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Will 2023 be the year of improving relations between Albania and South Korea?

In April 2021, the 30 years of establishing diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Albania was officially organized in the South Korean embassy in Athens, the capital of Greece. The localization of these official festivities perfectly pictured the nature of the relations between these two countries.

Instytut Boyma 13.07.2023

In April 2021, the 30 years of establishing diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Albania was officially organized in the South Korean embassy in Athens, the capital of Greece. The localization of these official festivities perfectly pictured the nature of the relations between these two countries: They know each other, but as of 2021, not enough to continue together. Albania, with a population of 2.8 million inhabitants, is not a target market for South Korean brands, which are gaining important market shares in CEE (Central and Eastern European) countries.

From the official perspective, Albania has no ROK embassy despite establishing bilateral diplomatic relations on 22 August 1991. Regarding its South Korean counterpart, the ambassador resides in Athens. According to Albania’s foreign affairs ministry, no embassies or Albanian consulates exist in ROK. In difference from the majority of CEE countries, there is also no South Korean cultural centre in Albania, and the majority of the South Korean interests in Albania go with the presence of South Korean clergy members.

The Albanian population and the confusion between Chinese and Korean people

From a historical perspective, Korea-Albania relations existed in the past; however, they were focused exclusively on North Korea until the collapse of communism in Albania in 1991. Diplomatic relations between Albania and North Korea were established on 28 November 1948, one and a half months after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed. The communist governments of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha and Kim Il-sung were often compared for their similarities in their diplomatic isolation and Stalinist-style regimes. Albania and North Korea also rejected the destalinization initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. Relations were so closed between Tirana and Pyongyang that both countries maintained bilateral embassies until the 1990s. DPRK was one of the few Asian countries with which Albania maintained ties.

Nevertheless, until 1991, a major part of Albanian relations with Asia was focused on China. This country was the main and probably the only one which ensured the viability of the communist regime in South-East Europe (as China is doing in the case of North Korea.) Unfortunately, the presence of China and its representatives in Albania is not favourably connotated by the Albanian population. To some extent, Chinese faces are considered suspect in Albania. For this reason, the physical look of the 106 ROK citizens registered in Albania can be confused with Chinese people and jeopardize positive connotations of the Korean nation. South Korean initiatives may promote the improvement of the image of South Korea in Albania. Seoul perfectly knows how to do it. Korean culture is penetrating into other CEE countries, so why not Albania? A viable partner would be the Korean Federation of Balkans, such as the Kimchi festival, which also took place in Tirana.

Economy as the main driver of relations between Tirana and Seoul

Based on the strong argument that South Korea’s economy ranked as the tenth-largest economy in the world, Tirana shall promote South Korean investments. The economic exchange between both countries is still symbolic compared to the trade of South Korea with other CEE countries. According to data provided by the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of 2021, South Korea exported goods for a value of USD 34 million (automotive spare parts and petrochemicals products) and imported from Albania mainly minerals, converters, and fabric products for a value of USD 21.1 million. Due to the opacity of the Albanian markets, some famous Korean brands, such as the automobile manufacturer Ssangyong, have no representatives in this country. From a political perspective, Albanian delegations visit South Korea but not regularly. For instance, Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, visited Seoul in September 2002. Except for one additional delegation in November of the same year, the next visit took place in May 2006 with Besnik Mustafaj, the Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, coming to South Korea. On the other side, no high levels visits took place from the South Korean side. Curiously, ministerial talks between both countries also took place abroad in Astana and New York. The placement of a South Korean ambassador to Albania mixed with high involvement with the Albanian – South Korean Friendship Parliamentary group may change the deal. However, it requests a real interest in Korean affairs by Albanian politicians, who are probably more interested in the Albanian candidature for EU membership.

As mentioned previously, there are also no Albanian representations in South Korea. The main point of contact in Albania will remain Agron Papuli, the honorary consular for South Korean citizens and one of the richest citizens of Albania. He is a businessman who has previously been one of the sponsors of the football club KF Tirana. Papuli is the head of a company distributing cars from various brands such as Hyundai and Mitsubishi. He may be one of those who may improve relations between both countries.

