[INTERVIEW] Estonian Embassy opens business hub to strengthen connections with Korea

[INTERVIEW] Estonian Embassy opens business hub to strengthen connections with Korea

Estonian Ambassador to Korea Sten Schwede poses at the newly opened Estonian Business Hub on the first floor of the Seoul Square building in central Seoul, Jan. 25. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Estonia, a country by the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, is famous for its digital technology and infrastructure, which has earned it the nickname “e-Estonia.” Approximately 99 percent of government services are available online throughout the year around the clock, 98 percent of businesses are established online and 67 percent of Estonians regularly use digital identification in everyday life.

With its advancement in information technology (IT) and digitalization, Estonia seeks to strengthen its cooperation with Korea in these areas and explore new opportunities by opening the Estonian Business Hub in the heart of Seoul.

Estonian Ambassador to Korea Sten Schwede said though Estonia is a small country, it is gaining more awareness in Korea and the business hub is part of the embassy’s efforts to attract more attention from the Korean general audience.

The Estonian Business Hub, located on the first floor of the Seoul Square building right in front of Seoul Station, aims to showcase the digital infrastructure of Estonia and bridge Korean and Estonian businesses interested.

“The purpose of this space is to facilitate business-to-business and human-to-human contacts, so we hope it will work that way. For example, when Estonian businessmen come to Seoul and want to meet potential partners or (existing) partners or talk to a group of businessmen about what they offer, there is this space,” the Estonian ambassador said during an interview with The Korea Times in January.

“And the other way around, when Koreans who wonder about Estonia as a travel destination or an investment destination, they have a space to come to and get information.”

Schwede is Estonia’s first resident ambassador in Korea, taking office in August 2021 and reflecting Estonia’s growing interest in Korea.

Korea and Estonia established diplomatic relations back in 1991, but it took 30 years for Estonia to open an embassy here in Seoul. Ambassador Schwede said ??Estonia’s then-President Kersti Kaljulaid’s visited Korea during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

“I think we realized back then that we have to take our ties with the Republic of Korea to another level. So this is approximately the time when the political decision was taken in Estonia to establish an embassy and this business hub together,” he explained.

A special exhibition at the Estonian Business Hub introduces the country’s rich forestry and wood industry. Courtesy of Embassy of Estonia in Korea

Schwede said the hub’s location was selected strategically in the center of Seoul in a large office building where thousands of people work and pass by daily.

“During the day, all these people pass by our hub, when they arrive at work, when they go and have lunch and when they go home. This building has many businesses, many startups and young people with business minds who are curious about how things are done abroad. So that explains the location,” he said.

The hub has three permanent displays themed e-Government, e-Residency and Tourism and Food as well as special exhibitions changing twice a year.

Currently, the inaugural special exhibit features Estonia’s timber industry due to the country’s abundant forest resources and its long tradition of forestry.

“Our forest is one of our most important natural resources. Estonia is not very rich in different natural resources, a bit like South Korea,” the ambassador said of how Estonia cultivates, maintains and exports its forest resources.

A variety of wood products ― from everyday items such as toothpicks and pellets to high-end products such as designer furniture ― are on display at the hall.

“Forests are part of Estonians’ daily lives. We go and pick mushrooms and berries or branches to fire up the barbeque in your backyard,” he explained. “So when we thought about what the most representative thing to present is, forests came to mind. Furthermore, 40 percent of our exports to South Korea are wood and wood products. So it makes sense.”

The Estonian Business Hub also sheds light on the Northern European country’s digitalized system ― ahead of its time.

“It is kind of ironic if you think of Estonia as a nature-loving and forest-based country when Estonia has this e-government system where 99 percent of public services are online,” Schwede said.

Estonian Ambassador to Korea Sten Schwede speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the Estonian Business Hub in central Seoul, Jan. 25. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

The ambassador said Estonia’s early adaptation of digital infrastructure dates back to the country’s restoration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“We realized that the industrial base was very bad and we didn’t have really anything to build our economy on after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After two or three years of a shrinking economy, the government had reached the point where it had to make the decision. And the decision was to allocate some of the budget just for IT development every year,” he said.

“So the government thought let’s invest into something very new in this world, called the Internet, which was very revolutionary back then.”

With the early investment, public agencies, schools and libraries of Estonia all had internet connections by the late 1990s and the government introduced the idea of digital identification in the early 2000s.

“And then the government started to add up services online. The first digital signature was given just more than 20 years ago as (we celebrated the) 20th-anniversary last year. Now it is just normal in Estonia,” Schwede said.

“The government now works very hard on getting all the services also onto a smartphone. So we have mobile ID and smart ID, which has the same function of the electronic chip card.”

Estonia pioneered the concept of e-government during the early stages of the digital era. It earned the trust of its citizens by guaranteeing them complete control over their personal data which was collected by the government.

“Every citizen can go into their state account with all the services and check the log, seeing who has accessed their data. And you can always then send in an application asking why this official looked at your data. It’s kind of transparent and that has given the system strength. People trust it.”

Schwede recognizes the differences in digital services between Korea and Estonia with Korea relying on big IT companies while Estonia keeps its data under the control of the state.

“I never tell Koreans to copy what we have because it is not possible. Every country has its own way. But we can take some ideas or learn from other countries. We can cooperate in cyber security ― how to defend all the data we have, especially against foreign intruders,” he said, welcoming Korea’s joining of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn last year.

The Estonian Business Hub aims to be a connection between Korean businesses that are already operating or planning to operate in Estonia with Estonian businesses interested in expanding to Korea. Courtesy of Embassy of Estonia in Korea

Another thing that made Estonia famous is its e-Residency. It provides foreigners with a government-issued digital identity and status that allows them to establish a legal identity in the country.

“We thought that we should share our well-functioning public services and online system with the world so that there are some services that can be used also by global citizens, digital nomads and investors,” the ambassador said.

“When people apply for this (e-Residency) card, they can use it to open a company in Estonia. And when you register a business in Estonia, actually you register in the European Union, a market with almost half a billion. The point is it comes with a hassle-free system.”

According to the embassy, Estonia has issued over 100,000 e-Residency cards and about 2,000 are in Korea.

“The number is growing by 10-15 every month. We see constant numbers of applications. Some apply because they find it interesting or just to be part of this global nomad community. But there are many more focused people who actually have plans to do something either in Estonia or in Europe,” the ambassador said, adding that over 170 companies have been established through this system.

Ambassador Schwede envisions the business hub to serve as a platform for communication between individuals who have already acquired Estonia’s e-Residency card or invested in the country and those who are interested in obtaining e-Residency or investing in Estonia.

The hub’s calendar is already quite full for events organized by the embassy such as meetups and seminars, but it is also open for anyone interested in the Baltic country during opening hours from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

“We are always open for anybody. A student who wants to know about how to study in Estonia and potential tourists who want to visit the Baltic Sea region can just pop in and ask questions,” he said.

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