Remembering the Ethio-South Korean Friendship
Ermias Haile, July 9, 2011-
A tiny country in the far eastern tip of the Asian continent, sandwiched between Japan and the People’s Republic of China, with a population of close to 50 million and once an economic basket case, South Korea has managed to transform itself from a poor agrarian country into a leading industrial country in less than 60 years since the end of the Korean War (1950-53). This country is often lauded as a model country in that it has successfully caught two birds in one shot – a thriving economy and dynamic democracy.
Efficient government leadership, dedicated economic planners, reverse brain drain, risk-taking entrepreneurs, educated manpower, the tradition of hard work, and timely investment in technology can generally be taken as the most essential ingredients in the country’s rise from ashes of the War to achieving the most remarkable growth dubbed the Miracle on the Han River.
Seoul’s hosting of the G-20 in November 2010 was a crucial opportunity to promote its potential of becoming an advanced country. As President Lee Myung-bak of Korea said in the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Korea now looks “well placed to share its development experiences and expertise with emerging and developing countries on strategies for development and on policies for successful recovery from financial crises.” To share this crucial development experience, meet its increasing demands for energy and market for its products, Korea has been shifting its focus to Africa and the country’s president Lee Myng-bak is embarking on a nine-day trip to three African countries including Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations with South Korea dates back to the 1950s during which a number Ethiopians sacrificed their dear lives during the Korean War. At that time, Ethiopia sent 6037 troops (the Kagnew Battalion) in pursuit of world peace and collective security in a mission considered “holy” by the then-emperor Haileselassie of Ethiopia. The heroic deeds of our soldiers in Korea was well-documented by a Greek war correspondent, Kimon Skordiles (Kagnew: The Story of Ethiopian Fighters in Korea -1954), who travelled to area to cover the first armed clash of the Cold War. According to Skordiles, the Kagnew battalion, bound by the motto “one for all and all for one” to “fight until we win or die,” won all 235 of its battles against North Korean forces. True to their motto, there were 121 deaths and 536 injuries but not a single of one of the 6,037 warriors went missing or became a prisoner of war (POW).
Korea has been assisting Ethiopia’s development endeavours in various aspects. Currently, many Ethiopians are pursuing their studies in the various universities of South Korea and more than 30 Ethiopians, including me, have studied public policy and Korea’s development history at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) in Seoul. Despite this assistance, there is something that saddens me when it comes to the Ethiopian veterans who once helped Korea survive as a nation. Upon taking part in the preparation of a documentary (on the Ethiopian Korean War veterans) for the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS Chuncheon), I was disheartened to learn that Korea has not done enough to support these veterans who are still leading a miserable life even after 60 years its independence.
Many of these veterans had to suffer a lot and conceal the fact that they had fought against communist forces later when the socialist Dergue assumed power in Ethiopia in 1974, considering them as enemies of its ally – North Korea. Close to 400 of these veterans are reportedly alive today with many of them having to rely on their children, grand-children and some fragmented charity from some South Korean NGOs. Hence, it is my firm belief that Korea has the moral obligation to support these veterans in a more coordinated manner and the Ethiopian Korean War Veterans Association in Addis Ababa has to work hard and coordinate this effort to maintain the interests of these veterans.
With the visit to Ethiopia of Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak (nicknamed the Bulldozer), Ethiopia needs to take this historic relationship and economic partnership one step further. Moreover, as KOICA’s chief representative to Ethiopia, Dr. David In-Yeup Song, himself once admitted “most South Koreans today are oblivious” of the sacrifice made by Ethiopian troops during the Korean War, hence, much remains to be done by both countries to pass this colourful history to the younger generation. Moreover, as the number of Ethiopian residing or studying in South Korea is rising and given the potential for increased economic partnership between these two countries, it is high time Ethiopia had a full fledged embassy in South Korea.
Editor’s Note: Ermias Haile is a lecturer at the College of Business and Economics of Mekelle University. He studied public policy at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul, South Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org