkey, the two sides also won a $3 billion bid last year to build the 1915 Canakkale Bridge through a consortium, which will be the world’s longest suspension bridge when it is completed in 2023, coinciding with Turkey’s 100th republican anniversary.

These examples represent the “ambition, expertise, synergy and potential” of the two countries at the far ends of Eurasia, the envoy said in an interview at the recently relocated embassy in Jung-gu, Seoul, last week.

Turkish Ambassador to Korea Ersin Ercin (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

“We have all the necessary ingredients to create a stronger partnership,” he said. “We have only so much more to build on our already excellent historical relations. My vision is shaped by our strong historical, political and emotional ties.”

Despite being separated by 8,000 kilometers, Turkey and Korea are “amazingly close,” the career diplomat asserted, listing several distinct features in the bilateral relations that cannot be found elsewhere.

Starting from cohabiting in Central Asia hundreds of years ago, Turks and Koreans have developed close similarities in their customs, languages, political cultures and diplomacy, he said. “We are two countries simultaneously modernizing while not losing touch with our ancient traditions.”

The Turkish and Korean languages both belong to the Ural-Altaic family; both peoples place strong emphasis on family values and traditions as well as respect for elders; and both nations have upheld democracy at home and abroad, playing important roles in the United Nations, G-20 and MIKTA, an informal alliance of middle powers Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia. 

“The international order is changing fast, from a unipolar and bipolar one to a multipolar order. The complex nature of global challenges requires the inclusion of emerging and middle powers more than ever,” he contended.

“MIKTA’s biggest strength is its flexibility. Countries from different geographical locations and continents are getting together and discussing their regional as well as global priorities. Most of the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals -- such as fighting climate change, international terrorism, displacement and migration and poverty -- appear in the agendas of both MIKTA and G-20.”

Turkish Ambassador to Korea Ersin Ercin (left) meets with Korean President Moon Jae-in at the swearing-in ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae on Jan. 31, where the envoy's mother (right) was welcomed by the president. (Yonhap)

Seoul is also a cooperation partner of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which Turkey is a member state.

Despite such a strong basis of collaboration and exchange, the two countries’ economic cooperation -- with their annual bilateral trade volume at $7.5 billion and Korean investments in Turkey reaching $2.2 billion in the first half of last year -- is far below the potential, he argued.

Ankara and Seoul have a bilateral free trade agreement that entered into force in 2013, and some 300 Korean companies are operating in the Turkish market, whose gross domestic product is $906 billion, the world’s 17th largest.

“Today our two countries have a chance to create an unprecedented synergy by harmonizing our potential,” Ercin stressed. “Turkey provides an excellent location for South Korean companies targeting markets in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, over 50 countries and 1 billion people. That is why many foreign companies have opened regional offices in Istanbul.”

Particularly, projects in Central Asia -- a booming region with close religious, cultural and ethnic ties to Turkey -- as well as Africa, where Turkey has diplomatic presence in most countries, have growing potentialities, he said.

In the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, he highlighted, the two countries can join hands to rebuild destroyed cities and infrastructures, once conflicts are over and international investments come in.

“We know the region, we know the people, we know the business environment in the Middle East,” he said. “Korean companies have all the technology and capital, we have the know-how and experience, having done so many projects there in the past.”

Turkish Ambassador to Korea Ersin Ercin points to the Middle East with which Turkey has had long historic, commercial, cultural, religious and ethnic ties. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s scheduled visit to Korea in May will be an added impetus to the bilateral relations, particularly in trade and investment, Ercin forecast. He listed the major pillars of economic cooperation in construction and infrastructure, automotive, information technology, defense, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, energy, cosmetics and culture.

“The ‘Hallyu Korean Wave’ is drawing a lot of attention and buzz in Turkey, while our cinema is popular and acclaimed throughout the world,” he said, adding joint film productions would be profitable and powerful in igniting the two publics’ mutual interest.

In April 2016, South Korea’s cinema operator CJ CGV bought a nearly 40 percent stake in Istanbul-based Mars Entertainment Group, Turkey’s largest cinema chain, for $800 million.

“Both our peoples need to know more about the historical depth of our relations, which go far beyond what we know,” he underlined. “So I want to introduce more of Turkish culture here. The Yunus Emre Institute (an institution created by Ankara in 2007 to promote Turkish culture worldwide) will be established in Seoul soon, and will work with the embassy.”

Noting that 2019 will be the year for promoting Turkey’s tourism in Korea, the envoy said he aims to increase the number of Turkish Airline flights between the two countries.

“Science and technology is another key area of my focus. I’m visiting various universities to strengthen bilateral academic cooperation. We want to establish a joint university in Turkey that closely cooperates with Korea’s science and technology institutes.”

Turning to defense cooperation, Ercin said, “We fought shoulder to shoulder in the 1950-53 Korean War, where many Turkish soldiers sacrificed their lives. It is natural that two close friends forged strong cooperation in defense.”

Ercin entered the foreign service in 1982 and has served in many conflict zones like Damascus and Khartoum, as well as international organizations UN and OSCE. He was the Turkish ambassador to Brazil from 2009-2013, and before coming to Seoul worked as the director general of the Asia-Pacific department.

On the question of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, the ambassador called it a “global threat” with worldwide repercussions. While implementing all UN Security Council sanctions, Turkey supports the ongoing peace endeavors between the two Koreas as well as Washington and Pyongyang for lasting peace and security in the Korean Peninsula, the ambassador said.

“Our state structure will more efficient and effective,” he said, referring to Turkey’s new presidential government system to be instituted next year, following a constitutional referendum last year. The move will abolish the office of prime minister and consolidate the president’s authorities.

“Our internal politics had lost a lot of time and energy due to factional rivalries and partisanships for forming a coalition government. The decision-making was slow. But under the new system, there will be no more monthslong political gridlocks. This will help the economy to grow faster.”

By Joel Lee (