Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called Tuesday for an early conclusion of free trade talks with South Korea, hopefully by year's end, saying that a pact would greatly help strengthen commercial ties between the two countries.
In a written interview with Yonhap News Agency ahead of his official visit to South Korea this week, Santos also said that Bogota hopes to upgrade its relations with Seoul to a "comprehensive and cooperative partnership" as the two nations will mark the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties next year.
"In fact, it is the first country of the Asian continent with which we are negotiating an FTA and I hope this visit will stimulate our negotiators to come to an agreement that will allow us to conclude negotiations this year," Santos said.
Santos said an FTA will further expand two-way trade which nearly doubled to US$1.82 billion in 2010 from a year earlier. South Korean exports to Colombia reached $1.39 billion that year.
Despite the sharp growth in bilateral trade, the trade volume itself "is still very small compared to the huge potential we have," Santos said.
"Colombia wants to diversify its trading partners and sources of foreign investment in the same way as Korea," he said. "It seems to us that Korea is the first logical step in our approach to Asia."
Since the free trade talks began in December 2009, both countries have made significant progress, but differences still remain over a range of issues, including the level of market opening for agricultural and electronic products, according to Seoul officials.
During a three-day stay in South Korea starting on Wednesday, Santos will hold talks with President Lee Myung-bak and visit the front-line area. He is the first Colombian head of state to visit South Korea in 15 years.
"Our main objective in this visit is to raise the level of bilateral relations through the establishment of a Comprehensive and Cooperative Partnership that envisages a broad agenda for the medium and long-term," he said.
"After this visit, we want to go further and deepen the political dialogue on bilateral and international issues that interest both countries, and increase our cooperation on issues such as innovation, technology, education and culture," he said.
Citing moves by some Latin American countries to integrate their economies, Santos said an FTA will help spur Colombia and South Korea to explore more business opportunities in each other's continent.
In April this year, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Peru signed an agreement to pursue integration of their economies and strengthen trade links with the Asia-Pacific region.
Santos said the timing is right for Colombia and South Korea to deepen their commercial ties.
The four Latin American nations "are now determined to combine our efforts in order to increase our trade and to strengthen our diplomatic ties with the vast Asia-Pacific region, including Korea," Santos said.
The move in Latin America is welcome news for South Korea which is eager to expand its economic cooperation with the region in a bid to tap into its rich natural resources.
Currently, South Korea has a free trade agreement in effect with Chile and struck a similar deal with Peru in August last year.
Santos' itinerary in South Korea includes a trip to the border with North Korea, the world's most heavily armed. Colombia sent troops to help South Korea fight against North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Tensions persist on the divided Korean Peninsula over continuing North Korean military provocations and its menacing nuclear weapons programs.
"We are ready to support any initiative leading to the definitive denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Santos said.
Santos said he will invite President Lee to visit Colombia next year.
"My message to the Korean people is a message of affection and friendship: our nations are distant in space, but our people -- who shed their blood on this land to defend its freedom -- are united at heart," he said.
The following is questions and answers from the interview with President Santos.
Q: First of all, you will visit South Korea on Sept. 14 for a summit with President Lee Myung-bak. Your Excellency, how do you feel about your visit? Would you review bilateral relations with South Korea over the past decades since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1962?
A: I'm very happy and I feel very honored to make this State Visit to the Republic of Korea, a country towards which Colombians feel a special affection and admiration. As you said, it has been 15 years since a president of Colombia comes to Korea and I think that today we have a great opportunity to make our countries closer and complement each other in new ways. Our main objective in this visit is to raise the level of bilateral relations through the establishment of a Comprehensive and Cooperative Partnership that envisages a broad agenda for the medium and long-term. Until now Korea and Colombia have been partners in specific aspects with specific programs. After this visit we want to go further and deepen the political dialogue on bilateral and international issues that interest both countries, and increase our cooperation on issues such as innovation, technology, education and culture.
Q: One of the main agenda items for your visit to South Korea would be free trade talks between the two nations. Your Excellency, what are your prospects for ongoing free trade negotiations with South Korea? What effects do you expect a Korea-Colombia FTA would have on trade between the two nations?
A: I think Korea and Colombia have a huge opportunity to advance on trade and investment issues. Our bilateral trade passed 1,200 million dollars last year and is growing, but it is still very small compared to the huge potential we have. Colombia wants to diversify its trading partners and sources of foreign investment in the same way as Korea. It seems to us that Korea is the first logical step in our approach to Asia. In fact, it is the first country of the Asian continent with which we are negotiating an FTA and I hope this visit will stimulate our negotiators to come to an agreement that will allow us to conclude negotiations this year.
