By Selcuk Colakoglu
Turkish-South Korean relations have developed smoothly and were always good politically. Moreover, Turkey being one of the countries that sent troops for the liberation of South Korea during the Korean War has made this friendship more meaningful. However, the current situation of Turkish-Korean relations remained well below their potential. Both are members of the G-20, and Turkey and South Korea developing closer political and economic cooperation seems inevitable.
Economic Opportunities and Risks
When we look at bilateral trade relations, a trade volume of about 5 billion dollars in 2010 seems low. Bearing in mind that South Korea is the thirteenth biggest economy in the world and Turkey the sixteenth, this great potential will be better understood. However, the problem between the two countries is not only a low trade volume but also the imbalance in it.
According to the figures of 2010, South Korea exported $4.7 billion to Turkey but imported only $300 million from Turkey. It is clear that this business relationship is not sustainable for Turkey in the long run. Although Turkey accepts this imbalance due to competitiveness of Korean goods, it would like to narrow this trade deficit with some other measures. First of all, Korean companies are expected to investment more in Turkey. As of 2009, Korean companies’ investment in Turkey has just remained at $549 million. Moreover, the transfer of technology from Korean companies through the establishment of partnerships with Turkish ones, involving high-tech products that Turkey is currently unable to develop, would lead to strategic cooperation between the two countries.
The opportunity for cooperation between the two countries on nuclear technology was missed by the conclusion of negotiations with a dispute over a nuclear power plant in Sinop in November 2010. Requiring an investment of about $20 billion, the nuclear plant in Sinop would be the most powerful example of Turkish-Korean economic cooperation if realized. However, the parties cling to hope to re-open negotiations for a nuclear power project in Sinop or elsewhere.
As the most competitive country in tourism, Turkey is willing to attract more Korean travelers. Despite the increase in the number of Korean tourists coming to Turkey in recent years, this figure is around 100 thousand per year. Given that Turkey welcomed nearly 30 million foreign tourists in 2010, the rate of Korean tourists remains very low.
Another urgent item on the agenda between the two countries is the signing of a free trade agreement. Turkey is one of the countries to register a customs union with the EU without being a full member. Therefore the FTAs made by the EU directly affect Turkey. However, not attending the negotiations directly, non-EU member Turkey is forced to apply tariffs on third countries with which an FTA was signed. On the other hand, these third countries that Turkey applies tariffs to do not have to apply tariffs on Turkish goods directly. Turkey needs to sign FTAs with these countries separately. The FTA that South Korea signed with the EU entered into force on July 1, 2011. If an FTA with South Korea is not signed immediately, Korean goods will continue entering Turkish markets without tariffs while Turkish goods still are stuck in Korean customs. Such a situation would adversely affect relations between Turkey and South Korea.
Strategic Partnership: Is It Possible?
The absence of political problems between the two countries and continuing alliance since the Korean War makes Turkey and South Korea ideal partners. In addition, a mutually very positive view of Turkish and Korean people toward each other offers a social basis for upper-level political friendship. However, Ankara and Seoul could not make use of this potential for a long time. The number of high-level visits has been rather limited until the 2000s. Last ten-year period has experienced great improvement in this respect. Nonetheless, it was not possible for Turkey and South Korea to develop a common policy toward regional and global problems, although the two countries can develop strategies in organizations such as the United Nations, G-20, etc.
Again, one being in the eastern, the other in the western end of Asia, the two countries can provide opportunities for each other in their regions. One of Turkey’s most reliable partners in East Asia is South Korea. In this respect, Seoul can facilitate the opening of Ankara to East Asia. In return, Turkey can help South Korea’s opening to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean basin. Turkish and Korean companies and charity organizations can cooperate in these regions.
Increasing high-level visits between Turkey and Korea in the 2000s can be made more permanent through some steps. Ministerial-level meetings can be achieved on a regular basis in the identified areas of cooperation. Such cooperation will provide common gain to both Turkey and South Korea, the two rising twenty-first century economies.
USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies
Translated by Nihal Cizmecioglu.