Mikołaj Oettingen, PhD, AGH University: For South Korea, Poland is a strategic partner in Europe

‘The Koreans are investing here not just with the Central Europe in mind, but for expansion across the whole continent. This is important to us, because to a great extent some state-of-the-art, often downright revolutionary technologies are at play. We are entering the phase of a very dynamic growth in Polish-Korean relations, in economy and elsewhere. Both parties will profit from this,’ argues Mikołaj Oettingen, PhD Eng, Korea’s KEPCO International Nuclear Graduate School lecturer, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Energy and Fuels, AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, who is taking part in Krynica Forum 2023.

This autumn, the Wrocław airport is launching a regular transcontinental flight for the first time in its history – and it’s to Seoul. An accident or a sign of the times?

Definitely the latter. Vibrant Korean businesses are thriving – even as they are keeping very quiet – around Wrocław. There is enough of them already, and the vistas of growth are so amazing for them that a direct link to Korea’s capital has become indispensable.

But why do so many Korean companies converge on this area?

To a great extent, it’s conditioned by history: Korean industry grew and bulked up thanks to one government decision after another to build a strong economic zone. It is in such zones that Koreans develop not only manufacturing processes but also their know-how. The results of R&D centres’ work have turned into the sources of their comparative advantage. With them, Korean products started to conquer the world. And we are talking about a country that is – especially for Asia – little. A similar blueprint we are now seeing rolled out around Wrocław, which became the Polish hub for Korean companies.

With its area one third that of Poland, a population of about 52 million – next to China or India, but also Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Japan, that’s positively pint-sized.

Exactly. And we are talking about a country which is for all intents and purposes an island – having a closed land border only with North Korea. Let’s not forget either that historically the north was much richer. Today, the North Korean economy is 2 per cent of the South. Which shows on the one hand the scale of North Korea’s devastation under the Kims’ regime, on the other, the Republic of Korea’s colossal success as it grew to be the tenth biggest economy in the world. The success story stemmed from the economic zones I mentioned – set up following the principles that were a strange but effective hodgepodge of US capitalism and central planning. It was the government that decided where an economic hub would spring up and what tech would be developed there.

And why are Koreans setting up such an economic zone in Europe – in Poland to boot?

One can go ahead and say that Poland has nowadays become Korea’s gateway to Europe. This is tremendously significant for both our countries. The Koreans are investing here not just with the Central Europe in mind, but for expansion across the whole continent. This is important to us, because to a great extent some state-of-the-art, often downright revolutionary technologies are at play. Please bear in mind that in terms of technology we have co-operated with partners in Europe and the US as a rule, Asia was missing, especially the Far East. It’s currently changing, mostly because Korea is shaping up to be – well, perhaps not the leader in Asia yet, but definitely a key co-operator for Europe. That is why it is so eager to build an industry hub – understood in present-day terms, as a place to develop new, disruptive technologies.

Battery production has already promoted Lower Silesia and Poland as a whole to the global top league in this future-oriented domain.

We are not seeing it in Poland yet and may not always appreciate, but from the perspective of a Korean street you can instantly see where the world is headed: electric cars and their chargers are the new norm there. The Koreans have a lot of experience not only with the use but also with the creation and rollout of this technology. Importantly, they manufacture batteries for commercial purposes, and we are the place in Europe where this is taking place. We are getting the Korean – slowly the Polish, too – know-how. Not only the battery factories run in Poland, but so do the R&D centres for high-tech electromobility development.

In what other sectors is the Polish-Korean co-operation expanding?

A few years ago, it started for real with a home-appliance collaboration, bashful at first. This sector is growing dynamically thanks to LG or Samsung investments. The automotive sector co-operation appeared in tandem. Yet, the real breakthrough are the military contracts.

We are going to buy 180 K2 tanks and 48 K9 howitzers for over 27 billion zlotys. Subsequent gun-howitzers are planned to be built in Poland as early as next year. And in 2026, the Korean tank production will join the roster. We are also buying the FA-50 combat-trainer jet…

The military co-operation is crucial, as it involves the most advanced technologies you can imagine. Not unlike the other two sectors we are about to develop with Korea: energy and ICT. The Koreans are at the moment the only nuclear tech supplier able to deliver on time and within budget. The reactor construction in United Arab Emirates proved that – in exceptionally harsh climate conditions. A few days ago, the Koreans confirmed the decision to build two new-type reactors in their country. These are not just projects on paper, they are backed by experience – both in operation and in construction. Plus, it’s not a single reactor type but several technologies. For each of them, the Koreans offer a plethora of services, while the plant construction is done in co-operation with the local businesspeople, using companies boasting a dedicated crew of experts.

And how important in our co-operation is the culture in its broad sense?

Culture – from music to cuisine – is Korea’s soft power for export. K-pop in all its forms, for grown-ups and for teens, conquered the world, not only Asia. The same is now going on with K-food. So far, we’ve learnt little about the amazingly varied Korean cuisine, but I’m sure this is going to change soon.

Especially as Daesang Corporation, a giant food business with global presence, intends to launch kimchi production in Kraków next year.

It’s a piece in a bigger puzzle. What we can expect is investment in culture writ large, from the music industry to fashion to cosmetics to cuisine.

Is it working in the other direction, too? The Koreans know Chopin, our Nobel Prize winners, are aware that one of Penderecki’s symphonies is called ‘Korean’?

Of course, the Korean elite, really steeped in culture, knows all this well. Our brand is very strong in such spheres, and we can leverage this. To make our culture common knowledge in wider society, we would need to reach Korean influencers and be successful in hooking them on our achievements. If Korea accepts anything from abroad at all, it is through their celebrities.

So if a K-pop star sampled the Penderecki symphony…

That might just enter public knowledge. After all, one person did it!


Our best footballer. If you admit in Korea that you’re from Poland, you are bound to hear ‘ Robert Lewandowski’ ! And to end on a very serious note: I believe a booming growth of Poland and Korea’s relations is on the horizon. Both parties will profit immensely from this.

Mikołaj Oettingen, PhD Eng, will be a panellist at the Krynica Forum 2023, which is accompanied by the Korean-Polish Forum, with discussions focused on various co-operation domains with Korean partners.

See more news

Subscribe to the newsletter