Shown above is a bird’s eye view of Croatia’s capital Zagreb. Photo courtesy of Croatian Embassy

Croatian ambassador seeks closer tie with Korea

The Korea News Plus recently had an interview with H.E. Damir Kušen, Croatian Amb. to the Republic of Korea on the occasion of the Croatian Republic Day, which falls on June 25 this year. The following is the full text of the interview. _ ED.

Q: Would you talk about changes in trade after Croatia joins EU?

A: Before joining the European Union (EU), Croatia had an approximate 60 percent trade exchange with European Union countries and approximately 20 percent with Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) countries.

Since 2013, after joining the EU, the strong benefits of the EU single market have further encouraged Croatian companies to increasingly orient themselves toward the European market.

Simultaneously, by joining the EU, Croatia also adopted the common EU trade policy toward third countries, using beneficial free trade agreements (FTAs) or preferential trade agreements.

Freedom of mobility, as one of the main pillars of the European Union, has also prompted a large number of Croatian citizens to work or study in other EU member states.


Q: How’s the current economic situation of Croatia?

A: The Croatian economy, as is the case in all other countries, has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly because a large segment (17 percent) of the Croatian GDP is contributed to by tourism, travel, hospitality, and the food and wine industry.

However, Croatia has a very low-level population density and has thus managed quite well throughout the pandemic period.

The latest figures show that the number of new COVID-19 cases is phasing out, with the curve falling from hundreds in the past few weeks to just under 20 new cases in the past few days.

Croatia is strongly committed to profiling itself as a safe destination, which is evidenced by the recent healthcare data. The economies of all its neighboring countries are also improving, and we expect a normalization of the economic life soon.


Q: Please let us know recent Croatia’s COVID-19 measures and assistance to Eastern Europe.

A: The Croatian government has tried to find the optimal line between rigorous social restrictions in the prime interest of public health but also to preserve Croatia’s economic life.

On Jan. 28, 2020, Croatia, as the chair of the Council of the European Union, initiated the activation of the main EU Crisis Mechanism to encourage political and healthcare cooperation between member states in order to be better prepared for the oncoming COVID-19 pandemic.

Simultaneously, we also officially offered the EU’s cooperation to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Croatia has also tried to help our neighboring countries in the Western Balkan region, mainly by sharing our experience and donating vaccines. Croatia has contributed to the COVAX mechanism through which the EU has helped many countries in the world, including Eastern Europe and Western Balkan countries.

Furthermore, Croatia recently donated 30,000 vaccines to Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Q: Cooperation in international arenas and bilateral visits

A: Croatia and Korea share the same value system of promoting democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and equal opportunities, as well as promotion of peace and international cooperation, free-market economy, joint efforts in environmental protection, and stronger orientation towards renewable energy and environmentally friendly technology.

This wide agenda surely presents a huge potential for Croatian-Korean cooperation in all multilateral fora, including the UN. Upon opening the Croatian Embassy in Seoul in October 2018, we had three ministerial visits in the first four months, which clearly suggests Croatia’s strong interest in facilitating our bilateral cooperation.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and significant international travel restrictions and social distancing rules, the mutual visits have temporarily been suspended.


Q: What are the logistic advantages of Croatia?

A: Indeed, the very favorable geographic position of Croatia and its seaports have profiled the country as a highly competitive entry point into the European Union single market.

Cargo sea vessels coming from Asia or the Pacific can save a week of travel time when using the Croatian Port of Rijeka as a port of call instead of the Western or Northern European ports.

Croatia offers a number of benefits to even further attract cargo boats to use its ports. It has just opened the new LNG Terminal on the Island of Krk, close to the Port of Rijeka, accentuating Croatia on the European energy map.

Along the Croatian part of the Adriatic Coast, there are five international airports, emphasizing its huge inter-connection and travel potential, which is crucial for tourism.


Q: What are promising industries between the two countries?

