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(LEAD) (News Focus) Lee winds up Central Asian trip with massive economic deals
By Chang Jae-soon
ASTANA, Aug. 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak wrapped up a three-nation trip to Central Asia on Thursday, buoyed by massive economic deals and enhanced partnerships in a resources-rich region with fast-growing economies.

   Lee's visit to Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan led to the sealing of a series of agreements in massive projects worth a combined total of US$12 billion, ranging from developing a gas field to building a chemicals plant, a thermal power plant and a petrochemical complex.

   Lee also used the visits to lay the groundwork for future economic cooperation with the resources-rich nations, and to bolster his personal bonds with their leaders. Officials have said the Central Asian nations are important to South Korea not only economically, but also strategically as a bridge between Asia and Europe.

   "This tour was meaningful in that the trust President Lee has built with the leaders of these countries led to real contracts," presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha told Yonhap News Agency. "Through this trip, we upgraded our relations with the Central Asian nations and we are expected to strengthen cooperative relations and substantial exchanges with them."

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj hold a toast during a dinner reception after summit talks in Ulan Bator on Aug. 22. (Yonhap)

In Mongolia, Lee and President Tsakhia Elbegdorj agreed to elevate relations between the two countries to a "comprehensive partnership" in a symbolic commitment to bolster ties in all areas, and adopted a mid-term action plan providing guidelines for bilateral cooperation.

   Under the slogan, they agreed to hold summit and other high-level talks more often and have their foreign ministers meet every year to discuss bilateral relations and other issues of mutual interest in regional cooperation. They also agreed to expand defense cooperation.

   Lee's three-day visit to Ulan Bator also produced two resources cooperation agreements, including a pledge to conduct joint exploration and development of uranium ore and rare earth materials that are vital for making mobile phones, notebook computers and displays.

   On security issues, Mongolia welcomed last month's talks between the chief nuclear envoys of South and North Korea and expressed support for Seoul's efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff and resume inter-Korean dialogue.

   The two sides also expressed concern over Pyongyang's uranium enrichment program and agreed that a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea is significant for peace and stability in the region and the international nonproliferation regime, the statement said.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (L) and Uzbek President Islam Karimov shake hands ahead of summit talks in Tashkent on Aug. 23. (Yonhap)

The highlight of Lee's two-day visit to Uzbekistan was the signing of a US$4.1 billion package of deals to develop the Surgil gas field near the Aral Sea and build a gas and chemicals plant, the largest-ever deal since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992.

   The Surgil gas field is believed to be holding an estimated 130 billion cubic meters of natural gas (960 billion tons of LNG, or 830 million barrels of oil equivalent). The project calls for developing the field and building a processing plant, and is expected to cost US$4.16 billion in total.

   Participating in the project will be South Korea's GS Engineering & Construction Corp., Samsung Engineering Co., Hyundai Engineering Co. and Uzbekistan's state-run gas corporation UNG.

   On Wednesday, Lee and Uzbek President Islam Karimov watched via video link the unveiling of a commemorative stone at the plant construction site in a symbolic commitment to the project.

   Lee hailed the project, saying it could "change the history of Uzbekistan."

South Korean President Lee Myung- bak (L) shakes hands with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana on Aug. 25. (Yonhap)

Lee's visit to Kazakhstan produced key agreements on two projects valued at $8 billion in total.

   One of them is an "inter-government agreement" guaranteeing South Korea's 70 percent stake in a $4 billion project to build a coal-fired power plant in the southern city of Balkhash, which is expected to generate about 7 percent of Kazakhstan's electricity needs.

   Officials said that the intergovernmental guarantee is a must to make sure that the terms of the contract will remain effective regardless of changes to the law in Kazakhstan and to ensure that the Kazakh government will buy electricity from the plant.

   The other agreement was a contract between South Korea's LG Chem and Kazakhstan Petrochemical Industries (KPI) to establish a joint venture to push for a $4 billion project to build a petrochemical complex in Atyrau on the northern banks of the Caspian Sea.

   The projects were the largest-ever since the two countries opened relations in 1992.

   Lee and President Nursultan Nazarbayev agreed that the success of the Balkhash power plant and the Atyrau petrochemical complex will serve as a model for further expanding cooperation between the two countries and pledged to cooperate closely on them.

   In a show of friendship, Lee and Nazarbayev called off several events scheduled for Thursday afternoon and spent time together at a presidential retreat hundreds of kilometers from Astana.