By Philip Iglauer
As a catalyst from where popular pro-democracy youth protests swept North Africa and the Middle East from December 2010 through 2011, Tunisia was at the epicenter of the Arab Spring.
Events there began when 26-year old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his modest property and against the humiliation inflicted on him by a minor municipal bureaucrat.
Bouazizi’s spontaneous act of defiance sparked the passions of ordinary Tunisians to join mass street demonstrations against social and political repression and for democracy.
The protests ultimately toppled the decades-old autocratic regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011, after his more than 20-year abusive reign.
Now, the fledgling democracy seeks lessons Korea gleaned from its successful democratization experience, which was fully realized in the late 1980s.
The foreign ministers of Korea and Tunisia held talks Thursday to discuss ways Tunisia can learn from Korea’s democratization experience, as the new Arab democracy charts a new course.
During the talks, Forein Minister Kim Sung-hwan praised the transformative progress Tunisians have achieved since its revolution. Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem thanked Korea for its support of his nation's democratic ambitions.
“We look forward to Korea sharing its experience in political fields as far as democratization is concerned, as well as in transparency and its legal framework,” said Tunisian Ambassador to Korea Ammar Amari.
Kim also conveyed Korea’s willingness to contribute to the process of democratization in Tunisia during their meeting.
South Korea has succeeded in building vibrant democratic institutions, following a decades-long hard fought struggle by college students, intellectuals and union workers against successive authoritarian regimes culminating in the so-called June 29 Declaration, a milestone achievement, in 1987.
Tunisia sparked a wave of protests over political corruption, unemployment, food inflation, freedom of speech and other political issues in the largest unrest to hit the nation in 30 years.
The protests inspired similar actions throughout the Arab World: an Egyptian popular uprising in which longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak was ousted, in Libya where a destructive civil war broke out leading to the downfall of Moammar Gaddhafi, the Yemeni revolution in which longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to resign. Other demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan and Bahrain sprang up, too. In Syria, autocratic scion President Bashar al-Assad remains beseiged by more than a year of political unrest, civil war and international condemnation.
Now Tunisia is focused on rebuilding the country and international assistance could make the difference for successful democratic transition.
Abdessalem is on a tour of Asia to build technical and financial support for the new democratic government. He arrived in Seoul Wednesday for a three-day visit, and was in Beijing April 16-18 for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jie-chi.
Tunisia received a grant in 2011 from Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) on a $6 million-dollar online management system for procurement markets and a feasibility study for a techno park. KOICA has pledged financial assistance this year to the tune of an additional $5 million for other projects.
Abdessalem also met Education Minister Lee Ju-ho and Park Dae-won and visited Daedeok Innopolis, the nation’s most important hi-tech research and development center, in Daejeon, South Chungcheong Province.