Economy, Business And Markets

To Iran With love

To Iran With loveTo Iran With love

Her father forged diplomatic ties with a country whose revolution and then his own assassination prevented him from visiting, leaving his daughter Park Geun-hye, the first South Korean president to set foot on Iranian soil, to fulfill that dream.

This interesting nugget of information is mentioned in an article by Eunjung Lim Eunjung Lim, PhD lecturer of Korea Studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Excerpts of the article follow:

Park’s visit to Iran in May this year left some historic footprints. The meeting between Park and her Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, was the first between the two countries since their diplomatic ties were established in 1962. It is also meaningful from the point of view of her personal history.

Her father, President Park Jung-hee, tried to visit Iran, but the summit could not take place because of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the assassination of Park Jung-hee in the same year.

Park was the third president to visit Iran after western sanctions were lifted, following Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma, and the first female leader to visit Iran from a non-Muslim country.

Her father established the country’s diplomatic relations with Iran and more than 20,000 Koreans moved to Iran to work in the construction industry in the 1970s.

Teheranno (Tehran Street), a main street of Gangnam financial district in Seoul, is a symbolic example of that period between the two countries. Seoul and Tehran agreed on exchanging the names of streets to show the two countries’ friendship in June 1977 when mayor Nikpay of Tehran visited Seoul.

The politics of nostalgia can help better understand the meaning of this visit to South Koreans. Firstly, the slowing down of the Chinese economy, South Korea’s largest market, and waning domestic consumption have cast a blight on the South Korean economy.

South Korea has been gradually losing its advantage in conventional global industries such as shipbuilding and steelmaking, and it is eager to remedy this with a new growth engine industry and new markets.

Since her presidential campaign, Park’s prescription to reanimate the South Korean economy has been “creative economy,” which means “the convergence of science and technology with industry, the fusion of culture with industry, and the blossoming of creativity in the very borders that were once permeated by barriers.”

During her visit to Iran, Park tried to present her “creative economy” strategies accompanied by 236 business executives, the largest in the history of the country’s trade diplomacy.

The outcomes were satisfactory; South Korea signed 66 memorandums of understanding for conventional industries like infrastructure construction and energy, and also for new industries like medical and healthcare. The total value of these MoUs is expected to reach approximately $45 billion, if fully implemented.

Various Korean media rated Park’s trade diplomacy highly and described the accomplishment as a “jackpot”. Accordingly, the approval rating for her administration, which had plunged to below 30% in April when the ruling party largely lost in the legislative election, rebounded immediately.

Park’s approval rating increased to 61.6% among sexagenarians who experienced the first Middle East boom in the 1980s and 90s, and now South Koreans are dreaming of their second Middle East boom in Iran, the last “blue ocean” market of Middle East.

This visit showcased Korean soft power, which was also very nostalgia-provoking. Hallyu, a neologism referring to the growing popularity of Korean culture, has helped create a congenial atmosphere for Korean products in many emerging market countries.

Historic drama series like Daejanggeum or Jumong have been tremendously popular in Iran where western pop culture is shunned.

Park deliberately wore green, white and pink during her three-day visit to reflect the color of the Iranian national flag. She highlighted cultural exchanges even in ancient times, between Persia and Silla.

Silla was the first unified kingdom in the Korean Peninsula and Silla’s Queen Seondeok and Park have been often analogized as the first female monarch and the first female president respectively in Korean history. Her political supporters might have seen comparisons with Seondeok when Park enthusiastically talked about Silla.

What does the politics of nostalgia from Park’s visit to Iran indicate? It can be said that a number of South Koreans miss the glory days of their country and yearn for the return of those days.

It will be interesting to see whether the politics of nostalgia can function as a new driver for the future of Korean economy and its relations with the Middle East, especially Iran.