PM Lee's holiday in S Korea caps year of special ties

What is South Korea like, seen through the eyes of Singapore's Prime Minister? A local television news channel, JTBC, asked that question in a headline on its website last month. The answer, it said, could be found on PM Lee Hsien Loong's Facebook page.

His recent private vacation to South Korea - and the many photos and stories he posted - garnered a buzz online and focused media attention on the growing ties between the two countries.

The Gangwon Ilbo newspaper said PM Lee was down to earth, noting that he stayed in an ordinary hotel room in the north-eastern city of Sokcho, went hiking and dined at local eateries.

Singaporeans followed his Facebook posts keenly, with some writing to the Korea Tourism Organisation's Singapore office to ask for his itinerary.

It was PM Lee's first personal trip to South Korea, after several official visits. The visit underscored that bilateral tourism has boomed since diplomatic ties were established in 1975. Spurred in part by tourism campaigns and the Korean Wave or export of Korean culture, more than 201,000 Singaporeans visited South Korea in 2014, a three-fold rise from over 67,000 a decade ago.

South Korean visitors to the Lion City have also been increasing as the Koreans started exploring South-east Asian destinations, from 361,000 in 2004 to more than 536,000 in 2014.

Trade has been expanded over the years, boosted by the Korea-Singapore Free Trade Agreement signed in 2005. It hit $48.5 billion in 2014. Singapore is South Korea's fifth-largest trading partner while South Korea is the Republic's eighth-largest trading partner.

Korean companies have gained a firm foothold in Singapore's construction industry, helping to build Marina Bay Sands Hotel and key MRT stations.

The two nations marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties in 2015, and it was an eventful year filled with multi-level exchanges and goodwill gestures, said Singapore's Ambassador to South Korea Yip Wei Kiat in an interview with The Straits Times.

When Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died in March, the South Korean media cast a spotlight on the man and the country he once led.

Numerous reports compared him with former South Korean leader Park Chung Hee, remarking on their similar leadership styles and the economic miracles they achieved. Ties between the two countries were cemented when Mr Lee visited Mr Park in 1979.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye's own affinity for Singapore was revealed when she announced that she would personally attend Mr Lee's state funeral, instead of sending an envoy.

Local news reports cited Ms Park's 2007 autobiography, in which the daughter of Park Chung Hee devoted a chapter to the late Mr Lee, saying that she would never forget the parent-like kindness she received from him and his wife when they met in 1979 and 2006.

"President Park's decision to attend the state funeral raised our media profile another notch. Not everyone knows she has a certain affinity for Mr Lee and Singapore," said Mr Yip.

It was telling that Ms Park sent an envoy close to her, foreign transport minister Yoo Il Ho, to attend Singapore's SG50 National Day Parade in August, said Mr Yip. Known to be Ms Park's confidant, Mr Yoo was made finance minister in the latest Cabinet reshuffle on Dec 21.

The heart-warming story of a group of good Samaritans in Singapore who lifted a truck to free a South Korean man pinned under it last July was played up in the media in both countries.

Throughout the year, there were several official exchanges between the two countries.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, a former education minister, and Senior Minister of State for Manpower Teo Ser Luck, previously in the Trade and Industry Ministry, led delegations to study South Korea's education and innovation-related policies, respectively. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke on Singapore's education policies at a forum in Seoul in November.

South Korea's National Assembly sent a delegation to Singapore to meet its parliamentary counterparts, while the Seoul Metropolitan Government sent a team to learn from Singapore's tourism industry.

Mr Yip said there will be more high-level visits and collaborations between Singapore and South Korea this year.

He added that South Korea is interested in bidding for the Singapore-Malaysia high-speed rail project, while Singapore is keen to push for more aviation rights, and there are R&D collaborations in the pipeline.

This article was first published on Jan 1, 2015.
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