YANGON – The Winter Olympics, which are being hosted by South Korea this month, have been labeled as the “Peace Olympics” and presented as a symbol of the attempt to reconcile the two Koreas. The peace and reconciliation effort being conducted by the Koreans has similarities to Myanmar’s current peace-building process. Despite the geographical distance between Myanmar and South Korea, Korean art and culture have somewhat influenced Myanmar society. South Korea is also the 7th-biggest investor in Myanmar, via companies ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises to large corporations.
Lee Sang-hwa, the South Korean ambassador to Myanmar, talked to The Irrawaddy on topics ranging from South Korea-Myanmar relations to trade and investment and his perspectives on peace. The former director general of the North Korean Nuclear Affairs Division in Seoul also served as the secretary to former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for seven years.
Myanmar does not have any athletes participating in these Winter Olympics, but can you tell us why the event has been labeled the “peace Olympics”?
The Olympics, whether it’s the Summer or Winter Games, is a festival for all human kind. Whether or not you are sending athletes to Olympics, it does not matter. It would have been much better if Myanmar was sending athletes but we understand Myanmar is summer country, with tropical weather. For Myanmar people, winter sports like skiing and speed-skating are not very familiar or popular. What is really important is the message we would like to deliver through this festival for all humanity, which is one of peace and reconciliation. Also, these Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are taking place 30 years after Korea hosted the 1988 summer games in Seoul.
Ever since the current [South Korean] government took office in May last year, we put great priority on making the best use of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as a mechanism for reducing tension and promoting peace and reconciliation. In that regard, it is really significant to have an agreement with North Korea on their participation, first of all. Secondly we agreed on one important step, by making a joint team, sending a very significant message for peace, unity and reconciliation between the two Koreas. It does not stop there; through meaningful development between the two Koreas, we would like to go the extra mile, which means making progress on other important issues.
It is a very important first step; you may call it a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction, through people participating in sport, toward reconciling the two Koreas.
In Korea, you are trying to unify two nations with one ethnicity, but Myanmar is different. So first of all, how do you perceive the Myanmar peace process?
Myanmar stands a critical juncture, making peace and solidarity, and a union, among so many different ethnic groups. It’s the number one priority for the Myanmar government, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We stand by Myanmar and support the government in that regard. Speaking of the Pyeongchang Olympics and Myanmar’s great efforts to promote solidarity and national reconciliation; the two resonate very strongly with each other.
Can you elaborate on that?
As I said, our effort at making the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics a Peace Olympics has a lot in common with Myanmar’s effort at national unity and reconciliation, because the essence of Myanmar’s peace process is to bring all the ethnic groups to the negotiating table. They may have different agendas, they may have different views and ideas, sometimes grievances and complaints, but the important thing is to lead them to the dialogue table and put all the ideas and opinions together. And they make give and take. The essence of it is unity, solidarity and reconciliation. It is [the same for] the Pyeongchang Olympics.
The two Koreas have been living apart for more than five decades and we are technically at war still. So bringing [the athletes] to Korea [will allow them] to look at how much development Korea has made. Korea is a vibrant democracy and through flourishing economic development it has achieved so much development from being one of the most impoverished nations in the world. We want to show them what we have achieved through reform and openness to the world. We want to give them the message that they can do the same. They can choose to make the difference, if they change their mindset, if they change their calculus. Having nuclear weapons does not guarantee your security and safety. To the contrary, you have to give them up. There is absolute consensus [on this] from the international community. If you change your mind, we will do everything in our power with the international community to help you, to take a step in the right direction.
That is interesting. It seems South Korea puts trust in the North to change their mindset. In the case of Myanmar, there are a lot of trust issues regarding the peace process. What would be your advice to stakeholders?
