'Kurdistan Region has so much potential and room to grow': Korea CG

"Now is the time to call Korean companies back to the Kurdistan Region to increase bilateral trade cooperation."
Consul General of Korea Choi Kwang-Jin wearing traditional Kurdish outfit in the Kurdistan Region. (Photo: Korea Consulate General in Erbil)
Consul General of Korea Choi Kwang-Jin wearing traditional Kurdish outfit in the Kurdistan Region. (Photo: Korea Consulate General in Erbil)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Choi Kwang-Jin, Consul General of the Republic of Korea to Erbil, talked about relations between Korea and the Kurdistan Region, his experiences of the region, his passion for its culture and people along with several other topics in an exclusive interview with Kurdistan 24.

Kurdistan Region is my home 

"I have a very strong impression of the Kurdish people, especially their rich culture and history. In other words, I feel I'm in love with Kurdistan," Kwang-Jin told Kurdistan 24. "There is a heart-to-heart affection between me and the people of Kurdistan." 

"Because of the hospitality and kindness of the Kurdish people, I feel at home in Kurdistan," he said. 

Kwang-Jin explained that he was previously in Erbil back in 2005. He was serving as a diplomat working at the Zaytun Military Division and had the chance to visit several places in Kurdistan Region. 

After he came back to Erbil 15 years later as Consul General, he has observed several changes in the autonomous region, especially related to construction, roads, and services. 

"Compared to that of 15 years ago, Kurdistan is making an eye-opening development at a surprising speed," he said.

When he was previously in Erbil in 2005, "there were a plethora of dust tornados here and there. Now skyscrapers are ascending to the sky" in their place. 

"There is so much potential and room to grow in the Kurdistan Region; its infrastructure, its effort to make reforms and adapt to international standards; in general, it is on the right track," he said. 

Choi Kwang-Jin's love of music and poem

"I was born in the countryside of Korea with the beautiful scenery of nature and kind people around me," Kwang-Jin said. 

He attributes his liberal family background to his love for art. 

"I have spent most of my university life with art-related activities, especially music and poems," he said. 

"During my diplomatic life, I have always had the desire and spirit of learning the culture of the countries where I was dispatched," he added. "Now I am learning the Kurdish language, Daf and Balaban." 

Diplomatic and economic cooperation between Korea and the Kurdistan Region

Kwang-Jin recalled that the relationship between the Korean government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) started when the former dispatched the Korean military's Zaytun Division to the autonomous region in 2004. That division was tasked with rebuilding and economically developing the Kurdistan Region during the Iraq War. 

"Since that point, both sides proceeded to fortify political, economic, and cultural ties under the motto of 'Ema Dosti Ewayn' [Kurdish for 'We are your friends'], and later it came to the level of (Korea is the only friend except the mountains)," Kwang-Jin said. 

"The government of the Republic of Korea, the Zaytun Division, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) has successfully achieved extraordinary accomplishments," he added. 

Such accomplishments include constructing more than 250 facilities in the Kurdistan Region, including 59 schools, 15 Public Health Centers, the Zaytun Hospital, the Zaytun Library, and the Kurdistan Institute of Public Administration (KIPA). 

"We also developed an e-procurement system, provided medical support to the refugees, and sent more than 1,500 KRG employees to Korea for capacity-building training as well as providing in-kind assistance worth more than $60 million," he said. 

"The construction of the Khabat power plant last year is the best example of the strong economic cooperation between the Korean government and the KRG," he added. "This power plant covers ten percent of Kurdistan Region's electricity needs."

Kurdistan Institute for Public Administration (KIPA)

Kwang-Jin said that Kurdistan Institute for Public Administration (KIPA) is a human resources development project implemented by KOICA. KIPA provides training programs to various ministries and institutions in the autonomous region. 

"These programs encompass areas such as public administration, finance, languages, IT, and e-government in general," he said. "From 2018 until the end of 2021, more than 4,000 government officials from different ministries have been trained by KIPA.

