Moon landed in Cairo on a two-day visit, from 19 to 21 January, which had been scheduled for much earlier on and was delayed owing to the coronavirus outbreak. However, high-level officials from Cairo and Seoul have been maintaining contact to boost cooperation.
In this interview, Moon tells Al-Ahram daily's editor-in-chief Alaa Thabet that bilateral trade has increased 2,000-fold to reach $2.3 billion in 2021, up from $1.18 million in 1971. He believes his Cairo visit will increase the momentum of cooperation between the two countries, especially in the areas of transportation, manufacturing, construction, as well as military and environmentally friendly industries.
The South Korean president says he realises Egypt’s strategic importance as a gateway for Korean products into Africa, but he is not missing out on the friendly bond between the Korean and Egyptian peoples and how vital the social aspect is in advancing bilateral relations.
Al-Ahram: What does Seoul aspire to achieve from the first visit by a South Korean president to Egypt in 16 years?
Moon Jae-in: Seoul is fully aware that Egypt is the cradle of civilisations and a country with a great strategic importance, the connection between the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Egypt is the leader of moderate Islamic culture, being the largest country in terms of population in the Arab region.
In fact, Egypt is attractive for all the countries that wish to cooperate with it, because of its dynamism and great potential for growth.
Seoul appreciates Egypt’s leading role, especially after its decision to host the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, COP27.
South Korea strongly supports Egypt in this area, and we seek to enhance cooperation with Cairo in all fields, based on the comprehensive partnership agreement between the two countries. The agreement represents a model of partnership, especially in light of the promising capabilities that pave the way for expanding the volume of trade and investment, taking into account the complementary trade structure between the two countries.
The Korean government has chosen Egypt as a priority partner in official development assistance between 2021 and 2025. I believe that this visit will increase the momentum of cooperation between the two countries, especially in the areas of developing transportation infrastructure, which will open the door to further cooperation in various fields, such as manufacturing, construction, environmentally friendly industries, military industries, and the public sector.
AA: How do you see the relationship between Cairo and Seoul, and what are the future plans to cement cooperation?
MJ: We have come a long way in enhancing cooperation and trade in various fields despite the long distance between Cairo and Seoul, thus overcoming the short diplomatic history between the two countries of 30 years.
Egypt and South Korea present a model in cooperation based on mutual benefit in manufacturing sites. Some leading Korean companies, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai Rotem, have production bases in Egypt that contribute to creating job opportunities for Egyptians and work under the banner Made-in-Egypt.
There is also the Egyptian-Korean Technology Faculty, which was established through a development cooperation project affiliated with the Korea International Cooperation Organisation (KOICA). The faculty is one of the successful models of cooperation. It targets the graduation of specialised cadres through systematic education, which contributed to enhancing the faculty’s positive image In Egypt.
I hope the economic partnership will boom. Korea aspires to conclude the first free trade agreement in Africa with Egypt. We will launch joint research towards this end.
Korea and Egypt have already cooperated in the field of transportation and energy infrastructure, and there is potential to enhance this cooperation, such as the railway development project. Korea will support the Egyptian government with $312 million via the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) to upgrade the railway lines of Naga Hammadi-High Dam and Naga Hammadi-Luxor.
Korean companies have recently established the largest oil refining station in Egypt, which contributed to reducing Egypt's dependence on refined energy imports and creating high-quality job opportunities.
Korea, with its technological capabilities and high international standards, will continue to cooperate with Egypt in the pivotal areas of interest to its government, such as the underground metro, sea water desalination, and petrochemicals projects.
We also hope to bolster cooperation between the two countries in the fields of renewable energy and environmentally friendly industries. I believe that there are promising possibilities for cooperation between the two countries in the field of environmentally friendly means of transportation, such as electric cars, hydrogen trains, converting the new Suez Canal locomotives to operate on natural gas. We also hope for more cooperation in the areas of digital governance, information and communication technology, culture, tourism, and others.
AA: Do you think the volume of Korean investments in Egypt meets this ambition? Will Seoul discuss with Cairo the obstacles hindering further promotion of investment and trade?
MJ: Bilateral trade has increased 2,000-fold to reach $2.3 billion in 2021, up from $1.18 million in 1971. This is a significant increase compared to the rise in the total volume of Korean trade in the same time period, which increased 360-fold. The cumulative Korean investment in Egypt recorded $730 million by the end of 2021.
