[Herald Interview] ‘Hungary can help inter-Korean ties, innovation with Central Europe’

By Joel Lee
  • Published : Dec 31, 2018 - 17:37
  • Updated : Dec 31, 2018 - 18:59

Hungarian Ambassador to Korea Mozes Csoma is a fluent speaker of the Korean language and has written numerous books and papers on the country’s history and relations with Central European countries (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Hungarian Ambassador to South Korea Mozes Csoma speaks Korean better than any other language other than Hungarian. Korean being his first foreign language, he is about as good as a nonnative can get.

He is so fluent that this interview was entirely conducted in Korean. As the conversation drew on intensely for two hours at the Hungarian Embassy in Seoul in late December, it became more and more apparent that deep down the young scholar-turned-diplomat has a burning passion for exploring every facet of the Korean economy, culture and history, and wants to utilize his acumen for strengthening ties with his country.

He noted that Hungary is increasingly innovating its economy in cooperation with its Central European neighbors, and ready to attract more Korean investors, businesspeople, students and tourists. With Seoul equally putting great emphasis on its diplomacy with European economies, Budapest and Seoul can create an innovative partnership by harnessing their unique relationships, past and present, he told The Korea Herald.

The envoy pointed to the fact that Hungary successfully transitioned from socialism and centralized planning to democracy and free market economy, a point of reference for North Korea’s reform and international engagement. 

As one of the key scholars who established the department of Korean studies at the University of Budapest in 2008, Csoma highlighted the myriad, unexplored ties between Hungary and the two Koreas stretching back decades. They are not just forgotten pages of yesteryear, he argued, but vital seedbeds of future collaboration and inspiration spanning diplomacy, scholarship, culture, tourism and more.

Moreover, mentioning the intermediary role Hungary played in the people-to-people exchanges between East and West Germans during the Cold War, Csoma underscored his country’s desire as a third-party to lend a helping hand to the two Koreas as part of their rapprochement.

The year 2019 is also the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Budapest and Seoul. The embassy will organize trade and investment, academic, educational, cultural events to mark the celebration.

The following is an edited excerpt of the interview. 

Hungarian Ambassador Mozes Csoma (right) poses with Dancer Kim Baek-bong holding a photograph he discovered that shows the Korean lady as one of the participants at the Second World Festival of Youth and Students in Budapest, Hungary, in 1949. Dancer Kim Baek-bong is second from right. (Hungarian Embassy

The Korea Herald: Can you tell us about yourself, including your career as a scholar and how you became the Hungarian ambassador to Korea?

Mozes Csoma: I was a professor for 10 years at the University of Budapest’s department of Korean studies, which I was principally responsible for founding with the help of other scholars in 2008. The program comprises undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Korean language, culture and history. I also authored several books on the Korean history in Hungarian, Korean and English. My book, “From North Korea to Budapest,” written in English and Korean and published by Jimoondang, recounts the story of some 1,000 North Korean orphans who studied in Hungary during and after the 1950-53 Korean War. I wrote the book by interviewing many survivors of the group.

As a former student and professor, I researched the relations between Central European countries, particularly Hungary, and North and South Korea. I also dug into the Korean history, including the issues of Korean diasporas in Japan, China and Central Asia, territorial disputes with neighboring countries and North-South relations.

When I was a student in the university’s history department, I became interested in East Asian history, particularly that of the Korean Peninsula. At that time there was ample information about Chinese and Japanese histories, but not enough about the Korean one. Korea piqued my curiosity because I found many similarities between the courses that the Hungarian and Korean nations took. We were both situated in the middle of big power nations, and subject to intense foreign pressures.

While trying to learn the Korean language through language exchange, I met my Korean wife in Budapest in the late 1990s. In 2000, I received a scholarship from the Korea Foundation to study Korean at Yonsei University in Seoul.

This year, upon my nomination by President Janos Ader, I was appointed ambassador to Korea. I officially started my tenure on Oct. 8, when I presented my credential to President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae. There, President Moon and I had a brief conservation in Korean. It was a very special moment for me, as I walked past honorary guards dressed in traditional uniforms of the Joseon era. 

Hungarian capital Budapest (Hungary Photo Tours)

KH: Can you elaborate on the historical relations between Hungary and Korea, as well as the significance of this year as the 30th anniversary of bilateral diplomacy?

MC: About 1,100 years ago, the Hungarian nation moved from Asia to Europe and settled in the present territory of Hungary. Many scholars believe we came from Central Asia across the Ural Mountains, and some say that Hungarians and Koreans share the same roots ethnically and linguistically. This is evident in our languages, which both belong to the Ural-Altaic family, with similar grammars. Some Hungarian babies have the Mongolian spots.

In 1989, Hungary became the first former socialist country to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea. It was a year after former President Roh Tae-woo announced the Nordpolitik aimed at establishing diplomatic relations with socialist countries. He sent as an envoy -- Park Chul-un, a former parliamentarian, government minister, prosecutor and lawyer -- on a covert mission to Budapest to smoothen the way for the official engagement. Interestingly, I recently invited Mr. Park to our embassy, and he shared the inside story of his mission with gripping details.

