The South Korean Ambassador to Nigeria, Jong-hyun Choi, in this interview with KINGSLEY OPURUM, speaks extensively on the bilateral ties between Nigeria and his country. He also talks about how the Nigeria government should channel investment in human resource development, which is one of the secrets of Korea's remarkable success story.
Can you tell us about your diplomatic service and the countries you have worked before coming to Nigeria as the ambassador of South Korea?
I have been in diplomatic service for more than three decades. I joined Korean diplomatic service in 1981 and I have been posted to so many different countries - about five different countries. I have been posted to Australia, South-east Asia, and Washington in United States, the Kingdom of Belgium and the European Union.
Right before I came over here in September last year, I was the Deputy Commissioner in Korean Embassy in Washington DC and I have served twice in our embassy in Washington DC. I spent more than half of my career abroad. This is my first ambassadorial post and, as I said, I arrived here September last year, and quickly paid a courtesy visit to President Goodluck Jonathan on the first of November last year. So, I'm just one year old into my new post in Nigeria as an Ambassador representing my country in this great country - Nigeria.
So far, what is your impression about Nigeria?
Well, Nigeria has a lot of huge potential in terms of natural resources, like oil and gas, as well as human resources. Nigeria has a lot of talented people and Nigeria is the biggest country in terms of cooperation in the whole African continent. With the population of 160 million, Nigeria has played a leading role in contributing to the peace and security, not only in West Africa but also in the whole African continent and across the globe.
Nigeria is one of the biggest contributors in terms of joining the peace-keeping process and Nigeria has been playing a leading role, particularly in ECOWAS. When I was appointed as an ambassador to Nigeria, I was tasked by my President to work hard to strengthen bilateral partnership, particularly in the area of trade investment and development. That is what I have been focusing on for the past one year of my ambassadorial post in Nigeria.
Prior to my arrival here in Nigeria, I had had the opportunity to meet with well-known Nigerians in Diaspora in the United States because, as I mentioned, I stayed there for two years and half before coming all the way here to Nigeria, including your current Finance Minister when she was the Managing Director, World Bank.
So, I got to know more about Nigeria before I came over here, and almost everybody that I met in the United States talked about the huge potential Nigeria has, as well as the huge challenges Nigerian Government and the people will have to face to actualise the transformation agenda.
When you were appointed Korean Ambassador to Nigeria, did you in any way feel apprehensive owing to the security challenges in the country?
As I mentioned, I have been in the Foreign Service for decades and a majority of my time in the Foreign Service has been spent abroad. Even though Nigeria isn't an ideal place just like United States in terms of quality of life or living, that different situation did not affect my perception about Nigeria.
As I mentioned, unless you get to know about the country where you are posted and also like the country, you can't get to the people living in that country. So, I'm supposed to like the country where I'm posted to as a representative of my country and the first job is to work hard to forge and strengthen the ties between Korea and Nigeria.
What is the volume of bilateral ties between Nigeria and South Korea?
In a wider context, Nigeria is the second largest trading partner in Africa after South Africa, and the average trade volume stands at $1.5billion. Last year, for the first time, our bilateral trade exceeded $3billion. This year, for the first nine months, our bilateral trade stands at $1.7billion and we have three more months to go.
For the first time in recent years, Nigeria exported more to Korea than its import from Korea, mainly due to the huge increase in Nigeria's export of gas product to Korea. So, more than 95% of Nigerian exports to Korea this year are coming from the single source of gas. Nigeria's export in the first nine months of this year is worth $1.1billion and Korea's export this year is worth $650 billion.
Nigeria recorded a little more than $400 million in its trade with Korea in the first nine months of this year. The main export items from Korea to Nigeria are petrochemical products, automobiles, telephones and other appliances. That is why you have a lot of Samsung and LG products getting popular in Nigeria.
Has South Korea offered any form of assistance to Nigeria in addressing its security challenges?
I think that is one of the huge challenges Nigeria will have to get over to achieve its Vision 20:2020. We have been working hard with Nigerian Government to address the root cause of this security situation, which is a socio-economic factor. There are a number of Korean companies in Nigeria working at upgrading infrastructure. They can be part of Nigeria's national pursuit to achieve a sustainable economic development.
On our own part, we have been working hard with the National Planning Commission in providing development cooperation assistance. As you have witnessed in the last Friday event of KOICA Nigeria Alumni Gathering, we have handed over four primary schools in the states of Gombe and Adamawa. Also, we have upgraded school classes in several states, particularly in the north. Also, a technical training centre has been under construction and it's expected to be completed sometime next year.
