Bangladesh-South Korea Relations in 2023: Issues and Directions

The year 2023 unfolds as a significant chapter marked by profound companionship and collaborative endeavors between Bangladesh and South Korea. This period stands out as a testament to the strength and depth of their diplomatic ties and joint initiatives. The spirit of mutual cooperation and shared goals that define the bilateral interactions between these two nations have been showcased throughout the year by the two states. Against the complex backdrop of global geopolitics, the emphasis on companionship reflects a dedicated commitment to fostering strong, amicable ties between Bangladesh and South Korea. This commitment is further enriched by the narrative of collaboration, symbolizing joint efforts and synergies in addressing shared challenges and pursuing common objectives. Whether in economic partnerships, cultural exchanges, or diplomatic engagements, the overarching theme of 2023 underscores the significance of unity and collaboration in navigating the complexities of their interconnected relationship. As both nations strive for common ground and shared solutions, the year unfolds as a poignant reflection of their collective pursuit of harmony and shared prosperity on the international stage.

In May 1972, Korea formally acknowledged the newly independent Bangladesh, leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations on December 18, 1973. Since then, Bangladesh and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have fostered warm and active bilateral ties. The ROK set up its diplomatic mission on March 1, 1975, while Bangladesh opened its resident diplomatic mission in Seoul on February 16, 1987. Over the years, both countries have enjoyed friendly relations, collaborating in various fields, including economy, culture, politics, garment industry, electronics, development cooperation, and human exchange. South Korea, recognizing Bangladesh’s improving investment environment and expanding market base, is contemplating the involvement of major Korean companies such as Samsung and Hyundai in construction, engineering, electronics, and automotive sectors. With an investment of $1.3 billion, South Korea stands as Bangladesh’s fifth-largest foreign direct investor, with almost 200 Korean companies diversifying their investments into infrastructure, energy, and consumer goods. In 2022, the bilateral trade volume between the two nations surged to $3.035 billion, a remarkable 38.71% increase from the previous year. Samsung has established a manufacturing plant in Narsingdi, producing a range of products. Additionally, the Korean EPZ (KEPZ) operates Bangladesh’s largest single rooftop solar power plant, contributing not only to the electricity needs of the zone but also integrating with Bangladesh’s national electricity grid. South Korea has become a significant destination for Bangladeshi human resources, with approximately 25,000 expatriate workers and their families residing there. Given the existing government agreement under the employment permit system (EPS), the export of Bangladeshi workers to South Korea is expected to increase further due to lower migration costs.

At the invitation of then President Lee Myung-bak, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina undertook a visit to the Republic of Korea from May 16 to 18, 2010. The summit meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Korean President Lee Myung-bak on May 18, 2010, marked the beginning of a new era in the relationship between the two friendly nations. The visit resulted in the signing of four agreements and MoUs focusing on enhancing cooperation in energy, environmental initiatives, cultural exchanges, and EDCF loans. In a reciprocal gesture, Prime Minister H.E. Lee-Nak-yon from Korea visited Bangladesh from July 13 to 15, 2019, contributing to the positive momentum in the bilateral relationship. To fortify political ties and facilitate regular dialogues, a standing mechanism of Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) led by the Foreign Secretary/Vice Minister has been in operation since 2009. The 3rd Foreign Ministry Consultations between Bangladesh and the Republic of Korea took place in Dhaka on March 31, 2022.

DateEvent/Development
February 25 – March 3, 2023Korea Week 2023 organized in Dhaka to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties, featuring various events and programs at ICCB and Kurmitola Golf Club. “Showcase Korea” displays Korean goods, and a Kpop Live Concert sponsored by Samsung features popular Korean groups.
March 1-2, 2023Korea Cup Golf Tournament held at Kurmitola Golf Club, Dhaka Cantonment. An award show was scheduled for March 3, 2023.
March 2023Bilateral trade volume reaches an all-time high of $3.4 billion in 2022. “Showcase Korea 2023” aims to provide business and entertainment opportunities.
April 2023South Korea is Bangladesh’s fifth-largest FDI investor, with $1.3 billion invested. Over 200 Korean companies have invested in various sectors, contributing to economic cooperation.
June 2023Bilateral trade between Bangladesh and South Korea crosses $3 billion mark for the first time. South Korea becomes Bangladesh’s third-largest import source.
July 2023FBCCI and KOIMA signed MoU to strengthen trade ties, emphasizing potential impacts on trade connections and market diversification.
August 20, 2023The 5th Bangladesh-Korea Joint PPP Platform meeting took place in Dhaka, discussing new projects, providing strategic directives, and discussing financing modes.
November 6, 2023FBCCI and KOIMA formalized commitment through MoU at Hotel InterContinental. South Korea recognized as the 4th largest FDI provider in Bangladesh.
November 2023South Korea’s exports to Bangladesh increase to $139,303 USD Thousand in November, showing continuous economic engagement.

