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[Diplomatic circuit] [Meet the diplomat] Paris looks to Korea’s technology, startups for cooperation: French ambassador


Video shot and edited by Kim So-mee



In South Korea, France is known predominantly for its rich history, sophisticated culture and luxury brands. But take a deeper look into the history between the two countries, and traces of France can be found across South Korea’s core industries.

In the digital era, Paris is seeking to bolster cooperation with Seoul in the field of technology and startups, the top French diplomat in Seoul said.

“In France, I think we have missed the beginning of this digital transformation for all sorts of reasons. Recently we have been putting the stress of the necessity to invest maximum resources in those new approaches,” French Ambassador to South Korea Philippe Lefort told The Korea Herald during an interview over lunch Nov. 18 at Le Chef Bleu in Seoul.

“We (France) did a lot of very good moves in building (startup) incubators. … Korea is very imaginative in this field. … France and Korea are countries in which technological development is not seen as a tool of geopolitical domination. So we can cooperate … to preserve our sovereignty by adding own capacities and not depending only on the big organizations.”

South Korean SMEs and Startups Minister Park Young-sun met with French Digital Minister Cedric O in France last weekend and signed a joint statement to step up cooperation on startups and AI-based smart manufacturing, the ministry said.

Lefort, who began his posting in Seoul in August, is frequently seen greeting people in Korean, which he has been teaching himself through mobile applications for about a year ever since he became a candidate for the position.

His ties to South Korea date back to the 1990s, when he worked at the General Secretary of Defense Paris.

“In 1993-1994 I was working at the General Secretary of Defense Paris. We had to deal with the issue of the Korean Peninsula, so I had a long interest in this region of the world and in Korea in particular,” Lefort said.

“There are also all sorts of inspirations that I have, (attributable) to what I read when I was young about Korea, Japan, China.”

Lefort previously served as the director general of information systems at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2015, where he gained expertise in digitalization.

Noting the recent first anniversary of the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace -- a high-level declaration on the need to develop common principles for safety in cyberspace, launched in November 2018 by French President Emmanuel Macron -- Lefort said it was essential for France, South Korea and states worldwide, as well as private entities, to join forces to improve cybersecurity.

“I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that the pillars on which we build our digital civilization are somehow very weak. … The internet was based upon the idea that by having a logic of communities we would get a lot of freedom. But new types of crimes were developed,” Lefort said.

“The most important point in this digital type of economy is confidence and trust. If you lose trust in service, system, then you lose everything.”

He mentioned the need to curb online hate speech, an area where France has implemented legislation in response to the growing worldwide social issue.

“We are creating the infrastructure for new civilization based on digital instrument and SNS. … The view in France has been that first ordinary law and ordinary concept should apply to this (online) communication. … There is a responsibility of the platforms like there is a responsibility of the newspaper to have the review of caution and proportionality,” he said.

He went on to say the French government was more concerned about online propaganda being used to manipulate public emotions, such as by instigating hate, rather than the mere existence of misleading content.

French Ambassador to South Korea Philippe Lefort speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at Le Chef Bleu in central Seoul on Nov 18. (Kim So-mee/The Korea Herald)
French Ambassador to South Korea Philippe Lefort speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at Le Chef Bleu in central Seoul on Nov 18. (Kim So-mee/The Korea Herald)

Lefort touched on the relations between Pyongyang and Washington based on his firsthand engagement with Washington, Tokyo and Moscow, saying he appreciates Seoul’s efforts to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

“I think (there is a) difference of psychology between those three big powers and countries like Korea. … Korea is like the Korean saying ‘a small shrimp breaks its back caught in a fight between whales,’” Lefort said.
“You are trying to manage the biggest actors through diplomacy. … The division of the peninsula is a drama for which Korea is not responsible,” he said, adding that the issue goes beyond the Korean Peninsula because of the nonproliferation issue.

Lefort, who has a deep appreciation for South Korean films and cuisine, expressed excitement for the days ahead of him in Seoul. He also looked forward to improving his Korean, saying, “Maybe next year I would be able to give an interview in Korean.”

As the top diplomat representing France in South Korea, Lefort said he had three goals: to strengthen political relations, bilateral trade and cultural exchanges.

“We have very good trade together, but it could be better. We could create great advantage of having the Korean industry develop in France, especially in fields in which Korea is a center of excellence, such as decarbonized power generation, batteries, hydrogen, digital industry. Once again, France is extremely happy to receive Korean investment,” Lefort said.

“By exchanging cultural products, by learning each other’s language, you create strong link between the two countries, therefore opportunities in the economic and political field.” 

By Kim Bo-gyung (lisakim425@heraldcorp.com)
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