To Iran with love

The political nostalgia behind the South Korean President’s visit

Eunjung Lim

International relations, Arts, culture & society | East Asia, The World

3 June 2016

Her father forged diplomatic ties with a country that revolution, then his own assassination, prevented him from visiting, leaving his daughter Park Geun-hye the first South Korean President to set foot on Iranian soil, writes Eunjung Lim.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s visit to Iran in May this year left some historic footprints. The summit between Park and her Iranian counterpart, President Rouhani, was the first between the two countries since their diplomatic ties were established in 1962. It is also meaningful from the point of view of her personal history. Her father, President Park Jung-hee, tried to visit Iran, but the summit could not take place because of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and assassination of Park Jung-hee in the same year.

Park was the third president to visit Iran after sanctions were lifted, following Chinese President Xi and South African President Zuma, and the first female leader to visit Iran from a non-Muslim country.

Her father, President Park Jung-hee, established the country’s diplomatic relations with Iran and more than 20,000 Koreans moved to Iran to work in the construction industry in the 1970s. Teheranno (Teheran Street) ─ a main street of the Gangnam financial district in Seoul ─ is a symbolic example of the then-honeymoon period between the two countries. Seoul and Teheran agreed on exchanging the names of streets to show the two countries’ friendship in June 1977 when Mayor Nikpay of Teheran visited Seoul.

The politics of nostalgia can help to better understand the meaning of this visit to South Koreans. Firstly, the slowing down of the Chinese economy, South Korea’s largest market, and waning domestic consumption have cast a blight on the South Korean economy.

South Korea has been gradually losing its advantage in conventional global industries such as shipbuilding and steelmaking and it is eager to remedy this with a new growth engine industry and new markets. Since her presidential campaign, Park’s prescription to reanimate the South Korean economy has been the “creative economy,” which means “the convergence of science and technology with industry, the fusion of culture with industry, and the blossoming of creativity in the very borders that were once permeated by barriers.”

More on this: Iran’s elections and the nuclear deal | Siniša Vuković

During her visit to Iran, Park tried to present her “creative economy” strategies accompanied by 236 business executives, the largest in the history of the country’s summit diplomacy. The outcomes were satisfactory; South Korea signed 66 Memorandum of Understanding  (MOUs) for conventional industries like infrastructure construction and energy, and also for new industries like medical and healthcare. It is expected that the total value of these MOUs will reach approximately US$45 billion, if fully implemented. Various Korean media rated Park’s sales diplomacy highly, and described the accomplishment as a “jackpot”. Accordingly, the approval rating for her administration, which plunged to below 30 per cent in April when the ruling party largely lost in the legislative election, rebounded immediately. Her approval rating increased to 61.6 per cent among sexagenarians who experienced the first Middle East boom in 1980s-90s, and now South Koreans are dreaming of their second Middle East boom in Iran, the last “blue ocean” market of Middle East.

This visit showcased Korean soft power, which was also very nostalgia-provoking. Hallyu ─ a neologism referring to the growing popularity of Korean culture ─ helped to create a congenial atmosphere for Korean products in many emerging market countries. Historic drama series like Daejanggeum or Jumong have been tremendously popular in Iran where Western pop culture is shunned.

Park, wore a white russari during her three-day visit, despite some criticism, to show her respect for Islamic law, and deliberately wore green, white, and pink to reflect the color of the Iranian national flag. She highlighted cultural exchanges even in ancient times, between Persia and Silla. Silla was the first unified kingdom in the Korean Peninsula and Silla’s Queen Seondeok and Park have been often analogised as the first female monarch and the first female President respectively in Korean history. Her political supporters might have seen comparisons with Seondeok when Park enthusiastically talked about Silla.

Lastly, the strategic calculations of this visit are not irrelevant to the politics of nostalgia either. Iran has been perceived as an old strategic partner of North Korea by many South Koreans, though the bilateral relations between South Korea and Iran have remained relatively steady over decades despite challenges.

This time, Park was able to have an amicable talk with Supreme Leader Khamenei, who is remembered for his meeting with Kim Il-sung in May 1989 by many South Koreans. Moreover, Rouhani’s remark on the nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula must have been encouraging to many South Koreans, who hope this remark could influence Kim Jung-un who may be preparing for a fifth nuclear test.

What does the politics of nostalgia from Park’s visit to Iran indicate? It can be said that a number of South Koreans miss the glory days of their country and want to have those days back. It will be interesting to see whether or not the politics of nostalgia can function as a new driver for the future of the Korean economy and its relations with the Middle East.

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Lim, E. (2016). To Iran with love - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: http://www.policyforum.net/to-iran-with-love/ 

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