 

This brief overview explores the course of Bangladesh-South Korea relations in 2023, examining key events, initiatives, and the shared vision for future collaboration. By scrutinizing key events, such as the Joint PPP Platform meeting and bilateral agreements, the study aims to offer insights into the contemporary facets shaping this enduring partnership. Economic aspects, including trade volumes and major Korean investments, are analyzed to highlight the strategic significance of the relationship, particularly in the context of Bangladesh’s developmental aspirations. The study provides a concise and informative overview for policymakers, researchers, and the public, contributing to a nuanced understanding of the present state and future potential of Bangladesh-South Korea relations.

2023: A Year Marked by Companionship and Collaboration

Bangladesh, on the brink of graduating from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status and with a national goal of becoming a smart country by 2041, has received an expression of interest from Korean Ambassador to Dhaka Park Young-Sik. He conveyed Korea’s eagerness to play a crucial role in Bangladesh’s infrastructure development, akin to its significant contributions in the Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry. Ambassador Park highlighted the Meghna Bridge Project on the Bhulta-Araihazar-Bancharampur road (R-203) and the provision of treated water from the Meghna River to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar (BSMSN) as pivotal projects currently under discussion through the Joint PPP Platform Meeting. He suggested that the success of these projects could serve as a “litmus test” for Korean companies, potentially paving the way for more substantial investments. The ambassador shared these sentiments during a seminar held on August 23, 2023, commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Bangladesh. Organized jointly by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra), and the Korea-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KBCCI), the seminar, titled “Korea-Bangladesh Economic Cooperation – Sharing Development Experience and Exploring Opportunities,” emphasized the necessity of revisiting two policies to enhance productivity in the manufacturing sector.

The South Korean community in Bangladesh orchestrated “Korea Week 2023” from February 25 to March 3, 2023, with the aim of boosting economic collaboration and commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations. Various events throughout the week were hosted at the International Convention City Bashundhara (ICCB) and Kurmitola Golf Club in Dhaka, under the theme “Stay Strong March Together”. South Korean Ambassador to Bangladesh, Lee Jang-keun, expressed the embassy’s commitment, along with the Korea-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KBCCI) and other Korea-related organizations, including KOTRA, KOICA, Korea Eximbank, and KIND, to successfully organize multiple events under the banner of Korea Week 2023. The objective was to offer more business and entertainment opportunities to the Bangladeshi business community and enthusiasts of Korean culture.

Highlighting the record-breaking bilateral trade volume that reached $3.4 billion in 2022, Ambassador Lee expressed his dedication to advancing economic relations between the two countries. As part of this commitment, “Showcase Korea 2023” was expected to play a pivotal role in providing ample opportunities for collaboration between businesses from both nations. The event, scheduled for February 25-26, were to feature participation from over 40 companies, with LG sponsoring the showcase. The festivities include the “Kpop Teams Live Concert” on February 25, sponsored by Samsung Galaxy, featuring popular groups such as “TAN,” “ICU,” and the taekwondo performance team “Nolja”. Additionally, various cultural activities throughout the week, supported by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), presented Korean food, electronic products, and information about tourism in South Korea to the Bangladeshi audience. To add a sporting touch, the Korea Cup Golf Tournament was scheduled to take place at the Kurmitola Golf Club in Dhaka Cantonment on March 1-2, 2023.

Furthermore, South Korean Ambassador to Bangladesh, Park Young-Sik, expressed Korea’s desire to be a collaborator in Bangladesh’s pursuit of economic prosperity. Speaking at the “Korea International Cooperation Agency Bangladesh Alumni Night 2023” in conjunction with the KOICA Bangladesh Alumni Association (KBAA) at a city hotel on November 23, 2023, Ambassador Park Young-Sik remarked on the shared journey of both nations in overcoming challenges and attaining economic success. During the event, the ambassador emphasized that the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Bangladesh was being celebrated. Over the course of these five decades, cooperation has evolved from early investments in the Ready-Made Garments (RMG) sector to current partnerships spanning Information and Communication Technology (ICT), infrastructure, energy, education, healthcare, and manpower. Park Young-Sik underlined Bangladesh’s significance as a key development partner for Korea, citing contributions exceeding $200 million in grants and $1.7 billion in concessional loans. In addition, a signing of a new Framework Arrangement has laid the groundwork for an additional $3 billion in concessional loans from the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) for the period 2023-2027. Currently, South Korea stands as the fourth-largest contributor to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Bangladesh, with a total stock amounting to USD 1.48 billion as of June 2023.

The ambassador expressed confidence that Bangladesh, with its unwavering dedication and hard work, can emulate Korea’s economic success. Highlighting Bangladesh’s transition from a Least Developed Country (LDC) to a developing country, along with its impressive growth rate, he sees clear indications that Bangladesh is well on track to realizing the goals outlined in “Vision 2041.” The ambassador conveyed his assurance that Korea and Bangladesh would continue their collaborative journey toward prosperity and a shared future. He reiterated Korea’s commitment as a steadfast friend, vowing to support Bangladesh until it achieves its aspiration of becoming a developed nation by 2041.