Anyways, as a result of the meeting, Hungary sent athletes to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and set up a permanent mission in Seoul before an embassy. The 1988 games was significant in that delegates of both the Western and communist camps participated. Budapest believed that it had to participate in the Seoul Games to build relations with South Korea and put an end to the Cold War.

Over the past 30 years, our relations have grown from strength to strength in all fields, from diplomacy and interparliamentary exchanges to commerce, culture and society. Significant Korean investments are made in Hungary, particularly by conglomerates like Samsung Electronics, Samsung SDI, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, Hankook Tire, SK Innovation and Doosan Corporation. Korean SMEs in automotive, auto-parts, electrical vehicle battery production and other sectors have a strong presence there as well. Last year, our two-way trade volume topped $1.9 billion, with Hungary importing $1.2 billion of South Korean goods and exporting over $700 million to Korea. 

Csoma examines the very first book about Hungary written in Korean. (Hungarian Embassy)

KH: What can you tell us about the Hungarian government’s approach toward innovation and international trade and investment?

MC: It is important to note that our current government has a policy of prioritizing innovation. And we think that a lot of synergy can be created by harmonizing the innovation capacities of Hungarian and Korean companies.

Our embassy is more than willing to help our Korean partners gain access to the Hungarian market and market players, particularly in innovative fields. Celebrating the 30th anniversary this year, our embassy will organize academic seminars on innovation and education.

Our strategy so far has been “Made in Hungary,” centered on attracting foreign investments in manufacturing. But from this year onward it is “Innovated in Hungary,” targeting high-value-added production and services. Historically, we have a long history of innovation with a proud list of Nobel laureates in science. Hungary produced 13 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and literature from 1905 through 2004. They contributed to the discovery and development of vitamin C, ball pen, automotive engines and much more. 
Korean historical drama “Jewel in the Palace” was hugely popular in Hungary after it was aired on the national television in 2008. (Jewel In the Palace)

KH: How do you assess the perception of Hungary in Korea and vice versa? How did it change over the years?

MC: When I first came to Korea in 2000, most people here didn’t know about Hungary. Only those in their 40s and above knew a little, largely through the famous poem, “The Death of a Girl from Budapest” by poet Kim Choon-su, which eulogizes the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet rule.

The revolution was reported extensively in Korean newspapers in 1956, and seven Yonsei University students organized a voluntary militia to lend assistance to the resistance. The late Lee Man-seop (1932-2015), former speaker of the Korean Parliament, was one of the students, alongside former National Assembly member Yoo Jae-kun. Both were bestowed with the Hungarian Medal of Honor.

From the 2000s, many Koreans started traveling to Hungary and became familiar with its rich history and culture. Many were inspired by Hungarian classical music and its heritage.

On the Hungarian side, in the 1970s and 80s, people recognized all things Korean as synonymous with North Korea, a Stalinist country steeped in a cult of personality. But when Budapest and Seoul established diplomatic relations in 1989, Hungarians came to perceive South Korea as a “small tiger in East Asia.” Over the years that image changed to a “big tiger” that can produce world-class smartphones, microchips, cars, buildings and bridges.

Big changes happened in 2008, the year I opened the department of Korean studies, with the Korean invasion across Europe and Hungary through hallyu. Television dramas like the “Jewel in the Palace” and “Queen Seondeok” were aired on our national television and became hugely popular. Out of all European Union states, Hungary was the first to air Korean historical dramas on national channels. These shows were very effective in promoting Korean culture, because they showed the language, fashion, food, landscape and identity and everything in between. Thanks to them, even older Hungarians now want to know more about Korean culture and history. There’s no doubt Hungarians’ interest in Korea is much stronger than toward China or Japan.

In fact, I took part in the supervision and editing of translations of these dramas, comparing the subtitles translated from English to Hungarian with the original Korean script.

In recent years, the popularity of K-pop has been another major force driving the Hungarian curiosity about the Korean Peninsula especially among young people.

KH: Can you comment on the state of bilateral educational and research cooperation in terms of youth exchange, scholarship and research and development?

MC: There are many Korean students at Hungarian universities in the fields of medicine, dentistry, music, engineering and science. The Hungarian medical education in particular is one of the most advanced in Europe with a long history of excellence and recognition. Over 300 Koreans are studying at our medical schools and taking courses taught in English. The Budapest Technical University is very famous as well. Our government offers various scholarships to international students. In Korea, there are over 100 Hungarian students, mostly in Korean studies at master’s and doctoral levels. 
Lake Balaton in Hungary was one of the popular places where East Germans and West Germans met one another during the Cold War. (Go To Hungary)

KH: You are also the ambassador to North Korea. How do you assess the ties between Hungary and the two Koreas, and do you think Hungary can play any role in inter-Korean relations?