That training centre has the capacity to train over 200 Nigerian young stars a year, if I'm not mistaken. We are helping Nigeria to address the problem of skill acquisition and this vocational training is part of Nigerian government effort to address skill acquisition problem. More and more Nigerian people can be empowered to seek employment.
This year alone, we are inviting more than 100 Nigerian government officials at federal, state and local levels to provide them with training in their various fields, including National Economic Development Strategy (NEEDS) and other capacity building areas. So, all in all, we have invited more than 500 Nigerian officials who are engaged in the public service to deliver good service.
Can you tell us briefly about KOICA programme in Nigeria?
In order for us to deliver a service which is more suitable to the local need in terms of development cooperation, a couple of months after my arrival, I have agreed with the Minister of National Planning to institute a channel between the embassy and the National Planning Commission. This channel is meant to focus on Korea's development cooperation project in Nigeria and also eliminate any stumbling blocks and also identify areas of huge development cooperation.
So, that channel is aimed at strengthening the two countries development cooperation. We are talking about upgrading CCTV monitoring system in Nigeria, and we also are talking about establishing modern primary and secondary schools in Abuja and we are not only thinking about providing schools but what is more important is the role the software is going to play in delivering a high quality education service.
So, we have invited school teachers to learn how to develop curriculum or extra-curriculum activities in the best manner that suit the role of helping students to develop their talents and providing them with the best education service so that they can be empowered and equipped to pursue their talents, thereby contributing to their own families, their communities, their society, their state and their nation, and even to the international community. So, empowerment and education of those young ones, I believe, will be sure-fire gateway to achieve a sustainable national economic development.
That is what my country has done and we will continue to do so. You see, Korea used to be one the poor countries in the world in the 1960s. But now, we have successfully transformed my country into 15th largest economy in the world with the GDP exceeding $1 trillion. Korea is a small country with the population of 50 million. Korea had in the past gone through serious challenges: we've gone through abject poverty; we've gone through serious war in the 50s and the war claimed millions of innocent lives of South Koreans; we were a war-torn country in 1950; we have been subjected to several military rules.
So, we do share this common experience with Nigeria. That puts our two countries on a very sound footing in bilateral relations. I strongly believe that Korea wouldn't have been able to be where they are now both economically and political without the assistance of the international community, and my people feel it is appropriate to give back what we have to the international community. And this is one of the key principles in strengthening our contribution to the international community and also to the developing countries. So, this is exactly what my country has been doing over the years in Nigeria.
I highly appreciate this strong partnership existing between these two countries. We have been enjoying our bilateral relationship since 1980, so, this year marks the 32nd of our diplomatic relations and we have been enjoying a strong partnership on bilateral terms as well as in the international arena. Most recently, the Nigerian government has shown support to Korea's candidacy for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. So, Korea will be a member of the Security Council for the next two years, beginning on January 1, next year.
According to sources, Nigeria is listed as one of the top ten failed states in Africa in spite of its huge natural and human resources; how do you reconcile this anomaly with your country that does not have as many natural resources as Nigeria but is still ranked the 15th largest economy in the world?
Without doubt, Korea does not have as many natural resources as Nigeria but one of the secrets of Korea's remarkable success story is its huge investment into human resource development. The current UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon was my boss when he was Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs. That tells you a lot about the focus my country has placed in developing human resources.
This is because we don't have much natural resources but Nigeria does have a lot of natural resources and, as I mentioned earlier, you have a lot of talented people in various areas you can harness to achieve sustainable economic growth. Korea's expenditure in the education sector is quite tremendous. You have to understand how much focus Korea has placed in developing its education. For the 2012 budget in my country, the expenditure in the education sector accounts for more than 20% of our national budget and our national budget is approximately $200 billion.
So, we spend $40 billion on education from our national budget. I just came across a newspaper about the comment made by the Senate Committee Chairman on Education, Senator Chukwumerije. He wanted to see Nigerian budget earmarked for education to increase by next year much more. Nigerian national budget submitted by the government to the National Assembly stands at approximately $30 billion and out of that the education sector gets 10%.
So, Nigerian people will have to be given the opportunity in terms of education to find where their talents lie and how to best develop their endowed talents so that they can develop themselves, and thereby contributing to the society and to the country. I understand that is exactly what Nigerian government has been making every effort to do in order to achieve its Vision 20:2020. My country is very much supportive of the transformation agenda and we have been working very hard to be part of your national pursuit, and that is what true partnership means.