That’s a very good point. At the end of the day, the most important thing is trust-building; without trust, you cannot do anything. As I said, the two Koreas have been living separately for many decades. It is like Myanmar; even though it is a Union, you have many different ethnic groups; some of them are still fighting, especially in border areas. So to achieve a meaningful reconciliation, you need perseverance and patience. Progress is so slow…there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. [It is necessary] to make them believe that their different views, different voices are being heard and being taken care of, particularly the State Counselor. I heard there will be a signing ceremony [for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on Feb. 13] and I will go and see with my own eyes what the signing ceremony is about. It is a partial one you know, there are still many armed groups who have not made up their mind yet. It is another step, thus I want to lend my own blessing and the Korean government’s support to the progress.
Besides your support for peace building, how are Korean businesses contributing to Myanmar’s development?
POSCO Daweoo is the largest Korean investor; it runs the gas field in Kyauk Phyu. It is the number one investor from Korea in Myanmar. Besides POSCO, there are many investors and small and medium-sized enterprises. The most important thing is that the prospects for Korean investment in Myanmar are very very bright. Let me tell you why; the current Korean government is taking a fresh look at ASEAN. When we speak about ASEAN, we have an absolute majority of our trade going to Vietnam, so we need to find another place to invest in large volumes, in terms of trade, investment, people-to-people exchanges and upgrading political partnerships. So, here comes Myanmar with its strong geographic location, with its vast lands, rich natural resources and particularly its people, who are very hard working. These are very important assets. Our eyes are turning to Myanmar under our government’s new ASEAN initiatives.
How do you ensure CSR work in Myanmar, as we are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by investors?
One of the points highlighted by our government’s new ASEAN initiative, is a focus on the hearts and minds in the country in which you are investing. We believe doing business is doing diplomacy. The most important thing is trust-building, and without winning hearts and minds from our counterparts, be it in the government or the business sector, you cannot do business or diplomacy in a sustainable manner. In that context, we are working hard to increase CSR. Last week, we went to Naypyitaw for a contract signing ceremony, for the first time, with the Myanmar minister for livestock and agriculture and foreign investors, for pig farming. CP Group has an overwhelming [presence in the] sector in the region and they were competing [in the bidding for this project]. After one and half years of trial, to everyone’s surprise the Korean government took the bid. There were many reasons. One of the lessons we learned is to knock on everyone’s door to persuade them that this is our strategy, this is our vision. It is not just about making profits out of the business. [The project] has a very extensive CSR program, it is good for the local community, because it creates jobs by hiring 100 local people. It is good for Myanmar’s economy and livestock industry because of the technology transfer, and because of the very solid CSR program. It is the first ever livestock program that the Myanmar government has awarded to a foreign investor.
How long would that livestock MoU be?
The lease is for more than 15 years on land owned by the government. It the first case ever of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock deciding to lend its land to a foreign investor. It is good for Myanmar as well. It is a win-win situation — not just for Korean investors; it is mutually beneficial.
The first step will be expanding the number of pigs on the farms. Then they will be sold to local markets, and then exported to neighboring countries. It is organic breeding. The breeder pigs are now in Vietnam and waiting to be shifted to Myanmar. Pigs in Vietnam are used to [a similar climate].
The farm is expanding in stages and in the coming year, the number of pigs will be increased. As the number increases, the ministry plans to open up new farming in the region. It takes time, but the important thing is for the investor to make his case successfully to the Myanmar government to make the first step into Myanmar business.
Korean beef is among the best in the world. Aare you planning any more livestock projects in Myanmar?
We understand Myanmar people like pigs and chicken in that order. Who knows? If Myanmar people get used to beef over time then you may see other farming industries open up to investment here.
How have Korean enterprises found the existing Myanmar investment law and infrastructure?
It is one thing that Korean businessmen have more and more interest in investing in Myanmar, but it is another to open up a business on the ground in Myanmar, because when you plan to do make an investment in Myanmar, there should be some institutional system, or mechanism in place. Otherwise you cannot afford to just come and open a new business, because businessmen are picky, and they have a long shopping list. If someone in Korea wants to go abroad and find new business opportunities, he looks at the ASEAN community and there are many good candidate countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. All are looking for new investment opportunities. There is competition among ASEAN countries as to who can offer better investment incentives. In order to have more and more investment from countries like Korea, there needs to be something from your side as well. It’s a two-way street.
