Bangladesh-South Korea Relations: Recent Trends

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The establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the Republic of Korea (ROK) was sketched on 18 December 1973, marking a significant milestone in the bilateral relationship. Notably, prior to this formal recognition, ROK had already acknowledged the newly independent Bangladesh on 12 May 1972. This sequence of events underscores the evolving dynamics between the two nations, reflecting the importance they placed on fostering diplomatic ties and mutual cooperation during that period.

However, in the midst of the ever-evolving terrain of world politics, it is evident that both Bangladesh and South Korea have assumed pivotal roles within the intricate web of Asian geopolitical dynamics. In the span of the last ten years, it is evident that the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and South Korea have experienced a significant upswing, particularly in the realms of politics, economics, and socio-cultural exchanges. The burgeoning alliance between these two nations has attracted considerable scrutiny in recent times, as both countries endeavor to harness their individual capabilities in pursuit of shared objectives.

Economic Cooperation: Center Stage

The foundation of the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and South Korea is firmly rooted in economic cooperation. The preceding years leading up to the upcoming 2022 have borne witness to a noteworthy transformation within this particular domain. South Korea, a nation widely acknowledged for its remarkable technological prowess and unwavering commitment to innovation, has astutely identified the immense potential that lies within Bangladesh as a highly promising investment destination. In terms of international investment, South Korea has solidified its position as the fourth-largest overall foreign investor in this arena. Notably, in the year 2022, it has ascended to the pinnacle as a leading contributor to fresh foreign investments in Bangladesh.

In a synchronized manner, Bangladesh strategically perceived South Korea as a valuable ally in its relentless pursuit of industrialization. After a prolonged period of stagnation, bilateral trade has finally achieved a noteworthy milestone, surpassing the $3 billion mark. The Korea International Trade Association reports that in 2022, bilateral trade volume reached $3.035 billion, up 38.19% from 2021’s $2.188 billion. While Korean exports to Bangladesh surged by 44.1% to $2.357 billion in 2022 from $1.636 billion in 2021, the value of Bangladeshi exports to Korea rose by just 22.9%, from $552 million to $678 million. Since crossing the $100 million mark in 2007, Bangladesh’s exports to Korea have increased steadily, reaching $200 million in 2011 and $300 million in 2013.

By contrast, following a brief increase in the early 2010s, it stayed stagnant for the next decade. In 2021, however, it saw a significant uptick to $552 million, an increase of 40.4% year over year, and in 2022, it reached a new record high of $678 million, an increase of 22.9% year over year. RMG, sports, and leisure goods, bronze scraps, etc. are the primary export commodities from Bangladesh to Korea. Paper goods increased by 168.6% in 2022 to $3.6 million and food by 165% to $3.1 million, while RMG, accounting for 83.2% of the overall export to Korea, recorded $564 million, up 25.8% year over year. In this regard, South Korean Ambassador to Dhaka, LEE Jang-keun, ‘The increase in trade from $500 million to $3 billion is a significant leap. This decision was primarily driven by persistent appeals from the Bangladesh Government and Korea’s genuine commitment to supporting more substantial and meaningful initiatives.’

Infrastructural and Development Cooperation

Since the two countries established diplomatic relations, around 200 infrastructure development projects have included 110 Korean firms in Bangladesh. This undertaking has a price tag of more than $8 billion. When it comes to official development aid or ODA, Bangladesh is one of Korea’s top recipients and a top-priority partner country in this area of development cooperation. Samsung and Hyundai, two of the world’s largest electronics and automotive manufacturers, have begun building their products in Bangladesh thanks to partnerships with local firms. For over ten years, Samsung Electronics has had a research and development center in Dhaka.

South Korean investment in Bangladesh grew rapidly in 2022. Samsung and Hyundai, two electronics giants, both considerably grew their footprints in Bangladesh’s industrial industry in recent years. Notables include Samsung’s decision to build a smartphone factory in Narsingdi, a suburb of Dhaka. This action not only increased Bangladesh’s appeal to investors but also paved the way for the transfer of technology and the improvement of local labor force capabilities. Moreover, Bangladesh’s infrastructure development projects have benefited from South Korean financial aid and credit lines. The Dhaka Elevated Expressway, which was built in collaboration with financing from South Korea, is also a symbol of cooperation between the two countries. When finished, this road will help reduce gridlock in the nation’s capital, which should boost economic output. Moreover, the World Bank-funded Enhancing Digital Government and Economy (EDGE) Project of Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC) under the ICT Division has established the “Bangladesh IT Connect Portal-South Korea” to serve as a B2B connectivity hub between Bangladesh and South Korea.

