Lebanese Ambassador to Korea Antoine Azzam (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)
In the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War, which broke out in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring uprising, Lebanon has welcomed more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in addition to the 500,000 Palestinians taking shelter in the country, according to the Lebanese Embassy in Seoul.
With refugees comprising one-third of Lebanon’s population of more than 6 million, their presence has placed a large burden on the country’s resources.
Despite the challenges, the Lebanese Republic is committed to resolving conflicts in the Middle East, seeking a fair solution to the question of Palestine “that respects the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland” and “a political solution for the safe return of displaced Syrians to their country,” stressed the country’s top envoy to South Korea.
Ambassador Antoine Azzam said Beirut seeks comprehensive solutions to these problems based on the Madrid Conference of 1991, an attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through negotiations; the Arab Peace Initiative, a 10-sentence proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict; and other internationally recognized resolutions.
“This process would lay the foundations for a broader dialogue and understanding between the East and the West and among civilizations, cultures and religions,” he said at a reception in Seoul on Thursday marking the 75th anniversary of the Lebanese National Day. “This is a long overdue historical understanding following decades of hostility, injustice, wars and missed opportunities. It must be brought to your attention that the developments in the Arab world and chaos affecting some Arab countries will inevitably affect Western nations and their internal security.”
Turning to Lebanon -- a geographically small country in Western Asia bordered by Syria and Israel -- the ambassador called it “a blessed nation where social-religious cohesion is the foundation that guarantees our stability and with immense natural beauty.”
“We are a country blessed by its geography, but also cursed by its geography,” he said, adding that Beirut strives for “freedom, concord and moderation” in spite of external challenges and threats.
Lebanon and the region are undergoing major transformations amid the threat of terrorism, he added.
From left: Hong Jin-wook, director-general for African and Middle Eastern affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Rep. Nam In-soon, president of the Korea-Lebanon Parliamentary Friendship Association; and Lebanese Ambassador to Korea Antoine Azzam (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)
The diplomat also blasted Israel for its indiscriminate and disproportionate use of cluster bombs in July 2006, which led to the 2011 Beirut Declaration on Cluster Munitions.
“These weapons still threaten civilians in their farmlands and innocent children in open fields in South Lebanon. Israel refuses to surrender maps of land mines and still considers itself above international law,” he said.
On relations with Seoul, he thanked the Korean government for rebuilding Lebanon’s infrastructure, contributing to security projects and rural and municipal development programs there as well as providing scholarships for Lebanese students.
“The most precious gift from Korea is the participation of 300 Korean soldiers of the Dongmyeong Unit in the peacekeeping force of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon since 2007,” he said. UNIFIL is a demilitarized zone created by the UN in 1978 through Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426, with the aim of confirming Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, restoring international peace and security, and helping Beirut regain effective authority in the area.
“Korea’s support not only reflects its humanitarian concerns and our historical ties, but also proves the importance Korea attaches to sustainable development and Lebanon’s sovereignty and development,” he said. “Lebanon supports all initiatives to restore peace and achieve denuclearization and unification of the Korean Peninsula.”
Hong Jin-wook, the director-general for African and Middle Eastern affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “Lebanon is widely acknowledged and respected for achieving harmony between different ethnic groups and religions. Such diversity and tolerance are the biggest strengths of Lebanon. I firmly believe that through its commitment to pluralism and diversity, Lebanon will continue to be a source of peaceful dialogue in the Middle East.”
The Dongmyeong Unit is still present in southern Lebanon and conducting stabilization activities there, Hong said, adding that the unit symbolizes the two countries’ friendship.
“Korea also strongly supports Lebanon’s economic development. Korea is a ready and willing partner for Lebanon in areas such as construction, health care and cultural exchange,” he said. “The Korean government is aware of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, and fully empathizes with its situation in this regard. Korea will continue to work with the international community so that the crisis can be resolved in a peaceful and humanitarian way.”
By Joel Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org