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(News Focus) Lee champions free trade, green growth during Latin American swing
By Chang Jae-soon
BOGOTA, June 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak used the just-ended, four-nation swing through Latin America to champion two main tenets of his presidency: free trade and green growth.

   In every stop of the nine-day trip to Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, Lee never failed to pitch for free trade that he believes will help revitalize the global economy troubled by the eurozone debt crisis and expand what he calls South Korea's "economic territory."

   And his push yielded tangible results.

   In Mexico, where he attended a summit of the Group of 20 major economies, Lee led other G20 leaders to renew their "standstill" commitment to resist all forms of protectionist trade policies until the end of 2014, a one-year extension from the previous commitment.

   On the sidelines of the G20 summit, Lee held bilateral meetings with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and reached agreements to resume free trade talks with both nations, which have been stalled since 2008.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak attends the G20 summit in Mexico on June 18. (Yonhap)

In Bogota, South Korea and Colombia also announced they have worked out a free trade agreement after two and a half years of negotiations. The pact, if signed and implemented, is expected to boost auto and other exports to the fast-emerging market in South America and serve as a foothold for expansion to other parts of the continent.

   In an interview with Colombia's leading El Tiempo newspaper, Lee said he expects South Korea's trade volume with Colombia will jump five-fold over the next five years if the pact is implemented.

   Free trade was also the main issue in Lee's trip to Chile, the first country that signed a free trade pact with South Korea. Since the pact went into force in 2004, trade volume between the two countries has increased 4.6 fold, to US$7.24 billion last year.

   Lee and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera celebrated the progress made under the trade deal, and pledged to enter into "a second stage" of the agreement to expand bilateral cooperation to various areas, such as renewable energy, education and culture.

   Since the start of his term in early 2008, Lee has aggressively sought free trade agreements. South Korea now has FTAs with 45 partners, including the United States, the European Union and the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations -- the world's three major global economic blocs.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera hold summit talks in Santiago on June 22. (Yonhap)

Green growth was also a key theme for Lee's Latin American swing.

   In Brazil, Lee attended a U.N. conference on sustainable development, known as the Rio+20 summit, championing green growth as a solution to global challenges such as the economic crisis, the gap between the rich and poor, and climate change.

   Lee made a similar appeal at the G20 summit in Mexico.

   The campaign, which has been one of Lee's trademark policies, calls for lessening dependence on fossil fuels and seeking economic growth through environment-friendly technologies and industries. Lee believes the strategy will provide South Korea and the world with fresh growth engines.

   On the sidelines of the Rio+20 summit, South Korea, Denmark, Australia and a dozen other countries signed a convention to upgrade a Seoul-led think tank on green growth, the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), into an official international organization.

   It marked the first time South Korea has led the establishment of an international organization.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks during a keynote speech at a U.N. sustainable development conference in Brazil's Rio de Janerio on June 20. (Yonhap)

The visit to Colombia was also highly meaningful in that Lee is the first South Korean president ever to visit the wartime ally that sent more than 5,000 troops to help defend the Asian nation during the 1950-53 Korean War.

   Colombia was the only nation from Central and South America to fight alongside South Korea against Chinese-backed North Korean forces. About 5,300 troops were dispatched halfway around the world to help fight the North's invasion, of which 213 were killed and 567 wounded.

   On the first day of his trip to Bogota, Lee paid tribute at a memorial honoring the Korean War dead in Colombia and hosted a meeting with their family members and surviving veterans, deeply saluting their life-risking sacrifices to defend the then little-known, faraway nation across the Pacific.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (second from R) pays tribute to Colombian troops killed in the 1950-53 Korean War during a visit to a war memorial in Bogota on June 23. (Yonhap)