‘Israel and South Korea could be economic powerhouse’

Jerusalem and Seoul have a great deal in common, in both business and geopolitics, says the country’s envoy to Israel Kim Il-soo

South Korean Ambassador to Israel Kim Il Soo (Photo credit: Courtesy)
South Korean Ambassador to Israel Kim Il Soo (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel is increasingly looking east for new business. As the economies of Asia continue to develop and grow, Israeli companies – especially start-ups – are finding new opportunities in countries like China, Japan, India, Singapore, and South Korea.

That latter country was in the spotlight this week, as a delegation led by the Korean ambassador to Israel, Kim Il-soo, participated in the first-ever Korea-Israel Creative Economy Forum. Israeli creativity, Kim told The Times of Israel, was much admired in his country, “and has special strengths and capabilities that, when joined together with the strengths of the Korean economy, can create an economic powerhouse.”

Indeed, said Kim, Israel and South Korea have a great deal in common, from mutual admiration to kindred economic interests to coping with similar geopolitical threats, like nuclear-armed enemies that have each country as their primary target. “In many ways, Korea and Israel can understand and sympathize with each other, more than other countries can.”

Israel and South Korea do about $2.5 billion in business annually, less than China, Japan and India, but more than Singapore and Taiwan. Trade between Israel and South Korea has grown significantly in recent years, as Seoul seeks new ideas and technologies. “Israel is known around the world for its innovative ideas, and we want to further increase our already strong business relations to benefit both countries,” Kim said. The two countries signed a trade agreement last year, enabling smoother procedures for imports and exports to and from Israel and Korea.

Creativity in new ideas is Israel’s strong suit, hence the Creative Economy Forum. Among the Korean companies with an active presence in Israel is device and electronics giant Samsung, which has been operating in Israel for about six years, after it acquired Ramat Gan-based Transchip Israel, which worked in the image sensor industry. At the time Transchip Israel was bought out in 2007, it was a very significant event for Samsung; it was the company’s first foreign acquisition in a decade. As of now, Samsung’s two Israeli facilities (the second one is in Herzliya), employing upwards of 50 engineers between the two of them, are the only Samsung R&D centers outside of South Korea.

Attending the event were Israeli companies and investors looking to work with Korean powerhouses like Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and the many other industrial giants in that country, along with a group of 15 Korean students who are studying in Israel (part of Tel Aviv University’s StarTAU entrepreneurship program), where they are learning the Israeli way to start-up success.

One highlight of the Forum was the official launch of a new website dedicated to helping businesses in both countries make connections. The Korea-Israel High-Tech Network site aims to be a comprehensive database of Israeli and Korean companies in a wide variety of disciplines and industries, allowing entrepreneurs, corporate officials, investors, and government officials in both countries to check out a company’s profile, get information about its activities, and reach out to a company official for further action.

The site is the work of officials in Korea’s Small and Medium Business Administration and the Korean Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Economics Ministry, and the Signals Intelligence Group, which specializes in digging deep into countries’ economies to find out what makes them tick.

While Israel is a center of business creativity – hence the name of the Forum – Korea brings its own brand of creativity to the table, said Kim. “Israel is very good at generating new and different ideas which evolved into game-changing technologies. In Korea we are very good at manufacturing, and our creativity has helped enhance and grow our manufacturing capacity,” said Kim. “Each company has been growing in different directions, and cooperation will further enhance and grow each economy. In this case, the results will definitely be greater than the sum of its parts.”

In the past, Asian countries (except for China, which is, by all accounts, too big to be pushed around), have been cautious about getting too close to Israel. In a recent interview, Professor Kenneth Grossberg of Waseda University in Tokyo told The Times of Israel that companies in Japan, as well as other places in Asia, are often reticent about their Israel connection, fearing to offend customers in Arab and other countries. It’s only when they feel very confident that things are stable and that they will not lose business that they will openly discuss their commercial, financial, and other activities with Israel, he said.

We are in an era of such stability, said Kim. “It has definitely been an issue in the past,” the ambassador said. “We are dependent on imports for almost all our oil and gas,” and the bulk of those imports come from Arab countries. On the other hand, it is our right as a sovereign country to have relations with anyone we want.” At this point, Kim said, the oil-exporting countries seem to have come to some kind of accommodation regarding Israel’s presence in the Middle East – and the Arab boycott is not being enforced to the same extent it has been in the past. “Nowadays we develop our relations with Israel without too many reservations, and we have found this to be very beneficial for us,” he added.

Part of the reason for that is due to the “elephant in the room” for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil producers – the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, which makes the Arab world every bit as uncomfortable as it does Israel. It’s a problem that Korea deeply understands, Kim said; his country, too, has to deal with an implacable nuclear-armed enemy bent on its destruction. “It’s a threat we both face, that is something we definitely have in common,” the ambassador said. “The fact that we have both been able to establish thriving democracies in the face of challenges all around us is another important commonality between our two countries. Israel and Korea, more than most countries, can relate to and understand the others’ concerns.”

But, for now at least, a more formal recognition of that mutual threat – like a limited defense pact or official alliance – is not in the cards. “We are strong supporters of the sanctions against Iran, and we participate in them,” he said. “But we believe in diplomacy, just as we do with our own nuclear issue. We hope that the efforts being taken now by the Western countries in both cases will help improve the situation.”

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