"The project budget was around $7 million, which included the construction of three buildings, providing all training equipment and capacity building fellowship programs for 41 policymakers, TOTs, and HR employees in Korea," Kwang-Jin said. "KIPA is the umbrella for conducting all types of human resources development and capacity building programs of the KRG officials." 

"KIPA played a big role in developing the capacity and skills of the KRG employees by assuring that every government institution in the region has received the capacity-building training it needs," he added. 

Bilateral trade between Korea and the Kurdistan Region

"Basically, the trade relation between Korea and the Kurdistan Region is facilitated by the so-called economic term 'invisible hand'," Kwang-Jin said. "The government sides always support creating the trade environment for their best opportunities to enhance trade between the two sides." 

Kwang-Jin mentioned that before ISIS, more than 200 Korean businessmen were working in Kurdistan Region, but now they only have two companies operating in the region. 

"Now is the time to call Korean companies back to the Kurdistan Region to increase bilateral trade cooperation," he said. 

He pointed out that there is an agency called 'The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency' (KOTRA) in Iraq, which plays a crucial and bridging role between businessmen of Korea and Iraq. 

"KOTRA provides a lot of platforms for the interaction of businessmen," he said. "Many requests from Kurdish companies for business opportunities with Korean companies were met and satisfied by this agency." 

"On top of this, more and more business platforms will be provided in various formats such as international exhibitions, business meetings, and so forth," he added.

Cultural and educational cooperation between Korea and the Kurdistan Region

On the person-to-person level, Kwang-Jin said that Korean and Kurdish people are actively building cultural and friendship ties through the various cultural and educational programs, such as Korea-Kurdistan Poem Night, Korean Movie Festival, and the Taekwondo Competition. 

He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic confined people to their homes and suspended activities.

"So, we thought of creative ideas to maintain our cultural activities and let people enjoy Korean movies even in times of the pandemic era," he said. "In October 2020, we implemented the first drive-in cinema in Erbil, which was the first experience in Iraq."

Following the success of that new cinema, there was demand from other cities in the Kurdistan Region for the same thing.

"Therefore, in 2021, we traveled to Sulaimani and Duhok cities to introduce the same innovation," Kwang-Jin said. "The idea was to let people watch Korean movies while sitting inside their cars without fear of being infected by the coronavirus." 

Kwang-Jin said that Korean films such as 'Parasite' and 'Minari', drew world attention and won famous international film awards. 

"I can say that there is a big room to expand further the cooperation in the area of culture and film between the two Korea and Kurdistan Region," he said. "Therefore, we participated in the Duhok International annual Film Festival, which the people of Duhok host, and as a part of a whole program, we continuously supported the internationalization of Kurdish film since 2017." 

The Global Korea Scholarship program (GKS)

Kwang-Jin said that the Global Korea Scholarship program (GKS) provides undergraduate and associate degrees to all international students it selects.

"The students will be able to enroll in almost all universities in South Korea, according to their level annually," he said. "There is a total of 220 GKS scholarships present for international students in this Global Korea Scholarship program." 

At least three students are chosen from Iraq each year to pursue their graduate studies in Korea. 

"Some of them have achieved their degree and now are serving in their fields, and there are some students now attending their classes in Korea," Kwang-Jin said. "The main motive of the GKS scholarship is to provide opportunities to all the international students who want to excel in their field and who are motivated enough to make a change in the world. 

"South Korea enhances its international exchange and mutual friendship with different countries by providing opportunities to international students through this scholarship program," he added.

Kwang-Jin pointed out that the students can apply for the program even if they are still at the end of their undergraduate classes. 

"Because screening of the documents and interviews need a long time, as applying to the program starts in spring, while the students get enrolled in autumn," he said.

"Therefore, I strongly recommend the Kurdistan Region students to apply for this annual program at the end of winter."