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Seoul recently hosted the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, Teodor Meleșcanu. His visit comes after Moon Hee-sang, the Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, visited Bucharest last month. The reason for these bilateral visits is something that, unfortunately, few Korean or Romanians are aware of: 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Republic of Korea and Romania, which opened a new chapter in the bilateral relations between the two countries.
Romania, the seventh most populous member of the European Union (EU), signed a strategic partnership with Korea even before the EU did, being one of Korea’s first such European partners. The Republic of Korea was also Romania’s first strategic partner in Asia and is still its only such partner in the Asia-Pacific. The two countries share many commonalities: they are both market economies and democracies, but with a history of authoritarianism; US military allies, hosting US troops and missile defense systems; and important geopolitical actors in their respective regions.
Because of the communist regime that ruled Romania throughout the Cold War, the history of these bilateral relations is rather short. Romania established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea in March 1990, just three months after the Romanian revolution that brought down the Ceaușescu regime, which had strong relations with North Korea. But this three-decade history hasn’t stopped Romania and Korea from reaching a high level of cooperation.
Since 1990, relations quickly developed, especially in the economic field. Daewoo acquired an automotive factory in the Romanian city of Craiova and a shipyard in Mangalia, at the Black Sea. Unfortunately, because Daewoo’s financial difficulties over the past two decades, it had to sell both assets, the Craiova factory now assembling Ford vehicles. But Romania hosts other important Korean investments, from companies such as Samsung, Doosan or Hyosung.
On the other hand, the Republic of Korea is Romania’s second largest export market in the Asia-Pacific, bilateral trade being stimulated by the Korea-European Union Free Trade Agreement. Nonetheless, there are still many opportunities left for the development of trade. For example, Romanian wine is well regarded throughout the world. But in 2017, Romania exported less than $30.000 worth of wine to Korea, compared with about $3 million in exports that headed to China.
There are also many opportunities for Korean and Romanian companies to invest in the other country. Last year, Romania’s GDP growth rate of 6.9% was the second highest in the European Union. Romania’s EU membership means companies based here have free access to a common market of almost 500 million consumers. Romania also has a well-trained and educated workforce, but one providing a competitive advantage in labor costs compared to Western Europe, thus facilitating exports to other EU members. The tax system is also very favorable, with the personal income tax recently lowered to just 10% and a corporate income tax of 16%.
Most importantly, Romania is emerging as a regional information and communications technology (ICT) hub, thanks to its highly skilled engineers and its innovative entrepreneurs. Numerous Western IT companies have set up shop in Romania, both for research and development, and for technical support. Korean companies could follow this trend, as the two governments have already signed a memorandum of understanding regarding IT.
But relations between Korea and Romania aren’t limited to trade and investments. Scores of young Romanians are in love with Korean culture, K-pop and K-dramas. Over the past decade, Hallyu has swept Romania and many students have started learning Korean, also taking advantage of educational opportunities to study in Korea. These young Romanians passionate about Korea could play an important role in strengthening bilateral relations in the future. Romanian language is taught in Korea as well, at Hankuk University, which has had dozens of graduates in the past years.
The academic field can be one of the main areas of focus in developing the strategic partnership between Korea and Romania, creating more opportunities for Korean studies in Romania (which, up to now, have focused just on language and cultural studies), encouraging more student and professor exchanges and more partnerships between universities, on joint research projects.
Ten years after the signing of the Strategic Partnership between Korea and Romania, relations are stronger than ever, providing numerous benefits and opportunities for both countries. But, most importantly, there are still many avenues left to strengthen relations and make this strategic partnership even more productive. The past ten years make us optimistic that cooperation will deepen on multiple fronts and, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Korea-Romania strategic partnership, there will be even more achievements to celebrate.
Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.
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