Bangladesh and the Republic of Korea have enjoyed friendly relations since establishing their diplomatic relations on Dec. 18, 1973. During the past five decades, the two countries have developed solid ties and partnerships in every aspect and every field of cooperation. There are many commonalities between Bangladesh and South Korea despite being geographically distant. Both nations experienced split up, were subject to military dictatorships, and had severe economic problems. Again, both countries struggled and sacrificed to uphold the dignity of their mother languages. Based on these common values, democratic principles, ideals, and goals, Dhaka-Seoul relations have always been multifaceted.
A five-decade-old friendship
South Korea recognized the newly independent Bangladesh in May 1972 and established diplomatic relations in December 1973. In 1975, South Korea opened its embassy in the capital, Dhaka, while her counterpart in 1987. Since establishing diplomatic ties, the two countries have been enjoying excellent bilateral relations based on shared values, mutual respect, and common aspirations. South Korea is a great friend of Bangladesh. Our bilateral collaboration has expanded to a wide range of areas, including trade and commerce, investment, development cooperation, education and human resource development, ICT, defense, and cultural exchanges. The strengthening of strategic partnership between the two countries thus deserves to be considered all these aspects.
On the political aspect, both countries maintained a cooperative relationship and supported each other in times of need in different international fora. The Republic of Korea highly lauded Bangladesh’s contributions to global peace and security and its leadership role in global climate change issues. Since 2017, the government of the Republic of Korea has continued to provide 3 to 5 million US dollars annually to the Rohingyas and their host communities in Bangladesh in close cooperation with the Bangladesh government and international organizations. Bangladesh deeply appreciates the political support of South Korea during the 3rd Committee resolution in the 72nd UNGA in November 2017, which included human rights in Myanmar.
Moreover, South Korea has also offered generous support to Bangladesh in voluntary service and training. Korean volunteers and physicians come and stay for around two years under World Friends Korea. It covers health, rural development, ICT development, and teaching of Korean language. South Korea’s funding has been used for various humanitarian activities over the last six years, including providing LPG, education, and food to support the Joint Response Plan (JRP). South Korea has also extended its hand on climate issues. Recently, Bangladesh and South Korea signed a $90 million loan agreement on “Climate Resilient Inclusive Development Programme.
Cultural exchange is another area where Bangladesh and South Korea have strengthened their friendship. The Korean wave has already reached the Bangladeshi people. K-pop, K-drama, and K-food cultures have made their mark among the young generation in Bangladesh, and we may effectively use this opportunity to increase people-to-people contact. For example, Joseph Kim, a young South Korean living in Bangladesh, became popular online for his YouTube channel, ‘Koreanbhai,’ where he uploads daily vlogs in Bangla. Regarding cultural cooperation, there are occasional exchanges of cultural troupes between the two countries. The Korean Cultural Center in Bangladesh annually organizes various cultural events, including film festivals, art exhibitions, and performances.
Economy and partnership
South Korea is a significant development partner in the economic sector as it is the 4th largest economy in Asia. Bangladesh has received USD 1.3 billion in foreign direct investment from South Korea, making it its fifth-largest FDI provider. Although Korean companies started investing in Bangladesh in the early 1980s, mainly in the textile and apparel sectors, Korean investors have now started investing in diverse sectors, including leather and leather products, consumer electronics, mobile phones, home appliances, automobiles, ICT, infrastructure, etc. More than 200 Korean companies, including Samsung, have a significant presence in Bangladesh.
South Korea is one of Bangladesh’s major trading partners. The trade between Bangladesh and South Korea crossed the $3 billion mark for the first time in 2023, which was $1.8 billion in 2011 and $2.3 billion in 2021. The South Korea International Trade Association (SKITA) has estimated that the bilateral trade volume between the two nations rose by 38.71%, from $2.188 billion in the previous year to $3.035 billion in 2022. South Korea is our 3rd import source, surpassing Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Our economy is becoming intensely engaged with the economy of this East Asian country as our bilateral trade is increasing, but gradually.
The Republic of Korea has remained a major development partner of Bangladesh for a long time. Bangladesh is thankful to the Korean government for persistent support through the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) for Bangladesh’s development projects. Korean EPZ (KEPZ), the sole private-owned EPZ in the country, has successfully installed and is operating the country’s largest single rooftop solar power plant with a capacity of 22MW, which not only suffices the electricity needs of the zone but is also incorporated with Bangladesh’s national electricity grid.
South Korea has an excellent relationship with Myanmar. Over the last few years, its investment package to Myanmar has been very significant. Given its very good relationship with Myanmar, we hope South Korea would take extra initiatives, a proactive action so that the displaced people of Myanmar (Rohingyas) return to their homeland.
Again, South Korea has emerged as an essential potential destination for the export of Bangladesh’s human resources. Around 20,000 Bangladeshi people live in Korea, most expatriate workers and their families. Since Bangladesh already has a government agreement under EPS (employment permit system) with the South Korean government, Bangladeshi workers should be exported more frequently with low migration costs.
South Korea’s development assistance has undoubtedly contributed to our spectacular socio-economic advancement over the last decade. Bangladesh is one of the largest recipients of the South Korean soft loan as a priority partner country for ODA and hopes to remain a priority partner country even beyond our formal graduation to a developing country in 2026.
The other areas that South Korea has been putting much effort into are innovation and technology. Bangladesh looks forward to a more comprehensive partnership with South Korea to build a knowledge-based, developed, prosperous Bangladesh by 2041.
It is believed that Bangladesh has substantial untapped export potential to South Korea, which should be realized by removing behind and beyond the border constraints. There should be reforms in the trade regimes so that tariff barriers are minimized to enhance the consumer welfare of both countries. Bangladesh expects preferential market access of Bangladeshi products to South Korea through further liberalization, which would help reduce the mounting trade deficit disfavoring Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has started on a path to becoming a developed country. As a country with a rich past and a promising future, it can learn valuable lessons from South Korea’s remarkable rise from the ruins of war to prominence as an economic superpower. This year is more memorable for both countries as it’s the year of the 50th Korea-Bangladesh diplomatic anniversary. As they look ahead, their collaborations are bound to deepen, founded on mutual respect, understanding, and the shared goal of ushering in a prosperous, secure future for their people.
[Photo by Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Bangladesh]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Akib Rahman Shanto is a freelance columnist and author.