South Korea’s first diplomatic relations with Italy date back to 1884. Relations were interrupted after the country was made a Japanese protectorate, and resumed after the war. They have since been intensified as Korea’s international profile has grown. Italy’s establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea and the transfer of competency for North Korea from Peking to Seoul provided support for the South Korean government’s “engagement” policy. Italy’s role in constantly encouraging inter-Korean dialogue is greatly appreciated by Seoul.
The year 2007 saw a marked boost in bilateral relations, based on a series of very high level visits. The first, on 4-5 February 2007, Foreign Minister D’Alema’s visit to Seoul, followed by President Roh’s visit to Rome on 15 February, Prime Minister Prodi’s visit to South Korea (17-19 April), and Secretary of State Vernetti’s visit to North and South Korea (16-18 September)—all of which were viewed with great satisfaction by Seoul as testimony to our priority focus on the Republic of Korea as a key Asian player.
In addition to the convergence of interests in the United Nations context, Italy’s awareness of and focus on the situation on the Korean peninsula has most certainly contributed to the success of the bilateral dialogue. The fact that Italy was the first G7 country to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea, in 2000, and our various initiatives in support of the inter-Korean dialogue, have always been greatly appreciated by the Koreans.
The traditional synergy on multilateral issues has created a bond between Italy and Korea. This close relationship has become more marked as a result, among other things, of Seoul’s decision to send troops to Lebanon (350 soldiers). Minister D’Alema signed a Memorandum with his Korean counterpart in Seoul last February that envisages annual political consultations (alternating between Rome and the Korean capital) to discuss regional and international questions of mutual interest.
Italy is Korea’s third EU trading partner, after Germany and the United Kingdom. In 2006 our exports to Korea increased by 5% on the previous year. This positive trend was confirmed in the first five months of 2007 (exports up 20%). The increase was supported by sales of machine tools, mechanical tools for industry, fashion items, clothing, leather, shoes, high quality food and beverages, and optical and pharmaceutical products.
The total volume of Italian-Korean trade in 2006 was over 7.2 billion USD: 2.9 billion USD in Italian exports and 4.3 billion USD in Italian imports (giving Korea an advantage of 1.4 billion USD).
Nevertheless, investment flows between the two countries are low. The goal of both Italy and Korea is to help their business communities get to know each other better so that they can benefit more from the opportunities both systems—generally seen as complementary—provide. Korean investment in Italy is at present limited but we have stepped up our promotional efforts to ensure that Italy is the recipient of part of the considerable volume of financial resources that Korea injects into foreign markets each year.
Korea’s decision to invest in Italy’s ports and logistics sector, especially the Port of Trieste, is a very positive sign. In their meetings of February and April 2007, both Minister D’Alema and Prime Minister Prodi focused strongly on alerting the Seoul authorities to the opportunities offered by Italy in the logistics and ports sector. An effort that played an important part in Korea’s decision.
Scientific and technological relations
Korea is a world leader in research and technological development, as evidenced by the country’s financial commitment to this sector. Indeed, in the state budget for 2007, 10.48 billion USD were earmarked for R&D, an increase of 9.6% as compared with 2006. This brings the research budget to 4.1% of the total public budget and about 3% of GDP. International collaboration is considered a great stimulus and is pursued through bilateral agreements (over 40 at the moment) defined at government level with numerous countries (USA, Italy, France, Great Britain, etc) and through the creation of joint research structures.
Collaboration with Italy is growing strongly, albeit less so than with other advanced countries, which have already set up common research centres and laboratories. The Italian-Korean dialogue is, however, intense and rich, as evidenced at the “Third Italy-Korea S&T Forum” opened by the Prime Minister during his official visit to Korea on 19 April 2007.
At the governmental level, collaboration between Italy and Korea is based on the “8th Scientific and Technological Cooperation Protocol” for 2007-09 and on the “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the Italian Republic concerning scientific-technological cooperation”, signed during the President of the Republic of Korea’s visit to Italy in February 2007.
Culture is a key element in the promotion of Italy’s image in Korea, a country which itself has a rich cultural heritage (both traditional and contemporary) and which is strongly attracted to western culture. Bilateral cultural relations are diverse and wide-ranging (last February the Cultural Programme protocol for 2006-08 was signed in the presence of the two Foreign Ministers).
The Italian Cultural Institute oversees the planning of the numerous events – of the highest quality level – covering all sectors of art and culture that take place in all of Korea’s main cities.
Italian is the fifth European language studied in Korea, after English, German, French and Spanish. It is taught in five of Korea’s principal universities, each of which has at its disposal one of our university “readers” and a considerable grants programme.