Findings

The major challenge for South Korea is the fact that Albania is a small country with a limited market for South Korean products. Albania is also not known enough by the South Korean population. There is also a low number of ROK citizens in other Balkan countries. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea, there are sixteen South Korean citizens based in North Macedonia, thirty in Kosovo, and hundred thirty-six South Koreans in Serbia as of 2022. South Korea also has no diplomatic relations with Kosovo.

Due to the bright position of South Korea in the economy of CEE countries, what could Tirana do to increase the level of its relations with Seoul? First, overall, implementing no costs measures. For instance, perhaps continuing their announcement in December 2022 concerning their abolishing policy toward Chinese citizens by providing visa-free travel to South Koreans?

On the other side, as a part of their cultural policy, South Korean authorities could invite some Albanians to study in South Korea. Maybe one of them would become the next ambassador of the South-Eastern culture in Seoul, as Mikhal Ashminov, the Bulgarian-Polish cook, did through his recognized owned restaurant in Seoul.

It is also worth mentioning that there are some specialists on Korean issues in Albania. Some Albanian diplomats studied in Pyongyang, such as Kujtim Xhani, the former ambassador of Albania to China. His knowledge of the Korean Peninsula and the Korean language may serve as a springboard for the improvement of relations between both countries. The opening of an Albanian representation in South Korea does not belong to a science-fiction scenario, as Albania has embassies in China and Japan. Apart from Agron Papuli, other useful intermediaries are the South Korean Albanian Friendship group in the ROK Assembly or maybe Yuri Kim, the current US ambassador to Albania, who is a South Korean national. It must also be noted that Donald Yu, one of the previous American ambassadors, also has Asian roots with Chinese heritage. In any case, some major shifts in the bilateral policy between these countries would bring mutual benefits. In summarizing, taking into account the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, South Korean companies may have an interest in establishing their branches in Albania. It may be true, especially taking into account that Albania is a potential candidate for EU membership and owns 300 kilometres of access to the Mediterranean Sea, which through the port of Durrës may be used for South Korean shipments.

Despite limited diplomatic relations, there are some meaningful South Korean investments and initiatives in Albania which are worth to be mentioned. The first one is the investment made by the Korean company “Yura Corporation”, which entered Albania and invested EUR 6.5 million in 2019 through the cable equipment industry for vehicles from brands such as Kia or Hyundai. A second initiative is the development of the Korea Green Growth Trust Fund under the umbrella of a partnership between the World Bank Group and the Republic of Korea. It is a fund which focuses on innovative and sustainable growth strategies and investments. The South Korean side has been implementing this project in Albania since 2021.

Relations between South Korea and Albania cannot be compared to relations between this Asia country and other neighbouring South-Eastern European countries. For example, South Korea has an official presence in Croatia and Serbia through its embassies. The embassy in Zagreb will play a meaningful role in the future of relations between South Korea and . When it comes to Serbia, the presence of South Korean ventures can be clearly noticed, for instance, such as the launch of the construction of the Kyungshin Cable factory in 2020. Serbian authorities also consider ROK as one of its main partners. These two European countries also have respective embassies in Seoul.

In the context of the Ukrainian War, the Presence of South Korean investments in Albania may be protected by several initiatives. First overall, at difference to Ukraine, Albania has been a member of NATO since 2009, which shall guarantee its safety. Regarding the EU, Albania applied for EU membership in April 2009 and was granted EU candidate status in June 2014. There are no major improvements concerning this process; however, if Albania finally joins the EU, it will become part of the Free Trade Agreement between the EU and South Korea, which entered into force in December 2015. Finally, as mentioned by Lucas Nam, the head of the branch of Yura Corporation in Albania, the country has some significant advantages, such as low production costs and improved political stability. The bilateral convention regarding the protection of mutual investments may also drive south Korean investments in Albania. From a broader perspective, Albania has a good localization in Europe, being close to Western markets such as Italy (around 220 kilometres by sea) and having a common land border with Greece. In other words, Albania may become a manufacturer and supply chain localization but, in any case, due to the low purchasing power of the Albanian population, a market for expensive new South Korean products.

Nicolas Levi

Analyst on North and South Korea. He is an assistant professor at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Author of 7 books, more than 20 academic articles, and over 50 analytical reports on the Korean Peninsula, Poland, and related issues. He conducts lectures at top universities in Poland and abroad.

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