On June 19, Ethiopian Airlines' first passenger flight is scheduled to land at Incheon International Airport.
Ethiopian Ambassador Dibaba Abdetta
By Kim Se-jeong
Ethiopia's flag carrier's decision to launch flights to Korea is more than just commercial interest, said the African country's ambassador to Seoul.
"It is an expression of our solidarity," Ambassador Dibaba Abdetta told The Korea Times on May 8 in his Itaewon office.
On June 19, Ethiopian Airlines' first passenger flight will land at Incheon International Airport, making it the first African airline company to operate a route to Korea. Four flights will fly to Addis Ababa, the capital, every week with a 45-minute stop in Hong Kong for refueling.
This is part of the Ethiopian flag carrier's investment in the rising market in Asia. Soon, it will add the Philippines on its destination list as well. New Delhi, Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou are among existing destinations in Asia.
Ethiopian Airlines is among the biggest carriers in Africa, servicing 30 countries around the world and 40 destinations on the African continent.
Asked about competition with Korean Air, the ambassador said that the operation of the two different carriers will only be complementary. Last year, Korean Air began a direct flight service to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, but it is reportedly not making money.
Abdetta highly regards the 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries and Ethiopia's dispatch of soldiers during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Korea and Ethiopia established the diplomatic ties in December 1963, but the Korean War is what set the tone of the entire relationship.
"Whoever I meet here, they remember (Ethiopia's participation in the Korean War) and thank us."
More than 6,000 soldiers were dispatched in 1951 — 124 were killed and 500 wounded. Chuncheon and Hwacheon in Gangwon Province were where the Ethiopian troops had their fiercest fights, but they did not lose any of their 253 skirmishes.
"When I say Ethiopian Airlines opens a direct flight, people say to me, ‘You were the first African state to help us during the war, and now you're the first African country to have a direct flight,'" Abdetta said proudly.
Sixty year after the ceasefire was called, much of the memory about the Ethiopian contribution to the war is preserved in Chuncheon where there's the Ethiopian War Memorial, the Ethiopian museum and a cultural center. Chuncheon and Addis Ababa are sister cities.
Commercial interest in the launch of new flights is evident.
The new route is expected to help Ethiopia attract more Korean investors and traders, whose numbers have seen modest growth in recent years.
According to KOTRA, trade volume between the two countries almost doubled to $133 million between 2007 and 2012. Coffee beans, medicine and automobiles were among the top traded commodities.
Hyundai is one of the investors with an assembly line just outside the capital. Samsung and LG aren't there yet, but, as the ambassador said, they run feasibility studies for projects.
Former President Lee Myung-bak received credits for putting Africa on the map for Koreans, triggering more trade and investment flows between Korea and the continent.
Foreign investment is crucial for Ethiopia which is currently undertaking a state-led economic development plan.
"The Ethiopian economy is agriculture-oriented, but we are trying to change," Abdetta said. As it wants to achieve this quickly, Korea's economic development experience comes handy.
According to the CIA World Factbook, agriculture accounts for 46 percent of GDP and 85 percent of employment in Ethiopia.
Coffee and sesame seeds are two dominant export commodities. There are also markets for them in Korea. Especially for coffee, the market in Korea has been exponentially growing.
The number of coffee shops springing up is only small proof. Coffee originated in Ethiopia and people are proud of it. The country is eyeing foreign investment in textiles, leather, commercial agriculture and manufacturing.
Representatives from coffee and sesame seed industries are expected in Seoul next month with the arrival of the first flight. They will meet with their Korean counterparts, appealing to prospective buyers. Representatives from science and technology institutes and tourism will also be here to form collaborations.
The Ethiopian Embassy in Seoul organized seminars on investment, science and technology and tourism during the delegation's stay, inviting their Korean counterparts. A group of Korean War veterans will also be part of the delegation.
Envoy Abdetta said the new flights will contribute to narrowing the knowledge gap between Korea and Africa. "People still don't know much about each other, and I am certain that this will be helpful."
The year 2011 was an important year for Korea and Ethiopia. In July that year, former President Lee made a state visit to Ethiopia, the first Korean president to visit, followed by a state visit here by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in November 2011. He passed away in August last year.