We recognize the current National League for Democracy-led government is working hard to make conditions better and secure greater investment from abroad. But it is not there yet. I visited Thilawa Special Economic Zone last week. There are six Korean enterprises operating construction, cable, cement and vegetable oil factories. It was an eye-opening opportunity for me, because I sat down with the managers and heard their own views. I understood what the obstacles are for them to making bigger investments. For instance, one of the cable companies, who would like to open a manufacturing factory here, said there [should be action to ensure a level playing field with] China, for instance, which does not operate factories here. They just export cables in huge volume. If you have a manufacturing factory here, they should have some kind of incentives; tax breaks, reduced level of environmental impact assessment, something like that. It will take time till the Myanmar government knows what should be done, because of the interagency consultations, rules and regulations, which need to be revised and revisited. It takes time, but what is important is that they are aware of the necessity to modernize, to upgrade the investment law, company law and regulations to international standards.
What advantage can Korea gain from the Dala bridge project in Yangon?
The Dala Bridge, or Friendship Bridge, project is not about making a profit. We know that it will significantly contribute to the local economy of the Dala. It will significantly reduce traffic and transportation time, which is critically important for logistics.
Unless Myanmar, or any country — Korea, Japan, China — has reliable and sustainable infrastructure, they cannot do business in a sustainable manner. If you have manufacturing factories here in Yangon, you need the roads, water, and electricity. In this sense, without very solid infrastructure in place, nothing is sustainable when it comes to trade and investment. So it is by helping Myanmar, modernizing and upgrading infrastructure, it is also good for Korea in the long term.
As an investor in Rakhine state where POSCO run its gas production in Kyauk Phyu, how much are you worried about instability in Rakhine State?
First of all, because of the tensions and instabilities in Rakhine State, you are absolutely right, there is a certain level of anxiety and concern on the part of Korean businesspeople. That is unavoidable, that is the reality on the ground. But at the same time, that does not necessarily mean there is no appetite for greater investment. We believe like many other countries in the international community, that without sustainable development in Rakhine State, you cannot even dream of making peace there. So first, let the sustainable development work on the ground, then address such issues. So we are proud to say that there are some Korean investors planning the projects in that state.
Besides business and investment, what humanitarian support are you providing to the country?
In Rakhine State, we are fully mindful of the complexity and sensitivity of religious, historical and ethnic issues. At the same time, as a responsible player in the international community, we have also voiced our concerns about the humanitarian suffering, and the hardship there. That is why the Korean government has provided humanitarian assistance, some of it through the United Nations, like the UN World Food Program, UNICEF and other agencies. We are also doing humanitarian work on a bilateral level.
In northern Rakhine state some residents have fled for Bangladesh, but access for diplomats is restricted. But locals need support. What role can Korea play in support of those people and in refugee repatriation?
In order to win confidence from the international community, especially the donor community, about the effectiveness of their humanitarian assistance, that it is actually being delivered to the people in need, you need some kind of verification, monitoring mechanism to place. That’s why the United Nations and other donors are calling for better access on the ground. We understand the Myanmar government is doing its best to improve monitoring and verification activities by allowing, among other things, better access to the donor agency. Overtime, we will see improvement on the ground. Korea will also take part in government-organized tours of the areas, which start this week. We want to see firsthand what is happening on the ground and what should be done to improve the situation.
Korea and Myanmar are seeing more interaction in trade, business and investment. Do you have any intention to play a role in the peace process?
Let face the reality. Korea is far from Myanmar, physically. Geography is destiny, as they say. So I think it is first of all, the Myanmar government that needs to take responsibility, and take the ownership to finish the job. But in reality, the Myanmar government cannot do it alone. You need assistance, you need support. That being humanitarian, development, and political assistance; you need support from the international community. In that sense, we are ready to provide anything we can from our end. So I look forward to going to Naypyitaw to witness the signing by two more ethnic armed groups of the NCA [on Feb. 13].