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July 4, 2019 4:34 am

President Rivlin in South Korea: Time for a Diplomatic Upgrade

avatar by Alon Levkowitz


Israeli President Reuven Rivlin talks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, Feb. 12, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Yiannis Kourtoglou.

On July 14, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will land in South Korea for an official state visit. This visit can serve as a catalyst for an upgrading of relations between Israel and South Korea.

Twenty-five years ago, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited South Korea and met with President Kim Young-sam. That visit was a milestone in relations between the two states.

South Korea was wary towards Israel following the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1962, fearing that an upgrade of relations would threaten its billions of dollars in projects and trade with Arab states in the Middle East.

Rabin was able to break the ice, convincing Kim to approve an advancement in economic and diplomatic relations between the two states. Following that visit, relations between South Korea and Israel gradually improved. It is now time to upgrade them even further.

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The economy is a central pillar in Jerusalem-Seoul relations, and there is the potential to double the trade between the two states over the next three years. Not long ago, Chaebols, a large South Korean conglomerate, opened a research center in Israel. Rivlin’s visit could open the door for other South Korean companies to follow suit. The countries’ Free Trade Agreement (FTA) should be finalized very soon, to the benefit of industries in both states.

This is also the time to improve political and diplomatic relations. Over the past two decades, Israel has become an important destination for Asian heads of state, including Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Indian Prime Minister Modi, President of the Philippines Duterte, and others — yet no South Korean prime minister or president has ever made an official visit to Israel, notwithstanding the establishment of diplomatic relations. South Korean presidents have visited many Middle Eastern capitals, but never Jerusalem.

President Rivlin’s official visit to South Korea could be an opportunity for an announcement of a South Korean state visit by President Moon Jae-in to Israel, and to the Palestinian Authority. By promoting reconciliation efforts, he can play a part in bringing peace not just to the Korean Peninsula, but to the Middle East as well.

Alon Levkowitz, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is an expert on East Asian security, the Korean Peninsula and Asian international organizations.

A version of this article was first published by the The BESA Center.

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