Building Bridges towards a bright future

by BTM

Wed, 06 December 2023

HE HeonSang Koo

The Republic of Korea and the Kingdom of Bahrain have a storied and successful history of cooperation and friendship. Bahrain This Month sat down with the recently-inaugurated Ambassador of Korea to Bahrain, HE HeonSang Koo, to find out more about the relationship.

Can you share your experience in diplomatic service and how it has led you to your current role as the Korean Ambassador to Bahrain?
Quite unusually for an ambassador, I started my public career as an economic officer in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. Over the course of my 30-year tenure in the ministry, I assumed various responsibilities to support the balanced development of my homeland and the advancement of national traffic infrastructure, including my role as an economic counsellor at the Korean Embassy in Qatar. 

Throughout my career, I witnessed first-hand how international exchange and cooperation shape and bolster a country’s path towards economic growth and structural transformation. It is from this standpoint that I firmly believe in the power of effective international cooperation to foster mutual development, a philosophy I am determined to embody.

How would you describe the current relationship between Bahrain and Korea, and what are your priorities in enhancing this relationship?
Relations across many fields are as robust as ever. The visit of a Bahraini trade delegation in May, the signing of the bilateral Air Services Agreement, ongoing major cooperation projects such as SEHATI and Sijilat and close collaboration in cultural affairs all demonstrate the strong bilateral partnership the two friendly countries currently enjoy.

As ambassador, I’m always devoted to further promoting bilateral cooperation across all sectors. I would like to facilitate deeper partnership in the fields of new and renewable energy, ICT, healthcare, education, youth empowerment and more. I believe the collaboration in these areas will lead to achieving a great synergy, widely benefiting the people of the two countries. Since the two governments are committed to investing in addressing the climate change and numerous Korean companies have a competitive edge in the world market, it would be timely and mutually beneficial to look into opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

Can you discuss your country’s economic interests and trade relations with Bahrain, and the potential for future collaborations?
The bilateral trade relations have been steady and increasing. It increased from about USD800 million in 2019 to surpass USD1 billion in 2022. Even with the dire effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Korea-Bahrain trade volume was rather stabilised, demonstrating mutual interests and trust, which, in turn, is an indication of potential for further growth. I believe that new and renewable energy including solar energy and hydrogen, ICT and healthcare are some of the sectors with potential. 

How would you address any cultural differences that may arise between Korean and Bahraini officials and residents?
I have noticed that there are more similarities than differences between Korea and Bahrain. I believe that our welcoming culture, respect towards the elderly and high value on family are important traits we both share. While there are aspects of Islamic religion and Arabic culture that I am not familiar with, the way I see it is that every society, or even different regions within a single state, will have its own unique cultural aspects. In this regard, I try to be as open-minded as possible and acknowledge our similarities and differences as they are, taking this opportunity to broaden the cultural diversity of both our societies.

Can you provide an example of a successful initiative or project that Korea has implemented in Bahrain?
Since the 1970s, the two have undertaken a remarkable journey together. Korea started with one construction project in the Kingdom; Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard in 1975. This Korean success story spread out to other countries in the region and led to the ‘Construction Boom’ in the Middle East, which contributed to making Korea one of the world’s largest economies today. 

Can you discuss your role in promoting Korean culture and language in Bahrain, and the cultural exchange initiatives that are currently in place?
In terms of cultural exchange, the embassy has been hosting many cultural events, the most representative being our annual Korean movie festival, annual performing arts events, culinary events and Taekwondo competition. 

As the Korean Ambassador, I have placed great emphasis, especially on education exchange, because I believe that investing in the young generation of Bahrain will lead to the accumulation of valuable human capital that will help to strengthen our bilateral ties. On that note, we have been reinforcing the Korean language education in the Kingdom through our language education body, the Manama King Sejong Institute. The embassy also annually grants up to three students the Korean government scholarship, enabling them to pursue postgraduate studies at esteemed universities in Korea.

How would you handle any political challenges or disputes that may arise between Korea and Bahrain, while maintaining a positive diplomatic relationship?
Bahrain is one of the closest friends of Korea. We are blessed as the two countries have common values and shared goals such as making a greater contribution to the international community. Since we share these attributes as fundamental principles of bilateral relationship, the two friendly countries did not have to go through political challenges. If disputes arise in the future, I am sure the two countries will be able to wisely address the issue at hand, with the help of those shared values and goals.

What are your priorities in assisting Korean businesses that operate in or are interested in expanding to Bahrain?
In my role, not only am I a salesman of Korea to Bahrainis but also I am a promoter of Bahrain to Koreans. I am committed to developing more bilateral trade and investment opportunities, which will ultimately expand the presence of Korean companies in Bahrain. With those goals in mind, I work closely with Bahraini economic authorities such as MOIC, EDB, Bahrain Chamber and Bahrain-Korea Friendship Society, jointly seeking ways to better promote Bahrain. I also host regular meetings with Korean companies to listen to their difficulties in operating business and discuss ways to solve them. 

How do you stay updated on the latest political and economic developments in Bahrain, and how do you integrate this knowledge into your diplomatic strategies?
My hobby is studying! Reading as much material as possible enables me to keep up with latest developments. Following up closely with updates helps me to better identify the political and economic priorities in Bahrain. I try to connect these priorities to what Korea and Bahrain can work on together and how to materialise such cooperation.

In your opinion, what is the most significant agenda facing Korea-Bahrain relations currently?
The most significant is the establishment of Bahrain’s diplomatic mission to Korea. I’m delighted to have the Royal Decision in June this year to set up the Kingdom’s Embassy in Korea, and I will continue to provide necessary support. 

Is there anything you’d like to add? 
I am grateful for the exceptional hospitality extended to me by the people of Bahrain. From the moment I arrived, I felt an immediate sense of belonging, as if I was already a valued member of the community. This enlightening experience ignited a curiosity within me, compelling me to delve deeper into the society and people here, ultimately sparking a newfound passion for learning Arabic. Every morning, I now dedicate myself to studying Arabic, eagerly immersing myself in its intricacies and beauties. My ultimate goal is to be able to converse fluently with Bahrainis in their native language. Until then, I will continue to push myself to improve my Arabic skills and deepen my understanding of the vibrant Arabic culture along the way.