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(News Focus) Lee wraps up last overseas trip with focus on economic projects
By Chang Jae-soon
ABU DHABI, Nov. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday wrapped up perhaps his last overseas trip before leaving office, with a focus on laying the groundwork for free trade deals and ensuring lucrative construction projects will go smoothly under his successor.

   The five-day visit to Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates marked Lee's 49th overseas trip since he assumed presidency in February 2008. Beginning with an official visit to the United States in April of his first year, Lee has so far set foot in 43 countries, 16 of them more than twice.

   The oil-rich UAE is one of his most visited countries at four times.

   Those trips helped South Korea win a massive order, worth about US$40 billion, in late 2009 to build and operate four power-generating nuclear reactors. Last year, South Korea also won the right to take part in an existing oil field development project to secure at least 1 billion barrels of crude and to develop three undeveloped fields.

   In addition, the two countries also agreed last year on a joint project to stockpile 6 million barrels of UAE crude in South Korea's southern city of Yeosu, with Seoul having the priority right to buy the oil when supplies become dangerously unstable.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan shake hands during a summit in Abu Dhabi on Nov. 21. (Yonhap)

On Wednesday, Lee held summit talks with UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and then a dinner meeting with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In both meetings, the two sides reaffirmed their full commitments to all joint projects, officials said.

   The two countries also signed a main contract on the crude stockpile project.

   Lee and Crown Prince Mohammed also attended the groundbreaking ceremony for two nuclear reactors, the Barakah nuclear power plant units 1 and 2, two of the four reactors to be built under the 2009 deal, a symbolic move underscoring their commitment to the project.

   Officials said the oil field development projects are also on the right track.

   In March, a South Korean consortium signed a contract with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. to jointly develop three untapped oil fields in the UAE, which are expected to yield up to 43,000 barrels of oil per day. Production from the fields could begin as early as 2014, officials said.

   South Korea is also seeking to take part in a massive oil field development project under the deal guaranteeing South Korea's right to at least 1 billion barrels of crude. Officials said a South Korean consortium is seeking to sign a contract on the project next year.

   The field is estimated to hold 371 million barrels of oil, and its daily production amounts to 1.37 million barrels. The existing contract to develop the field expires next year, and South Korea is trying to gain a share when the contract is renewed, officials said.

   Before the UAE, Lee visited Cambodia for a series of regional summits, and on the sidelines of the conferences, two sets of ambitious negotiations were launched for potentially massive free trade deals, which if realized, would create huge new markets in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

   One of the two negotiating processes calls for a free trade pact between South Korea, China and Japan, which if realized, would increase South Korea's economic growth by additional 1.45 percent in 10 years. The three countries account for 20 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP), 17.5 percent of all global trade and 22 percent of the global population.

   The other negotiation calls for tearing down barriers to trade among Asia-Pacific countries -- the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus dialogue partners -- South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, Russia, Australia, India and New Zealand.

   The 16 countries have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$19.7 trillion, and their trade volume reaches $10.1 trillion with their combined population amounting to some 3.4 billion. Analysts said the envisioned pact would raise South Korea's economic growth by 1.76 percent in 10 years.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (4th from R) and other Asia-Pacific leaders pose for a photo during this year's meeting of the East Asia Summit forum in Cambodia on Nov. 20. (Yonhap)

Lee has aggressively sought free trade agreements with foreign countries, saying such deals will expand what he dubs the country's "economic territory." South Korea has eight FTAs in effect, including those with the United States, the European Union and ASEAN, two ready to take effect and eight under negotiations.

   "This could be my last (overseas) trip ... But there may be a situation where we have to go overseas abruptly," Lee said during a lunch meeting Wednesday with reporters traveling with him, stressing he would work hard until the last minute of his term that ends in February.

   "I think it would be difficult to definitely say this is the last trip."