As I write, I am visiting South Korea in the second week of May. My schedule for the rest of the month has already been packed with many domestic travels and visits to at least two foreign countries. As one travels, even for business purposes, and as one knows and talks to people, journalists, academics, governors and officials of the countries one visits, one realizes that the world is getting smaller and smaller, but that the need for people around the world to know each other more closely is growing bigger and bigger. During my first visit to South Korea, I realized that I didn’t know much about this humble country which we, as the Turkish nation, respect greatly although we are separated by a great distance.
Turkey recognized South Korea on Aug. 11, 1949, i.e., about one year after its establishment/independence, and the relations between two countries were cinched when Turkey helped South Korea fight against Communist occupation. Indeed, Turkey sent about 12,000 troops to South Korea during the 1950 Korean War, during which 1,005 Turkish soldiers were martyred to keep the country free. This has paved the way for building sound and problem-free relations between the two countries. The heroic deeds of these Turkish soldiers are still fresh in memories and the war cemetery in Busan where 462 martyred Turkish soldiers were buried serves as the indelible seal of this friendship.
A second wave of emotional rapprochement between South Korea and Turkey, who lend support to each other in international platforms, was seen during the earthquake in Gölcük on Aug. 17, 1999, which claimed the lives of 17,000 people. As soon as news of the earthquake reached South Korea, a solidarity event was held at Hyundai Business Center, located at the busiest part of downtown Seoul, and thousands of South Koreans including celebrities and athletes rushed to this center to raise funds to help Turkey. The $2 million in aid raised in just one day was quickly sent to Turkey.
The third wave of rapprochement between the two nations peaked during a sports activity, not because of a disaster like war or an earthquake. During the 2002 World Soccer Championship hosted by South Korea, Koreans welcomed the Turkish national team and supported it during all of its matches. In every match the Turkish national soccer team played, Koreans unfurled a giant 600-square-meter flag weighing 60 kilograms to motivate the Turkish team. During the semi-final match between Brazil and Turkey, 50,000 South Koreans backed the Turkish team as if it were their own. Even during the match between Turkish and South Korean national teams for the third place, many Koreans painted both the Turkish and South Korean flags on their cheeks and waved the flags of the two countries together. Although this match was won by the Turkish national team, South Koreans rejoiced as if their own team had won and acted with rare chivalry.
Despite a 10-hour flight between the two countries, our Korean friends tell us that this love between the countries has recently turned into a close interest as 120,000-130,000 South Koreans visit Turkey every year. Being one of the world’s most homogeneous countries, this friendly country encourages such touristic visits with a view to fostering a mentality of multiculturalism as its people interact with diverse cultures due to increased demographic movements and various social and cultural programs are launched to further promote diversity. Perhaps, these programs receive the greatest backing from İstanbul Cultural Center, a voluntary organization in Seoul. With its Turkish courses, cultural travels, exhibitions of traditional Turkish handicrafts, the İstanbul Cultural Center has been working to eliminate the long distance between the two countries.
The friendly ties between the two countries have boosted commercial ties as well. In 2010, the volume of bilateral trade between two countries was about $5 billion and Turkey’s imports from South Korea amounted to about $4.8 billion. So it is clear that there is not only an imbalance against Turkey, but also the economic ties between South Korea -- a country that has a foreign trade volume of about $1.1 trillion with exports amounting to $555.6 billion and imports to $524.4 billion -- and Turkey are very low compared to the ties of friendship between the two countries.
South Korea lacks any significant mineral resources, its forests were destroyed due to excessive use and war and its income level in the early 1960s was comparable only to the poorest countries in Asia and Africa. But today it is the world’s 13th-largest economy with its high-tech industry. This success story certainly deserves an in-depth examination. South Korea is the eighth largest exporter around the world and has the first eight largest shipbuilding companies of the world. It tops the world’s steel production and secures the fifth slot in the textile sector. Moreover, it has several giant automobile producers such as Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo and the world’s largest electronic manufacturers like LG, Samsung and SK. None of these can be coincidental. Therefore, Turkish entrepreneurs should ponder how South Korea has ended up having corporations like Hyundai, Samsung and LG, whose exports in 2011 were respectively $75 billion, $59 billion and $50 billion. The miracle of this country’s securing a trade volume of $1.1 trillion although it is almost completely dependent upon oil and natural exports is proof that nothing is impossible when one works with determination.
South Korea has only one-eighth of Turkey’s surface area (99,292 square kilometers) and its geography is largely mountainous and about 85 percent of its 50-million population live in cities, and its success story of becoming one of the world’s richest and most prosperous countries after starting as one of the poorest countries serves as a model for developing countries. Certainly, the 197 universities and 222 colleges ensuring a high level of education across the country have played a significant role in the making of this success story. Today, South Korea is the 13th-largest country with an economy of $1.5 billion, and the per capita income is $31,700. In this economy, agriculture commands a very small share and electronics, automotive and services sectors are the lifeblood of the economy.
Although it was a country that saw, like Turkey, frequent coups until the 1980s and it revised its constitution to foster democracy in 1987, its rapid economic progress should say many things to Turkey. At a time when it is planning to draft a democratic constitution responsive to civilians for the first time, Turkey should have a closer look at the South Korean case for securing rapid economic growth accompanied by a developed democracy.