[INTERVIEW] Turkish envoy hopes Türkiye to become bridgehead for S. Korean businesses

By Kim Joo-heon Posted : May 18, 2023, 09:54 Updated : April 8, 2024, 08:55

Salih Murat Tamer, the Turkish Ambassador to South Korea [Photograph by Park Sae-jin = swatchsjp@ajunews.com]

SEOUL -- Despite two massive earthquakes that took the lives of more than 50,000 Turkish people, Türkiye is ready to play the role of a bridgehead for small and medium-sized South Korean companies seeking to expand their business scope from the Asian markets to markets in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Turkish envoy to South Korea Salih Murat Tamer confidently said that the "blood brother country" of South Korea will welcome business partners with attractive benefits.
Türkiye is recognized by South Koreans as a "brother country" and its people as "blood brothers." Such recognitions were built up during the Korean War (1950~1953) when Türkiye deployed 21,212 soldiers to the Korean Peninsula. More than 900 soldiers died during the war and the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in the southern port city of Busan bears 462 Turkish soldiers. The official diplomatic relationship between South Korea and Türkiye was tied in 1957.
Over the 70 years after the Korean War, the meaning of brother country faded a little and became a lip service repertoire for some people. However, when the disaster struck the southern area of Türkiye, South Koreans took the disaster as if it were their own issue. "The whole Korean people showed the world what the real meaning of the brotherhood is," Tamer said during an interview with Aju Business Daily on May 2. The veteran diplomat added: "They took this disaster as a family issue. And as if it took place in their country."
When the earthquake struck Türkiye in early February, ordinary people from South Korea started to send supplies including clothing, food, daily necessities, and money to the Turkish embassy in Seoul. There were so many donations and the last batch of the supplies was sent only a few weeks ago. "So many donations were made and we had to rent two warehouses. We also had to ask South Korean companies to carry some of the supplies to Türkiye. This is what maximum they can do," the envoy said.
A total of 152 emergency response personnel were also deployed to disaster sites to search for survivors and distribute supplies. Eight survivors were saved and temporary villages with infrastructure for water and electricity were built for those who lost their homes. "Korea is maybe the only nation in the world that we can call a friend, a blood brother. If something happens to South Korea, Turkish people would be here to provide help," the ambassador said. Right after the earthquake, the South Korean government promised to offer $5 million in emergency humanitarian assistance to Türkiye to handle the natural disaster.
While the southern part of the country took a heavy hit from the earthquakes, other parts of the country including the capital Ankara and the iconic city of Istanbul are unaffected and people carry on with their lives. Ambassador Tamer encouraged South Korean business operators to not hesitate to invest in his country as only a small portion of Türkiye was devastated by the earthquakes and is now under reconstruction.
The envoy stressed that Türkiye could be a safe and attractive country to entrepreneurs while economic relations between South Korea and China are weakening due to the United States' unfavorable foreign business policies and recent sanctions. The envoy said South Korea could cooperate with his country in various sectors including nuclear energy, defense, and vehicle parts.
According to data released by South Korea's trade ministry, a total of 126 companies returned home between 2014 and 2022 after expanding their businesses in overseas countries. 77 percent returned after closing down business in China, South Korea's biggest trade partner, and 12 percent returned from Viet Nam.
China and Viet Nam were countries favored by small and medium-sized manufacturers for their cheap labor and operating costs for almost two decades. However, a 2021 survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries showed that worsened investment environments and political risks were the main factors that led South Korean companies from pulling their businesses out of China and Viet Nam.
"The U.S. is trying to push Korean companies out of China," the envoy said. South Korea's semiconductor makers have struggled with the U.S. CHIPS Act, which restricts funding recipients from increasing semiconductor manufacturing operations in China and other countries that have been designated as national security threats according to US law. South Korean chipmakers such as Samsung Electronics and SK hynix are currently running chip factories in China.
Data released by the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) showed that South Korea's volume of trade with Türkiye reached $9.1 billion in 2022, up 74.4 percent from 10 years ago. South Korea's main export products include vehicles and car parts. In February 2023, LG Energy Solution (LGES), the battery-making wing of South Korea's LG Group, also unveiled its scheme to build a joint venture with a U.S.-based automobile manufacturer, Ford, and Turkish conglomerate Koc Holding in Başkent, near Ankara, to produce batteries for commercial vehicles in Europe.  
South Korea has strived to establish an anti-drone infrastructure to efficiently handle unexpected threats caused by drones. In December 2022, five North Korean drones flew into South's airspace but the South Korean military failed to identify the incursion. To prevent such drone invasions from taking place again, the South Korean military set up plans to establish a drone operations headquarters.
The Turkish envoy said that defense would be a promising sector for collaboration projects between Turkish and South Korean companies. "Türkiye is one of the world's leading countries in drones," Tamer said. He explained that one of its drones called "Bayraktar TB2" was used for battles in various regions including Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Libya, and Syria. The medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicle is remotely controlled to provide air-to-ground attack missile support for ground troops. The Japanese government has also considered the adoption of the drone capable of delivering laser-guided bombs.  
Tamer encouraged more businesses to make a foray into his nation, highlighting South Korean conglomerates' achievements in Türkiye such as Çanakkale 1915 bridge in Northwestern Türkiye. The bridge, opened in March 2022 after 48 months of construction, was built by a consortium that involved South Korea's SK E&C and Daelim and two Turkish partners -- Limak and Yapı Merkezi. The 3,563-meter-long bridge connects two towns -- Lapseki on the Asian side and Gelibolu on the European side -- over the Dardanelles Strait.
The veteran diplomat said cultural exchange activities are crucial in improving the relations, urging that the two countries already have a lot in common in terms of language and culture. "Turkish and Korean languages belong to the same language group," Tamer said, adding that the Korean word "eomma," which means mother, sounds similar to the Turkish word "anne." Both languages also have honorific forms. Just like South Koreans, Turkish also take their shoes off at home.
If possible, the ambassador said he would host a cultural event where K-pop artists could collaborate with Turkish singers. Considering the financial burden, he said it would be fantastic to find promoters. Tamer said that he believes the future of relations between Türkiye and South Korea is bright as there are many opportunities. "Our business deals in the past always show us that we will always be able to work out win-win situations between the two countries."
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