Q: Colombia was the only country in Central and South America to dispatch troops to help South Korea against North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. South Koreans are grateful for this bilateral relationship forged in blood during the war. Your Excellency, what's your assessment about the current geopolitical situation on the Korean Peninsula? What is your position on North Korea's nuclear programs in terms of regional peace?
A: Colombia is proud to have answered the call of the United Nations to help South Korea defend itself from attack of the early fifties. To us, it was a battle for freedom that took the life of over a hundred Colombians, but it was a necessary fight for the good of humanity. With the authority we have from having participated in the UN contingent and having suffered many dead and wounded in this conflict, Colombia has supported all the calls made by the Security Council - which we are a part of today - to fully respect the Armistice Agreement. We have also publicly condemned the nuclear tests conducted by North Korea and we are ready to support any initiative leading to the definitive denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. South Korea has the right to live and progress in peace without the threat of an arms race from across its borders.
Q: In April this year, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Peru signed an agreement to pursue integration of their economies and a strengthening of trade links with the Asia-Pacific region. Your Excellency, in your view, how will the Pacific Alliance play a role in deepening relations with Asia-Pacific nations and South Korea?
A: Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Chile are all countries with extensive coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and we are now determined to combine our efforts in order to increase our trade and to strengthen our diplomatic ties with the vast Asia-Pacific region, including Korea. The four countries that make up the Pacific Alliance have - together - a population of over 200 million inhabitants, more than a third of Latin America GDP, and a larger foreign trade than the countries of Mercosur. United we are a bigger and more attractive market to Asia, and we can increase our trade and receive more investment with all that this means in terms of job creation and poverty reduction - which is ultimately the goal we all pursue.
Q: Your Excellency, you have made achievements in Colombia's fight against leftist rebels in your country and you have emphasized the need for more efforts to root out violence to help improve the economy. What are your prospects for Bogota's anti-guerrilla campaign?
A: In the last decade, especially under administration my predecessor, President Alvaro Uribe - in whose administration I was Minister of Defense -, Colombia made great strides in its fight against guerrillas, terrorism and drug trafficking through the so-called 'Democratic Security Policy'. The guerrillas have been severely weakened: they do not have any popular support and today they are cornered far away from urban centers. However, we are aware that they are not defeated, and that is why we are determined to continue fighting them until they understand that nothing is achieved through violence and terror, and finally submit to the law and the constitution as all Colombians do.
Q: With regard to a bilateral summit with President Lee Myung-bak, do you have any other comments that you would like to make through this interview? What is your most important message to the South Korean people during your visit to Seoul?
A: I have great expectations of the meeting with President Lee Myung-bak - whom I admire since he was mayor of Seoul for his efforts to make this great city more beautiful - in order to analyze how to strengthen our relationship, not only from the commercial and economic points of view, but also in many other aspects, such as cultural issues. Many Koreans travel to Colombia to learn Spanish, and I hope this number increases because - it is said - Colombians speak the best Spanish in the world. Moreover, I will take this opportunity to personally invite the President to visit our country next year, when we will celebrate 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. My message to the Korean people is a message of affection and friendship: our nations are distant in space, but our people - who shed their blood on this land to defend its freedom - are united at heart.
Q: Your Excellency, you have published many books, including one penned with the assistance of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, called "The Third Way". What implications from "The Third Way" could carry over now, given the current state of global politics and the 2008 global financial crisis?
A: The Third Way book was published in 1999 and, in the twelve years since, I think history has proved it right. The Third Way is a conception of the state's role in a society that finds a middle way between the two currents that led the world in the twentieth century: classical liberalism - later transformed into neo-liberalism - and that of the state control or interventionism. The Third Way does not consider the state and the private sector as antagonists but as allies who can help each other to achieve the ultimate goal of prosperity and happiness for society. You can summarize its essence in a very simple premise: to take the market as far as possible, and the state as far it is necessary. I think the financial crises of recent years continue to demonstrate that, in the same way that the totalitarian ideologies of the past century did not work, it not is possible to pretend that markets will regulate themselves, as they are at risk of creating credit bubbles such as the one that burst in 2008. I think that the solution for our societies is a pragmatic and centrist vision; and that is what we are implementing in Colombia with positive results so far.