▲ Ambassador Pinilla discussing his passion for cultural exchange Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
It was in 2014, near the start of Ambassador Tito Saul Pinilla’s post in Korea. He was walking near the Colombian Embassy when he came across a photo exhibition about the Korean War.
Twenty-one nations participated in the international effort during the war, and pictures from each nation were hung along a long stretch of sidewalk, grouped by country.
Ambassador Pinilla took his time, looking at each contribution. However, as he reached the end, he still hadn’t found anything from Colombia.
It was the only Latin American country in the UN forces during the Korean War. In 1951 Colombia’s ARC Almirante Padilla delivered just over 1,000 soldiers to the peninsula. They would become known as the Colombian Battalion.
By 1954, 5,100 Colombian soldiers had served in Korea. In the end, 131 died in combat, 476 were injured, 69 went missing, and 30 were taken as prisoners.
It’s a legacy that deserves to be remembered and honored; however, as Ambassador Pinilla discovered at that road-side exhibition, Colombia’s sacrifice was in danger of falling between the historical cracks.
As a both a trained fighter pilot and former General and Commander of the Colombian Air Force, Ambassador Pinilla knew that he had to do something about this.
Calling on his contacts back home he was able to curate pictures from the private collections of the families of those who had served during the conflict - photographs that would become an integral part of Ambassador Pinilla’s work to invigorate cultural ties between Colombia and Korea.
Jeju is the most recent city to host a combined exhibition of this Colombian war photography and 25 works celebrating the 100th anniversary of world-famous Colombian photographer Leo Matiz.
▲ Ambassador Pinilla speaking at the opening of the exhibition Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
Born in 1917, Leo Matiz - probably best known for his pictures of Frida Kahlo - photographed a great number of 20th century notables, including Louis Armstrong, Pablo Neruda, and Walt Disney.
Matiz was also an actor, editor and a painter - arguably one of Latin America’s most eclectic and pioneering artists, and his contributions represent a high water mark for Colombian cultural influence.
Ambassador Pinilla talked about Matiz and this exhibition of Colombian culture in terms of the work he’s been doing to expand not only the awareness of the long history between Korea and Colombia, but also of the growing economic ties between the two cultures.
According to María Claudia Lacouture, president of investment and export promotions association ProColombia, in 2010 fourteen South Korean companies were investing in Colombia. By 2014 there were more than 40:
“South Korea is the second largest investor from Asia in Colombia after Japan and had an accumulated total Direct Foreign Investment of US$176.8 million from 1994 to 2014.”
In February of 2013 the two countries also signed a long awaited free trade agreement.
According to Korea.net, Colombia is the “tenth nation Korea has signed a FTA with and the third in South America, while Korea is the first Asian country to ink such an agreement with the South American nation.”
This marks the beginning of deepening market opportunities for both economies, including exported industrial products like steel, textiles, and automobiles from Korea, and imported agricultural commodities like coffee, flowers, fruit, and cacao from Colombia.
Colombia will also be importing greater quantities of oil and coal. According to Reuters, in 2016 South Korea's East-West Power ordered 670,000 tonnes of Colombian coal, while Korea Midland Power (KOMIPO) ordered 250,000 tonnes.
Ambassador Pinilla framed these changes in trade against a backdrop of Colombia’s own significant evolution.
Since President Juan Manuel Santos’s election in 2010, this economist and winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize has brought about enormous changes in the country.
Relying on his Three Pillars of peace, equity, and education, Colombia has seen some of its most significant advances in decades, including a rapidly expanding middle class, increased infrastructure, and - perhaps most importantly - negotiating a peace treaty with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), ending 50 years of violence between this guerilla movement and the government.
Ambassador Pinilla spoke passionately about this new chapter of Colombia peace and prosperity, and the broader implications it had for international growth and cooperation.
“It’s time for the images people have associated with Colombia in the past to change,” Ambassador Pinilla told me, “when people hear the name Colombia now, I want them to think about beautiful men and women and a country of opportunities.”
The exhibition of Leo Matiz and the war photography will run until March 30th at the Kim Man-deok Memorial Hall, open 9 a.m to 6 p.m., Tues. - Sunday, free admission. Here's a map.
▲ Caught in the act of careful consideration Photo courtesy The Jeju Weekly
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