“Yo Man Ta Mero Nepali Ho”Republic of Korea Ambassador Taeyoung Park talks about five decades of bilateral cooperation, tourism, trade and labour
“Yesterday I heard a song called Yo Man Ta Mero Nepali Ho by the band 1974AD. Do you know what happened in the year 1974?” asks South Korean Ambassador Taeyoung Park as he sat for an interview with Nepali Times. “It was the year Nepal and the Republic of Korea established diplomatic ties.”
South Korea is one of the most sought-after labour destinations among Nepalis. Salaries are higher, labour rights are guaranteed and working conditions are much better than elsewhere. There are now nearly 100,000 Nepalis in Korea, working primarily in agriculture and manufacturing.
At the same time, Korean pop culture, food and fashion have increasingly taken over the lifestyle of urban youth in Nepal. Korea’s soft power has become a powerful draw for Nepali youth.
As Nepal and Korea prepare to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations, Park spoke to Nepali Times, reflecting on five decades of bilateral cooperation as well as the potential for tourism, trade, and better-paying jobs for Nepalis in Korea.
Excerpts of the interview:
Nepali Times: How have the 50 years been for Nepal and Korea?
Taeyoung Park: It has been a journey of solidarity. We have been sharing prosperity between the two countries especially after we started taking migrant workers from Nepal through the Employment Permit System (EPS) in 2007. Nepali migrant workers have been helping the Korean economy prosper and Korea has shared its skills and knowledge. That exchange, I believe, solidified the foundation of friendship between the two countries. It was through this exchange that we started to understand each other better and share prosperity.
Tens of thousands of Nepalis spend 5-10 years of their life in Korea gaining skills, knowledge and experience. Just last year, 20,000 Nepalis went to Korea for foreign employment, the record highest annual number to date. For 2024, there is a national quota of 165,000 foreign workers, and we hope to increase the number of Nepali workers.
Nepal is also the biggest contributor among 16 EPS partner countries in Asia. Korea has a labour shortage due to its low birth rate, so we will continue to draw low-skill migrant workers from Nepal and prioritise human rights and labour rights providing them with the same conditions and protection that domestic workers enjoy.
As of now, our need is for low-skilled Nepali workers, but bilateral relations between the two countries have also opened a wider window for skilled labourers. We would be happy to have more talented Nepali workers, they are known in Korea to be hardworking and reliable.
Last month, two Nepalis were killed during an EPS protest in Kathmandu. How can the system be better regulated?
We were very saddened by the incident. I would like to share my sincere condolences to the families of Mr Rawat and Mr Shah who lost their lives. We have a separate EPS office that has been working closely with the Nepal government trying to sort out the problem. We will continue the practice of working closely.
That being said, what we also have to understand is that there is a huge demand and supply gap. We are working with headquarters to increase the quota for Nepali workers, but the demand for jobs is much higher than supply of labour in Korea. When the demand and supply do not match, managing human resources does become a problem. The problem arises when there is too much demand, there have to be measures to calm down the demand.
What do you think is the potential for closer Nepal-Korea bilateral ties?
There are 3Ps in diplomacy: peace, people and prosperity. In terms of peace, our two countries have had no problems. There has always been a cooperative relationship between Korea and Nepal. Second is the people. Through the EPS system for labour and with tourism, people from both countries have had the chance for cultural and economic exchange. Citizens of both our countries have an affinity with each other. As for prosperity, there are many ways to prosper. Korea’s post-war prosperity rested on private-sector led growth. Investment by the private sector can be the new arena that can help Nepal’s economy flourish. Nepal is a priority country for Korean development cooperation.
Foreign investors are entirely business people, not so much NGOs or philanthropists. Korea is the fourth largest investor in Nepal, and I see much potential for foreign investors here in Nepal. Although it might be too early to say, we are working on drawing up a bilateral investment treaty. Meanwhile, the Nepal government can also work on building a base to attract more Korean investors.
What sectors have been of interest to the Korean government and private sector investors?
We believe in the power of human resources, it is what our country is built on. Our initiatives in capacity building and vocational training in provinces like Bagmati, Gandaki and Lumbini is a reflection of our focus on human resources. We intend to have at least one vocational training centre in each province.
Nepal’s energy sector is also something Korea is interested in. Korea has already invested in three hydropower plants: Modi Khola which was completed in 2000 and the Chameliya in 2018. The most recent investment was on the Upper Trisuli-1 hydropower plant which is to be completed in 2027, and this is the biggest project so far with 216 megawatt generation capacity.
And then, there's the manufacturing sector. Samsung Electronics has been operating a tv Factory here in Nepal for almost a year now. Hyundai Motors of Korea and Nepal’s Laxmi Group have collaborated to assemble up to 5,000 automobiles a year from a factory in Nawalparasi district. Hi-mo's Nepal Mandumo is a Korean wig company which has opened a factory here creating job opportunities for 680 Nepali women.
At the same time, Nepali herbs, tea, organic coffee and pashmina are things have a potential market in Korea.
How can Nepal be made a more attractive destination for Korean tourists?
Statistics show that Korea falls in the ninth position in terms of tourist arrivals. Last year the number of Korean tourists was around 24,000, and it is likely that we can reach the pre-pandemic number of 40,000. The spiritual link that connects Korean Buddhists to Nepal does increase the probability of more Korean tourists arriving in Nepal. Nepal being the Buddhist pilgrimage site has historical importance for the Korean Buddhists. The other link can be hiking and trekking. Koreans love to hike. Hiking and trekking in the Everest region is a dream for Korean hiking enthusiasts. The civil aviation authorities of the two countries are working to increase flights between Seoul and Kathmandu, including for Nepal Airlines.
How can Nepal and Nepalis benefit more from Korea’s labour market in future?
Two-thirds of the migrant workers from Nepal in Korea work in manufacturing industries and the rest in the agricultural sector. They are contributing greatly to Korea’s economy. But we do not want the benefits of their labour limited to our country, we want the returnees to utilise the skills and knowledge they gained over the years for their own entrepreneurial ventures when they return to Nepal. That is why, apart from other sectors, fostering education and entrepreneurship have also been our areas of interest. It is education that will pay off in the long run. Nepalis deserve better opportunities and high quality education. Our KOICA office is also helping with the Returnee Integration Program to help Nepali workers coming back from Korea get a new start.
In the near future, we want to see Nepal as a country with a self-sustained economy. I would love to see Nepal where Korea is today.