MC: I am also ambassador to North Korea, and have been there three times in my capacity as a scholar. Hungary doesn’t have an embassy in Pyongyang, as it was closed in 1999 alongside the closure of the North Korean embassy in Budapest. So I have to visit there several times a year.

Hungary and North Korea were very close in the 1950s right after the Korean War. In the 1950s, Hungarian engineers and architects helped reconstruct Pyongyang from the ruins, from Kim Il-sung Square to roads, avenues and railway stations.

But the relations soured after the 1956 revolution, as our socialism took on “lighter” characteristics away from the Soviet Union’s totalitarian path from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and onward. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Hungarians had their own passports and could freely travel to Western countries. Western Europeans could also travel to Hungary. It was the “lightest” socialist system to be seen in Central and Eastern Europe.

An interesting fact is that many East Germans and West Germans traveled to Hungary during the Cold War, and by the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans had settled in Hungary, not wanting to go back home. Many of them met each other in Hungary as separated families and relatives.

The East German government put a lot of pressure on our government to send their citizens back home, but we didn’t budge and made the bold decision to respect their wish and send them to West Germany through Austria.

A few weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell down. We officially changed our regime on Oct. 23, 1989, the day of the 1956 revolution. It marked the end of a socialist Hungary and beginning of a democratic Hungary.

I believe the lessons from Hungary’s democratic struggle can be learned by North Korea, and Hungary can play an intermediary role in facilitating cooperation and reconciliation between the two Koreas. In my capacity as scholar, I tried to bridge Seoul and Pyongyang by helping narrow the gap between the two official narratives in history textbooks. I am particularly interested in Korea’s cultural heritage, including those in North Korea before communist times, such as the Tomb of Goguryeo King Dongmyeong in Pyongyang, Tomb of Goryeo King Wanggon in Kaesong and Tomb of Goryeo King Kongmin. 

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt photographed in March 1886, four months before his death (Gaspard-Felix Tournachon)

KH: What are your ambassadorial ambitions?

MC: I am working hard to create a direct flight between Seoul-Incheon and Budapest. I hope to derive tangible results within this year on our 30th anniversary. I definitely want to promote more of Hungary here, particularly those aspects that are not well known to Koreans. Educational and tourism exchanges are critical.

What’s not readily recognized here are our world-class wine, porcelains and cakes. Hungary’s famous bakery with over a 100-year history, Cafe Gerbeaud, recently opened a branch at Lotte Tower in Seoul. Our embassy is preparing various concerts this year to showcase our classical musical prowess, featuring Franz Liszt, Zoltan Kodaly, Bela Bartok and others. Did you know that the composer of Korean national anthem “Aegukga,” the late Ahn Eak-tai, studied under Zoltan Kodaly and at the Eotvos Lorand University on a Hungarian government scholarship in the late 1930s? He also performed in Budapest, which received much accolade from Hungarian newspapers at the time. There is even a statue of Ahn in Budapest.

KH: You seem like a man of diverse passions. What are your hobbies? What are your favorite places in Korea and favorite Korean food?

MC: I don’t have any particular hobbies, but I like investigating and researching history. I very much enjoy digging through archives and reading old newspapers and books, or looking at faded, sepia-tinged photographs printed several decades ago. I also like going to used bookstores and museums with my wife.

In terms of food, I love all kinds of Korean dishes. But my favorite is sundubu-jjigae (soft tofu hot pot soup). There are surprisingly many similarities between Korean and Hungarian cuisines, as we also use hot peppers in many of our dishes like Koreans. Hungarians love spicy foods.

When it comes to travel, my favorite moments are hiking up Mount Baekdu on the Chinese side and Mount Keumgang in the past. I like visiting historical places throughout South Korea too. 

Hungarian town of Visegrad on River Danube (Daily News Hungary)

KH: Hungary is part of the Central European regional cooperation institution, the Visegrad Group, also known as “V4” comprising Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. V4 is famous for its strides in reform, decentralization, soft power and economic growth. Can you share any insights for East Asia?

MC: The Visegrad Group was formed in 1991 as a regional cooperation mechanism to help the transition from socialism to capitalist market economy, and spur economic cooperation between Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Historically speaking, the V4 countries, while sharing many cultural similarities, were attacked and pressured from the east by Russia and from the west from the Hapsburg Empire. It is difficult to compare the V4 to dynamics in East Asia. Unlike East Asia dominated by hegemonic powers China and Japan, with Korea sandwiched in the middle, none of V4 nations was a major power with imperial ambitions. And we never had grave historical problems among ourselves.

Our common primary objective now is to spur innovation among the V4 economies and also with international partners. One example is the Visegrad 4-Korea Knowledge-Sharing Program, a science diplomacy mechanism jointly organized by the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the V4 presidency state. The 2017-18 cycle focuses on innovation for small and medium-sized enterprises, and hosted by the Korean foreign ministry and Hungarian trade ministry.

We believe that the V4 countries, which were formerly socialist states, can offer useful lessons for the prospective opening and reform of North Korea. We can share our successful experiences of transitioning to democracy and the market economy.

By Joel Lee (