Members of the Dongmyeong Unit visiting a girl whom the unit helped in getting surgery in this file photo taken in September 2010. / Yonhap
Jad El-Hassan Lebanese Ambassador to Korea
By Kim Se-jeong
Lebanon is grateful for Korea's contribution to peace within its borders, the top Lebanese envoy to Korea said, adding that it is a highlight of bilateral ties that go back to the 1980s.
"(It's) a very essential building block between Lebanon and South Korea," Jad El-Hassan told the Korea Times last Wednesday.
The Dongmyeong Unit, comprised of nearly 300 South Korean soldiers works under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for 15,000 peacekeepers to restore international peace and security, and to help the Lebanese government restore effective authority.
Stationed in Tyre, a town in southern Lebanon, the unit provides medical services and social services to local residents. It runs a medical clinic, and offers lessons on the Korean language, computers and Taekwondo. The unit also patrols the region to maintain security and offers humanitarian efforts.
As the U.N. mandate will expire next year, the Korean parliament this fall approved an extension of the unit's mission for another year to the end of 2013.
However, aside from the Dongmyeong unit, the picture of bilateral ties between Korea and Lebanon is rather grim.
Korea and Lebanon began diplomatic relations in 1981 and the Lebanese Embassy opened in Seoul in 1996.
On the commercial front, trade and investment is very small. Trade volume last year was only $305,000 made up of TVs, automobiles, cell phones, tires and aluminum as the main trade commodities.
Lebanon has a strong presence of small and medium-businesses, and its finance and tourism sectors are robust.
Investment from Korea is scarce as well. According to the Korean Embassy in Beirut, Korea Electric Power Corp. is the only investor as of 2012.
A Korean diplomat who visited Lebanon last year said a shortage of electricity is a pervasive problem in Lebanon, with the wealthy generating their own power at home. This might come as an opportunity for companies, but poor infrastructure and security concerns keep Korean businesses from investing in Lebanon.
Lebanon is a country of migrants.
The population of Lebanon is 4 million, but between6-8 million Lebanese live abroad.
For example, "One million live in North America, another million in South America, and half a million in Australia," the ambassador said.
How about in Korea?
It is only 20, mostly students.
El-Hassan vows to push to relieve visa requirements with Korea, in an attempt to boost people to people exchange, but the outlook doesn't look so good, because Lebanon is on the list of travel "restricted" countries in the region.
Lebanon also went through a civil war starting from the 1970s, and still has an intermittent conflict with Israel. A recent one took place in 2004, which made the South Korean government to place a travel ban in the first place. The conflict in neighboring Syria is also a contributing factor.
He said he has great affection for Korean people and culture, and wants to raise awareness of Lebanon by means of art.
"I'd like to bring about exchange of art portfolios," he said, looking at a bronze statue next to him.
The ambassador, 58, calls himself "an appreciator of art," which explains numerous paintings that are hung on the wall of his new residence in Sungbuk-dong, Seoul. A few are purchased in Insa-dong where he travels from time to time during his spare time.
He is a career diplomat. His previous postings include Australia, the United States, Czech Republic, Japan and Serbia. "I was here for two months in 2010 replacing my colleague," he said, which got him to volunteer to serve in Seoul. He arrived in the capital six months ago.