Helping Koreans and Belarusians get a better sense of connectivity has been a priority for Belarusian Ambassador to Korea Andrei Popkov since he arrived in 2016.
He says this is why he has high expectations for President Moon Jae-in's New Northern Policy inspired by Nordpolitik, Seoul's signature foreign policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The New Northern Policy inherits the idea of reaching out to northern countries — namely former Soviet Union countries including Russia and Belarus.
The policy is aimed at elevating economic and political relations with targeted countries for Korea to make more room for diplomatic maneuvering.
Ambassador Popkov says he believes Korea can capitalize on the geopolitical importance of Belarus to expand its presence in the regional markets.
He noted that as a landlocked country bordering Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, Belarus was a gate connecting Asia and Europe.
He said such cooperation could raise Korean awareness that Belarus is an indispensable economic partner, as well as being the homeland of two-time tennis Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka and former Arsenal midfielder Aleksandr Hleb.
He said the New Northern Policy was expected to give Belarus additional momentum as it pushes for a digital economy and sought to enhance cooperation on artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnologies, robotics and electronics, nano materials, precise engineering, chemical and petrochemical industries and information and communications technology (ICT).
Popkov said this year marked the 75th anniversary of his country's liberation from Nazi Germany and the centenary of the foundation of diplomacy — two of the most important historical events.
Traveling to Belarus could also offer Koreans an opportunity to learn about the country, its natural features and its medieval architecture, he said.
The following is an edited excerpt of the interview.
How would you assess your term in Korea after being appointed in June 2016?
Belarus and Korea have developed a substantial legal framework for bilateral cooperation and to work on concluding new agreements and improving existing ones.
In 2017, we celebrated 25 years of diplomatic relations and held the Belarusian Economic and Investment Forum.
In May 2018, the foreign ministries of Belarus and Korea held their first bilateral consultations on a bilateral legal framework and international legal issues.
In previous years a number of thematic consultations on various aspects of international affairs took place at diplomatic level.
I cannot but mention the fifth meeting of the Joint Committee of the Republic of Belarus and the Republic of Korea in September 2018.
We had a very productive discussion on cooperation in the sphere of high technologies and development of small and medium enterprises, as well as in the field of information and communication technologies, including the development of a paperless trade system and other e-government related projects.
Moreover, the third meeting of the committee on sciences and technologies was held in Minsk in April 2019.
The faithful implementation of plans agreed together with interested parties from the scientific and business communities can create opportunities for advancing and diversifying bilateral relations in various areas.
Science and technology, as one of the most promising and dynamic areas of our bilateral cooperation, is always at the center of our attention.
Over the past three years we held two science and technology forums. The National Pavilion of the Republic of Belarus was organized during the Smart Factory+Automation World exhibition in COEX in March 2019.
Fifty-nine innovative products, solutions and research examples in the fields of metal processing, new materials, X-ray equipment, medical devices, precision engineering, biotechnologies, etc. were presented at the Belarusian pavilion.
We have a lot of plans for events that will contribute to strengthening ties between our countries.
How successful have Belarus's celebrations of 75 years of liberation from Nazi Germany and a centenary of diplomacy been in promoting the country and its history in Korea?
Over the years of independence, the Republic of Belarus has achieved significant success in the international arena. Belarus became a participant in new integration projects, expanded its foreign partners and allies, and opened, mastered and secured promising new markets.
These achievements were made possible due to the solid foundation of Belarusian diplomacy that was put in place in 1919.
The starting point of our modern history coincides with the very first mentioning of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia (SFA SSRB) in the press.
With the formation of the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Belarus in 1990, national diplomacy continued to develop together with the young state. At that time the diplomatic service got a real boost because many young professionals who contributed a lot to the formation of modern foreign policy of Belarus joined the ministry.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been and remains at the frontline of the struggle for real independence, working to increase the role of Belarus in the world.
In July 1944, the Soviet Army's large-scale Belarusian Offensive operation Bagration completed the liberation of Belarusian territory from the Nazi occupation during World War II.
July 3, 1944, the day when our capital city of Minsk became free of the Nazi invaders, was recognized as the official Day of Liberation of Belarus.
The decision to celebrate the Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus on July 3 as a main state holiday was taken by nationwide referendum in 1996.
The historical paths of Belarusians and Koreans are in many ways alike. Neither of us has ever started wars. Both our countries are striving for effective and long-lasting cooperation with our neighbors as reliable partners.
How is Belarus important for President Moon Jae-in's New Northern Policy?
The New Northern Policy provides a unique opportunity for all the countries of the Eurasian region to be involved in this initiative, not just concentrating on cooperation with the main actors.
Belarus alongside Ukraine and the western part of Russia belongs to the Western Zone of the New Northern Policy, which is considered as the region with the highest level of industrialization and modernization compared to other regions.
In this regard, the main priorities for the Korean side in our region are focused on developing innovative industrial and high-tech cooperation.
