Sri Lankan-Korean ties hit new high
Foreign Minister says number of workers here to increase above 22,000
By Philip Iglauer
Sri Lanka-Korean relations took a qualitative leap forward last week, complete with promises to restore bilateral ties to the level they were before the island nation’s decades-long civil war.
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Korea from Tuesday to Friday with a huge delegation that included Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris.
Rajapaksa met with President Lee Myung-bak at his official residence in Seoul Tuesday to discuss ways to strengthen economic and other cooperation between the two countries.
They promised to expand the number of Sri Lankan workers destined for Korean factories, ramp up Korean investment in Sri Lanka, established direct flights between Seoul and Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo, and even start talks on a free trade agreement.
There are 22,000 Sri Lankans currently residing in country.
Lee and First Lady Kim Yoon-ok welcomed the Sri Lankan President accompanied by First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan delegation at Lee's official residence.
A number of deals were inked, including an agreement for the cooperation on information sharing, an agreement on an economic development cooperation fund to provide US$ 200 million for development activities in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan civil war began in 1983, as the island’s Tamil Hindu minority struggled for an independent state. The ethnic and religious conflict persisted with on-again off-again fighting and claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 before finally ending 2009 with military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
“With the new situation in Sri Lanka having eradicated terrorism finally in 2009, Korea is now interested in Sri Lanka,” Peiris said in a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday.
Peiris said that Lee in his meeting with his Sri Lankan counterpart specifically referred to “valuable and extensive contribution of the 22,000 working in this country.”
He said that Korea will “substantially increase” the quota of guest workers allotted to Sri Lanka.
Four Korean language institutes will be created to facilitate this, with Korea sending professional language instructors.
Peiris said the two countries aim to restore bilateral ties to the robust level enjoyed before Sri Lanka’s civil war began in 1983.
“Korea was once Sri Lanka’s largest foreign investor. Korea was even afforded privilege of a special investment zone,” he said. “We look forward to a return of much greater investment by Korea.”
Peiris said that the rapid development in Korea-Sri Lanka relations in recent years is not a product of any foreign policy particularly focused on relations with Korea or East Asia in general.
He said that what Sri Lanka is focused on is rebuilding the country, on economic development and reconciliation within society.
“After 30 years of anguish and pain, a time of true healing and of rapprochement and of understanding is required,” he said. “It is important that we get this message out to the world.”
Peiris talk at length about promises of increased guest works from his country, direct flights and FTA talks, but no specifics on any of those issues were provided.
Tourism has the greatest short-term growth potential, he said.
Some 1 million travelers visit the island, sometimes called the pearl of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is well known for its idyllic beaches and waters, but less is known about its central highlands and jungles and the well kept ruins of ancient Buddhist kingdoms.
Korea and Sri Lanka once enjoyed direct flights.
“We are trying to revive direct flights, too. We will pursue that vigorously,” he said. “It used to be that most of our visitors were Europeans, but all that is changing now. We have visitors from all over world, especially Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.”