|Colombian Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism Jose Manuel Restrepo Abondano says bilateral relations with Korea, which date back to the Korean War, are being upgraded to "brotherhood of innovation." / Korea Times photo by Yi Whan-woo|
By Yi Whan-woo
Colombia's relations with Korea have often been described as a "brotherhood of blood" because it was the only South American country to be a part of U.N. forces during the 1950-53 Korean War.
That bilateral friendship has grown over half a century, with the two formally establishing a diplomatic treaty in 1962, elevating their relations to a strategic cooperative partnership in 2011 and entering a free trade agreement in 2016.
With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the two countries are facing another turnaround, upgrading their ties to a "brotherhood of innovation" centered on startups and high-technology, according to Colombian Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism Jose Manuel Restrepo Abondano.
"We're turning a new page after building a long history of relationship that started in 1950," he said during a recent interview with The Korea Times in Seoul. "It will be a brotherhood of innovation as well as entrepreneurship to cope with the Fourth Industrial Revolution."
The minister led a delegation of government officials and businesspeople to Seoul during the latest exchange between the two countries in October.
He attended the Korea-Latin American and the Caribbean Countries (LAC) Business Summit 2019 and met key business policymakers, including Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee and Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution Chairman Jang Byeong-gyu.
Among the areas of cooperation discussed were how to optimize technological innovation, how to foster entrepreneurship and talented human resources, and how to enhance exchanges of film, music, fashion and other creativity based sectors.
After ending five decades of civil war in 2016, Colombia is trying to cope with the Fourth Industrial Revolution to better spur its economy.
"And why not be the Korea of South America?" Restrepo said, adding that Korea is a good model to emulate, considering it experienced the inter-Korean conflict before rapid industrial development.
Restrepo is the inaugural cabinet member of Colombian President Ivan Duque. He said the government is focusing on areas such as how to use blockchain technology for public transparency, how to confront corruption using blockchain, how to use the internet of things (IOT) as a way to build smart cities and helping local governments get familiar with the e-government system.
"I think there is a plenty of opportunity for Korean investors to invest in Colombia in information and communications technology (ICT)," Restrepo said. "We're changing the course of our history and we want to invite Korea to experience a new Colombia."
He said his country has been trying to foster a favorable environment for startups. He noted that Medellin, the country's second-largest city, is home to one of the World Economic Forum's Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network.
Korea is the only Asian nation that Colombia has a free trade agreement with.
Since the FTA took effect in 2016, bilateral trade volume ― with Colombia mainly exporting coffee, flowers, agricultural products, shrimp and Korea mainly selling electronics, cars, heavy construction equipment and materials ― has expanded by 50 percent, reaching $1.8 billion in 2018.
Restrepo believes this special relationship can be improved with faster import procedures, increased quantity of purchased items and more diverse goods.
Avocado, lime and pork are among the next key items Colombia wants to sell.
Restrepo also said drawing more Korean investors and tourists to Colombia was essential.
He said Colombia, with a population of 49 million people, has been one of the fastest-growing economies in South America, making it a favorable investment destination.
It has a geographical advantage too, as it is in the middle of North and South America and can serve as a regional hub. It also has FTAs with 16 countries.
Tourism is Colombia's second-largest industry, after oil and gas, and the country has the second-highest biodiversity after Brazil.
Among its tourist attractions are Cartagena and Santa Marta, both beach towns, and Cano Cristales, a river that various travel magazines have described as one of nature's most breathtaking spectacles for it's the variety of colors caused by marine plants called macarenias.
"I think that makes Colombia, together with hospitality and diverse cultures and cuisines, an extraordinary place to visit, Restrepo said. "We want Koreans to feel the rhythm and colors of Colombia."
He specifically recommended a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed coffee regions.
When asked about Korea's bid to join the Pacific Alliance, Restrepo said: "Korea will have unwavering support from Colombia."
Korea, currently an observer state, is negotiating to become an associate member, joining Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.