We believe the New Northern Policy will give additional momentum to Belarus — our Korea partnership and will contribute to enhancing bilateral political contacts and collaboration in the areas of mutual interest such as the digital transformation of economies, AI, biotechnologies, robotics and electronics, nano materials, precise engineering, chemical and petrochemical industries and ICT.
Belarus takes part in a range of formats of regional cooperation such as the Eastern Partnership as a specific dimension of the European Union Neighborhood Policy, the Central European Initiative, etc.
Our country is a member of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). We believe that initiatives such as Korea's Northern Policy or China's One Belt, One Road will always be welcomed by many countries if they pursue the goals of harmonizing ties between existing integration groupings and strengthening regional and inter-regional cooperation.
Please explain Belarus's manufacturing, engineering and other key industries and why they can make the country an attractive choice for Korean investors.
One of the strategic resources of Belarus is its advantageous location as a transit country from Asia to Europe.
It enables companies to benefit from the target markets of EU countries with around 500 million consumers, on the one hand, and Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other countries of the region with 280 million consumers, on another hand. It also provides direct access to the 182-million people of five EAEU countries.
There are six free economic zones in the country that have their own specialized clusters of industrial development. A special position within the framework of these programs and strategies is assigned to the High-Tech Park, the Great Stone industrial park and other techno-parks.
SK Hynix came to our High-Tech Park five years ago, and last year the Korean company expanded its RD office in Minsk. The Belarusian RD software development center is SK Hynix's only representative office in Eastern Europe.
Belarus is also well-known in our region for its developed automotive industry, petro-chemistry, pharmaceuticals, food industry, qualified engineering personnel and labor force.
Belarusian enterprises have a large distribution network in other countries of our region, which offers good opportunities for Korean companies considering not only the Belarusian market, but also the markets of neighboring countries.
In 2018 a range of prominent legislative and strategic measures have been introduced to consolidate the achievements already made in the IT area of Belarus and to invigorate progress toward a digital economy.
The unique incentives for research, development, investment and other activities involving AI, blockchain and relevant IT technologies were created within the framework of the High-Tech Park.
In particular, Belarus became the first country in our region to legalize crypto-currencies and to give legal definitions to blockchain-related issues through adopting a Digital Economy Development Decree. Our High-Tech Park was identified as a pilot model for the digital transformation in Belarus.
You underlined bilateral cooperation in science, technology and education in past media interviews, as well as in your national day speech. What progress has been made since then?
ICT, science and technology are among the most promising areas of our bilateral cooperation, especially in the era of Forth Industrial Revolution.
Since 2016 two meetings of the Joint Working Group on Sciences and Technology were held in Seoul and in Minsk. During the last meeting in April the Executive Program of the Scientific, Technological and Innovation Cooperation for 2019-20 was signed.
To develop bilateral cooperation and to establish new direct contacts between the research and scientific institutions, both sides have started to hold regular Belarusian-Korean Forums on Science and Innovation.
Last year, young Belarusian researchers began participating in KIST programs. In the first half of 2019, the presidents of the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials (KIMM) and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information (KISTI) visited Minsk and concluded MoUs for cooperation with the National Academy of Science of the Republic of Belarus.
We are planning to sign an MoU on cooperation in the field of education soon and hope that it will further increase contacts between the ministries and educational institutions.
Please explain Belarus's tourist attractions, culture, festival, food and other factors that might help attracting Korean travelers. What is your strategy to raise awareness of Belarus as a travel destination for Koreans?
Belarus has a rich cultural and historical heritage.
There are not as many old medieval streets as in some other European countries because Belarus suffered badly during World War II. But Belarus has many ancient churches, cathedrals and castles from the 12th-17th centuries. Mir Castle and Nesvizh Castle are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
I would like to mention the Tower of Kamyenyets, which is also known as the White Tower. It is a unique 13th century landmark that is one of our country's symbols.
The image of the tower is reflected in Belarusian literature and in paintings by Belarusian artists.
We hope that Independence Avenue, the main street in Minsk City, will also be added to the list. Independence Avenue is an outstanding embodiment of Soviet post-war architecture. I would like to add that Korea's experience in preserving and popularizing its cultural heritage is of a great interest to us.
Belarus also boasts beautiful natural features. There are several National Parks such as Belovezhskaya Pushcha, Pripyatsky, Braslaw Lakes and Narachanski that preserve a significant number of unique species of flora and fauna.
Belovezhskaya pushcha National Park is the biggest and the best known one. It is the oldest forest in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I cannot but mention Polesie Marshes, a vast and picturesque area in the southern part of the country.
Since 2017 foreign travelers have enjoyed enjoy visa-free entry to Belarus.
In 2018 the positive outcome of this step has become evident — we have seen a rapid increase in the number of visitors from all over the world — up from 276,260 in 2015 to 365,534 in 2018.
There are special tourist zones in Belarus. One of them includes the city of Grodno and the Augustov Canal; the other includes the city of Brest and nearby regions. These zones can also be visited without a visa.
In autumn we plan to hold a seminar for Korean companies on the prospects for cooperation in the field of tourism.