Korean investments are expected to increase after Cairo residents had said they like the electric trains manufactured in Korea and the popularity of Korean cars in Egypt. Hyundai car sales came first in the Egyptian market in 2020.
I also think economic cooperation contributes to the consolidation of the friendly relationship between the two peoples, as we can, in a short period, witness more cooperation on the climate change crisis and in environmentally friendly industries.
AA: There had been hopes for the prevalence of peace in Korea in recent years, but enthusiasm seemed to wane following the outbreak of the coronavirus. Has the situation changed?
MJ: The Egyptian people know very well the value of peace. I have made continuous efforts to bring peace to Korea throughout my presidency.
We were able, despite the difficulties, to advance bilateral talks between South and North Korea at three summits, and between North Korea and the United States at two other summits, in addition to holding tripartite talks between South and North Korea and the United States.
The peace process in Korea had begun in earnest with the de-escalation of military tension after the conclusion of the new inter-Korean military agreement on 19 September 2018. Unfortunately, the situation is currently dormant, which indicates that establishing peace is not easy.
The road to peace is yet unpaved. Peace prevails when we strive and long for it. I will work hard to achieve peace, and I will not stop striving for it until the last moment of my presidency.
I hope the Egyptian leadership, which plays an active role for the stability of the region, will extend continuous support for a new era of peace to prevail in Korea.
AA: What were the repercussions of COVID-19 on the South Korean economy?
MJ: The entire world is suffering from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. South Korea has gained a good international reputation as a model country to emulate in combating the pandemic. It protected the lives of its citizens and was able to minimise the economic damages through a host of protective measures and not resorting to lockdowns.
The Korean government has directed its efforts towards supporting small business owners who incurred heavy economic losses. It worked in parallel paths to overcome the crisis and invest for the future.
Thanks to these efforts, the Korean economy was able to recover from the crisis faster than other developed countries and restore its pre-pandemic rates.
Last year, we achieved the highest export rates in the country’s history and we maintained our position among the 10 most powerful economies in the world. It is expected that the per capita gross national income will increase to reach $35,000 in 2021.
We are proud to have excelled in the fields of semiconductors, batteries, bio-industries, hydrogen, and other modern industries, and I am proud that we were able to turn the crisis into an opportunity to become a stronger country.
No one can predict when the pandemic will be over. The Omicron variant currently tops the list of threats facing Korea, but the Korean government, with its people, will overcome the difficulties of the pandemic.
I hope that Egypt will also come out of the coronavirus dark tunnel, and that with its people it will restore normalcy in the nearest time possible.
AA: Many observers see that Egypt plays an active role in the entry of Chinese and European products into the African market, based on its position as a pivotal country in the continent. Will Korea enjoy the same privileges?
MJ: I think that Seoul and Egypt have achieved mutual benefits. Korea has provided Egypt with an opportunity to enter the Asian market, just as Egypt has provided Korea with the opportunity to enter the African market.
Egypt has maintained its position for five consecutive years as the largest recipient of foreign investment in Africa, It is also a vital trade and logistical centre with a wide network of free trade agreements with countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
Meanwhile, Korea was able, through regional comprehensive economic partnership and free trade agreements, to form a wide free trade network with Asian, European, and American countries, which make up 85 percent of global GDP.
We aspire for more mutual benefits with the two countries being strategic gateways for the other to enter the African and Asian markets through cooperation. Indeed, Korean companies are seeking to expand their markets through Egypt, which is an important strategic centre.
Many Korean companies, such as Samsung Electronics, LG, LS Cables, and others, are manufacturing in Egypt, taking advantage of the wide network of free trade agreements that Egypt possesses to export their products to the markets of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
We have recently been looking into cooperation in the field of advancing electric cars and there is promising collaboration in the fields of seawater desalination and the development of renewable energy.
We look forward to increasing Korean investments in Egypt, and I expect that both countries will reap more mutual benefits from their free trade agreements by boosting economic cooperation after signing the free trade agreement between the two countries.
AA: As a representative of the friendly Korean people, what is the message you would like to deliver to the Egyptian people?
MJ: I hope that Korea, which links Asia and the Pacific Ocean, and Egypt, which links Europe, Africa and Asia, will join hands to achieve comprehensive partnership.
I would like to sincerely thank the Egyptian people for their love of and interest in Korea. I hope that the various Korean products, such as underground trains, cars, mobile phones, televisions, etc, enrich the lives of the Egyptian people. I also hope that the Korean culture, films, music, food, and sports, will further consolidate friendship between the two peoples.