Lee also said his latest trip to the United Arab Emirates was aimed at laying the groundwork for South Korea to win another massive nuclear power plant construction order from the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation after the first deal in 2009 to build and operate four reactors.
"In the second half of next year, the UAE plans to place an order for four additional nuclear power plants, and the competition to obtain the order is already heated. France, Japan and other countries have begun all-out efforts to secure the order," Lee said during his biweekly radio address.
"That is why I visited the Middle Eastern country this time," he said.
The economic effects stemming from the 2009 deal with the UAE are not confined to the construction costs worth US$20 billion, Lee said, adding that the country can also earn an additional $20 billion from operating the nuclear power plants over the next six decades.
The deal also means that decent and stable job opportunities will be given to tens of thousands of job seekers over the next 60 years, as it takes a total of 1,400 workers annually to run the UAE power plants, he said.
"Over the past 40 years since the 1970s, Korea's staple industries have been automobiles, steel, shipbuilding and electronic products," Lee said. "But we have to develop new growth engines in order to sustain growth in the future. Nuclear power plants are one of the core staples in the years to come."
Last week's trip also included a stop in Cambodia for an annual summit with Southeast Asian countries.
The region, known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is a very important market for South Korea at a time when the U.S. and European markets have slumped and the Chinese market is also slowing down, Lee said.
"ASEAN will be able to boost our trade and inject vitality into our economy next year as well. Therefore, it is essential to enhance economic cooperation with ASEAN to live up to our goals of reaching US$2 trillion in trade and a per capita income of $30,000 to $40,000," he said.