A: The bilateral trade exchange between Croatia and the Republic of Korea was $225 million in 2019. Croatia imports Korean cars, high-technology products, including TV sets, mobile phones, and other electronics, as well as pharmaceutical products and medical equipment.

A number of Korean manufacturing companies are located in Central Europe because they joined the EU a decade before Croatia.

Now, we are encouraging Korean companies to recognize the potential of the engineering, technology, and strong ICT sectors in Croatia, as well as to eventually open R&D centers or joint research or production facilities.

Croatia, as the birthplace of the famous inventor Nikola Tesla and a country with two Nobel prizes in chemistry, has a long tradition in innovative technology and engineering.

Most recent is the case of Rimac Automobili, a Croatian sports-car company that produces the world’s fastest fully electric sports cars, which was recognized by Hyundai/KIA, which invested significant amounts in joint cooperation and share-ownership of Rimac Automobili.

In the past few years, we have been encouraging stronger cooperation between Croatian and Korean seaports authorities, railway-system companies, the pharmaceutical industry, R&D in biotech and pharmacology, as well as medical science and health tourism.


Q: How the two countries cooperate in dealing with the pandemic?

A: Croatia, as a member of the European Union, primarily cooperates with all other EU member states and, during the coronavirus crisis, this was crucial for finding more effective and comprehensive ways to both protect and promote public health, as well as to tackle the consequences of the pandemic.

The Korean model of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis was highly efficient and a good model for many other countries, including Croatia. We are grateful for a lot of positive experiences we have successfully transferred to Croatia.


Q: Is the future prospect of bilateral relations bright?

A: I am confident that Croatia and Korea will further develop their cooperation, partnership, and friendship in the years to come.

Their economic cooperation will flourish with more direct Korean investments in Croatia since Croatian ports are very competitive gateways to the attractive European Union single market.

We are witnessing more and more interest of Korean companies for big energy plans and huge transport and infrastructure projects in Croatia. Tourism is an area where we have already established very strong cooperation.

Croatia welcomes possible Korean investments in the hotel industry, tourist resorts, medical tourism facilities, and golf courses.

I am particularly glad that in the past two years, we have managed to encourage bilateral cooperation at both regional and city levels by establishing twinning or sister city programs and province arrangements between a number of Korean and Croatian regions and towns.

This is a valid bilateral platform for practical projects, mainly in business, culture, innovation, science, and technology, as well as in other academic areas. Once the COVID-19-crisis is over, we will have a number of mutual visits based on these signed or prepared memoranda of cooperation.


Q: Would you say in more detail about the Croatian tourism industry and recommend tourist attractions for Koreans?

A: In 2019, more than half a million Korean tourists, according to Korean official statistics, visited Croatia. They enjoyed Croatia’s rich historical and cultural heritage, many national parks, and the crystal blue Adriatic Sea with the mild Mediterranean climate, excellent food, and wine and the warm hospitality of the local people.

In September 2018, Korean Air opened a direct flight from Incheon to Zagreb three times a week, but due to the pandemic, this flight has been suspended.

The Korean low-cost air-carrier “t-way” has also been licensed to open four direct flights per week to Croatia when the epidemiological situation allows.

Many Koreans are familiar with the magnificent city of Dubrovnik, the Plitvice National Park, consisting of 16 lakes mutually interconnected by waterfalls, many old Roman or renaissance cities located all along the Adriatic Coast, the Central European atmosphere of the capital city of Zagreb, and Northern Croatia.

Travel agencies are eagerly looking forward to reestablishing Croatia as one of the favorite travel destinations for Korean tourists.

I am glad to say that with the diminishing number of new coronavirus cases (below 50 per day and decreasing), Croatia has emerged as a safe travel destination.

Yeo studied German in Seoul. He has worked as a journalist for the past 40 years. He has mostly covered diplomacy, foreign schools, regional festivals, culture and other areas. He can be reached at hyeo7832@gmail.com or 82-2-6956-6698.