These developments are indicative of a positive shift in economic relations between the two nations. Furthermore, there has been a substantial increase in the provision of soft loans for large-scale projects within the country. This influx of financial support is expected to have a significant impact on the development and implementation of these megaprojects. Additionally, collaboration in the realm of human development has witnessed remarkable progress, with efforts reaching unprecedented heights which trend signifies a strong commitment to fostering mutual growth and advancement in various sectors.

Cultural and Educational Exchanges Flourish

The relationship between the two countries has expanded beyond the purely economic sphere. The popularity of K-pop and other aspects of Korean culture in Bangladesh has risen in recent years. South Korea has increased its cultural diplomacy operations in Bangladesh in light of the country’s growing cultural popularity. In addition, to meet the rising demand for Korean language courses, dancing workshops, and culinary events, the Korean Cultural Center in Dhaka expanded its programs in 2022 and 2023. These initiatives not only increased mutual understanding and respect for each other’s cultures but also strengthened personal ties between the two countries’ citizens. In return, many people from Bangladesh go to South Korea each year to celebrate the Korea-Bangladesh Friendship Festival.

Moreover, it is worth noting that this prevailing pattern is also manifested in the realm of educational pursuits. Although the South Korean scholarship numbers for Bangladesh are not much high, the trend is gradually increasing its footprint to bolster the bilateral relationship. Since its inception in 2011, the Global Korea Scholarship (GKS) program has helped 172 Bangladeshi students, 137 of whom are in doctoral programs and 35 of whom are in undergraduate programs.

In 2021, 17 students from Bangladesh, including 14 graduate students and 3 undergraduates, participated in the GKS programs in South Korea. Moreover, for the 2022 academic year, South Korea offered 14 students from Bangladesh an opportunity to study at the graduate level in Korea on full scholarship. As a result, the number of Bangladeshi students enrolled in universities throughout South Korea is now approximately 1,500. Therefore, the trend in the cultural and educational arena has not only fostered cross-cultural understanding but has also significantly enhanced and elevated the degree of the bilateral relationship.

Collaboration in Tourism and Human Resources

The influx of Bangladeshi visitors to Korea has exhibited a consistent upward trajectory in recent years. The data reveals a noteworthy trend in the population dynamics of Bangladeshis traveling to Korea. Specifically, the figures indicate that the number of Bangladeshis in Korea experienced a substantial surge from 15,482 individuals in 2016 to 18,340 individuals in 2019. This represents a remarkable growth of approximately 20% over the span of three years. Apart from that, in the realm of labor migration, it is worth noting that Korea has been actively engaging with Bangladesh by welcoming expatriate workers since the early 2000s.

During the period spanning from 2008 to 2022, South Korea successfully recruited a significant number of 28,697 workers from Bangladesh through the Employment Permit System (EPS). Looking ahead, projections indicate that South Korea will continue to attract a steady influx of Bangladeshi workers, with an estimated range of 100 to 120 individuals being recruited on a weekly basis throughout the current year.  This has been made possible through the implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS), which has facilitated the entry of Bangladeshi individuals into the Korean workforce. In a notable development, the annual influx of workers into Korea has witnessed a substantial surge, reaching a staggering 6,000 individuals in the year 2021, while the number in 2022, a record number of 5,891 people made the journey there. This figure represents a significant departure from the historical average of approximately 1,500 workers per annum. The projected figure for 2023 indicates a notable escalation, with an anticipated increase to 10,000.

Diplomatic Engagement on Regional and Global Issues

A notable development in the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and South Korea is the two countries’ increasing involvement in regional and international fora. Their collaboration inside the United Nations is a shining illustration of this diplomatic chemistry. Both countries’ influence has grown as a result of their agreement on global objectives. Both nations have also shown an interest in strengthening connections within the Asian area as a whole. South Korea’s desire in becoming a dialogue partner of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Bangladesh’s involvement in the “New Southern Policy” are both signs that the two countries share a commitment to advancing regional cooperation.

Overall, the amount of diplomatic engagement between Bangladesh and South Korea has increased, along with trade ties, and cultural exchanges. The evolving relationship is primed for increased collaboration across the political, security, economic, and cultural spheres because of the shared ideals of democracies, cultural ties, and complementary economies. As Bangladesh graduates from LDC status, South Korea is an ideal partner to support its industrialization and infrastructure goals. Both sides are keen to elevate the comprehensive partnership further as they commemorate 50 years of diplomatic ties in 2023.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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