In the meantime, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), the foremost trade organization in Bangladesh, and the Korea Importers Association (KOIMA) have solidified their dedication to bolster trade and investment ties between Bangladesh and South Korea by formally signing a MoU. The Senior Vice President of FBCCI, Md. Amin Helaly, and the Chairman of KOIMA, Kim Byung-Kwan, represented their respective organizations during the signing ceremony on November 6, 2023, held at the Hotel InterContinental in the capital. FBCCI Senior Vice President Md. Amin Helaly underscored the potential significance of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in fortifying trade relations between Bangladesh and South Korea. Highlighting the 50-year milestone in bilateral relations, he emphasized the shared history of development, economic growth, and industrial progress that has brought the two nations together. Over these five decades, both countries have established a robust foundation for a enduring partnership through high-level delegations and the signing of numerous MoUs geared towards future growth. Bangladesh achieved a noteworthy milestone by surpassing $55 billion in exports for the year 2022-23. Building on this positive discourse, efforts are underway to enhance competitiveness and work towards the goal of a trillion-dollar economy, aiming for a target export value of US$ 300 billion by 2041. He stressed the importance of focusing on market and product diversification to attain this ambitious target.

South Korea has already acknowledged Bangladesh as an extremely promising investment destination, and this recognition has led to a substantial increase in Korean investment, particularly following the establishment of a Special Export Processing Zone exclusively for Korean investors. The FBCCI Senior Vice President urged Korean companies to explore opportunities for joint ventures and subcontracting arrangements, emphasizing the importance of collaboration, particularly in the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector. Highlighting key sectors with substantial potential for Korean companies, he mentioned semiconductors, microchips, hi-tech, plastics, auto parts, agricultural instruments, ceramic products, and software, among others. To facilitate seamless trade, the Senior Vice President urged the national accreditation body of South Korea to engage in a Mutual Recognition Agreement with the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute (BSTI) for accrediting Bangladeshi products destined for export to Korea. Chairman of the Korea Importers Association (KOIMA), Kim Byung-Kwan, expressed commendation for the recent developments in Bangladesh and emphasized the significance of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). He remarked, “This MoU represents a significant step towards fostering stronger trade and investment relations between our two countries. We are excited about the potential it holds for mutual growth and prosperity.”

The 5th Bangladesh-Korea Joint Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Platform meeting occurred on August 20, 2023, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the aim of discussing new projects, providing strategic directives for project implementation, and exploring financing modalities. The meeting concluded with a commitment from all participants to reinforce mutual cooperation and collaborate on the execution of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh.

Subsequently, on December 10, 2023, the Government of Bangladesh and the Republic of Korea formalized the partnership by signing the Record of Discussion (RoD) and Terms of Reference (TOR) for the project “Capacity Building of Statistics Services based on Platform.” The primary objectives of this project include establishing an integrated Statistical Data Warehouse, introducing software tools to enhance statistical services, and supporting the necessary equipment and system environment for the National Statistical Data Warehouse (NSDWH). In support of this initiative, KOICA would provide a grant of US$ 9.65 million (approximately 106.15 crore) for the successful implementation of the project. The project also has the objective of formulating a master plan aligned with the National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS) and designing and constructing a Statistical Data Warehouse Platform. Concurrently, it aims to enhance the capacity of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and its collaborators. Upon successful completion, the project will establish an integrated Central Storage for census and survey data, transforming the BBS into a unified platform for statistical data—effectively addressing data management challenges and augmenting the national statistical capacity.

In addition to this project, the South Korean government outlined plans to welcome 10,000 Bangladeshi expatriate workers in 2023. The outgoing Korean Ambassador, Lee Jang-keun, shared this information during a farewell call to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Ganabhaban on May 16, 2023. Notably, the number of Bangladeshi workers dispatched to Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS) saw a significant increase, rising from approximately 1,500 workers until 2021 to 5,891 in 2022, as highlighted by Ambassador Lee Jang-keun.

As 2023 unfolds, Bangladesh and South Korea continue to fortify their enduring bond, exploring new avenues of cooperation and bolstering existing ties. From high-level diplomatic engagements to collaborative economic initiatives and cultural celebrations, the two nations have demonstrated a shared commitment to mutual growth and prosperity. With Bangladesh on the cusp of graduation from Least Developed Country status and South Korea emerging as a pivotal player in this transformative journey, the prospects for deeper collaboration appear promising. The events and developments in 2023 not only mark a celebration of the past 50 years but also lay the groundwork for an even more dynamic and fruitful partnership in the years to come.

[Photo by Jagged 85, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. He was a Research Assistant at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and International Republican Institute (IRI). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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