Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and South Korea, officially called the Republic of Korea (ROK). Ever since the east Asian nation recognised Bangladesh's sovereignty in 1972, a strong diplomatic relationship has blossomed; based on mutually beneficial trade and development assistance.
South Korea is the first and the largest foreign direct investment provider in Bangladesh. Youngone is the first South Korean company to invest in our economy almost four decades ago. Now, over 200 Korean companies are directly running their operations in Bangladesh.
Up until recently, Korean capital has largely been invested in the RMG sector. In order to demonstrate their commitment to sustained bilateral trade, a Korean export processing zone (KEPZ) has been established in Chattogram.
But Korean companies have decided to diversify their investments during the last decade. For example: Samsung has established a research & development division in Bangladesh which currently employs 500 Bangladeshi engineers.
Other South Korean companies have also decided to invest in the burgeoning ICT sector in our country. The country's first private hi-tech park is going to be established in the aforementioned KEPZ. Some companies have also started to run their technological and appliance production divisions in Bangladesh. These ventures will help to educate unskilled labourers who can be instrumental for our economy in the near future.
Consequently, Bangladeshi companies are also exporting to the Korean market, bringing in all-important foreign currency for the nation. At present, the bilateral trade has reached the height of $1.6 billion.
But the biggest source of income for Bangladesh from the Republic of Korea is remittance. Over the years, under the employment permit system, many workers have migrated to Korea and have sent back a handsome amount for their families back in Bangladesh. Roughly 20,000 Bangladeshi are currently residing in South Korea who include workers, their families and roughly 1,500 students.
This is partly caused by a wave of immigration in South Korea in the last three-four years. The number of Bangladeshis in the country has been increasing at a rate of 20% per year. This has resulted in an inward flow of $1 billion in remittance in our country. Right now, South Korea is the 12th largest remittance destination for Bangladesh.
A very visible Bangladeshi diaspora has developed as a result of sustained immigration to Korea. According to the Labour Rights Index 2020, the largest contributors to our remittance inflow, Kuwait and the UAE can only offer a basic access to decent jobs while South Korea offers reasonable access to decent work. If we can maintain the flow of skilled workers to that country, we will certainly be able to increase our income from remittance even further.
ROK has also been one of the most important development partners of Bangladesh. From 1987-2019, Bangladesh has received $790 million in terms of official development assistance from the east Asian country. The Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) is playing an instrumental role to develop skilled manpower in our country.
Among other projects, KOICA is running three vocational schools and facilitating ICT training in various higher secondary schools. The organisation has also developed an entrepreneur training programme in association with the University of Dhaka.
Beside training programmes, to support startups, Korea also facilitates incubation for 10 outstanding Bangladeshi startups every year under MoU signed since 2019. Through sharing knowledge and expertise, Korea can help immensely in transforming our vast amount of manpower into a force of skilled workers.
The country was also by our side during the Covid-19 pandemic. South Korea has directly provided testing kits and antigen kits worth $8,00,000 to Bangladesh and has handed over 1,800 packs of food, 3,000 units of PPEs and emergency medical equipment to Bangladesh through KOICA.
Apart from commodity aid, in 2020, the country also sanctioned a soft loan of $50 million with 0.01% interest rate for 40 year with a 15 year grace period to Bangladesh; which will be used to manage the pandemic.
Apart from economic exchange, there are cultural exchanges taking place also. Universities are establishing an exchange system and students are also going to South Korea or coming from South Korea to study.
South Korea is also building power plants in Bangladesh under a joint venture with the government under public-private partnership (PPP). At present, Korea Electric Power Corporation is building a power plant in Chattogram.
Bangladeshi nationals and their life in Korea is finding a place in Korean culture. The famous movie titled "Bandhobi" is the prime example of it. "Bandhobi" is a Korean written, produced and directed film released in 2009. This film with a Bangladeshi in the lead role depicted the life of Bangladeshi workers in Korean society. Surely, it helped in mitigating prejudices.
Korean nationals are also falling in love with Bangladesh. Popular YouTuber Joseph Kim, who goes by "Korean Bhai" is a prime example of a person who has fallen in love with Bangladesh and is promoting Bangladeshi culture to Korea. Through Korean Bhai and Korean ventures, Bangladeshis are also experiencing a glimpse of Korean culture.
But there are also some challenges to this flourishing relationship. The growing geopolitical importance of south Asia and the confronting aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative and Quad will add new dimensions for both of the states.
As Bangladesh is expected to graduate from the ranks of least developed countries to a developing country, a realignment of bilateral relationship is necessary in this new context. Apart from these, sadly, till now there is no direct flight from Dhaka to Seoul which is a must to improve connectivity.
Since the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladeshi workers have faced some diplomatic hassles from the Korean government including travel ban and strict quarantine protocols. A smooth policy for their travel should be adopted ensuring all necessary protocols and safety measurements.
These easily solvable problems can unlock a new horizon for Korea-Bangladesh cooperation. As Bangladesh is trying to build a technology based economy, Korean investment and participation will be nothing short of crucial. It will also allow Korean companies to diversify from the RMG sector.
Our country's recent focus on the blue economy can also be helped by Korean investment and development assistance.
During the last three years, delegates from both the countries have expressed their eagerness to strengthen economic ties in various events and through various platforms. Hence, in order to create a stronger economic tie, both countries should explore the available opportunities and address the challenges and setbacks.
Author is a researcher and freelance columnist.