Phil Bolton and Leigh Miller for GlobalAtlanta
South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae Sik, called trade “the backbone” of U.S.-Korea economic relations and said in a filmed interview with GlobalAtlanta that he was optimistic more Korean companies would invest in Georgia following the $2.2 billion investment Kia Motors America Inc. is to make in West Point.
Mr. Lee was in Atlanta Aug. 15-16 to speak at the World Trade Center Atlanta during a dinner hosted by the Southern Center for International Studies, the Asia Society Washington Center and the Korea-Southeast U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
He also visited with Gov. Sonny Perdue, officials at the Carter Center, the Coca-Cola Co. and Emory University.
During the filmed interview, he said that he hoped a free trade agreement would be signed between Korea and the U.S. by the end of the year and that visa restrictions to the U.S. would be changed to facilitate entry by Korean businesspeople and tourists.
In his dinner remarks at the World Trade Center, he also discussed security issues related to North Korea and a South Korean initiative in North Korea to promote economic development.
Mr. Lee praised patriotic Korean-Americans who spurred development in his country by investing there in the early years of the country’s economic take-off and then who served as a “gateway” between Korea and the U.S. by promoting trade as far back as the 1960s.
“They have worked hard to promote two-way trade,” he said in the interview, adding “This is the way we expanded our exports to the U.S.”
According to Mr. Lee, the Georgia-Korea relationship would be strengthened in the automobile sector specifically by Kia’s investment in its new production facility. He said that separate investments would likely benefit the state’s chemical and machinery sectors.
He also said that the Kia investment raised Georgia’s profile in Korea and that the West Point site was chosen over other locations, including one in Mississippi, “because at the end of the day it was the more economically reasonable choice.”
In addition, he pointed out that Mr. Perdue had led a trade delegation to Korea and that the state had actively been developing relations with his country for more than 20 years.
He pointed to Georgia and South Korea’s common experience in having hosted a Summer Olympic Games. Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996 and Seoul, Korea, in 1988.
“Your profile has been well understood,” he said. “Korean businessmen will be much more interested in doing business with you.”
Mr. Lee said that he already had visited with some 100 members of U.S. Congress to promote a free trade agreement with the U.S.
“We have some $70 billion in trade annually with the U.S. It is high time for us to come up with another legal framework,” he said. “That is why we agreed to launch free trade negotiations.”
Concerning visas, he said that Korea was not a participant in the U.S.’s visa waiver program, which has been granted to 27 other countries, and would like to have the visa requirements eliminated to facilitate trade, promote tourism and encourage visitor exchanges.
At the dinner, Mr. Lee said that even Chinese officials had been mystified by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s decision to launch missiles recently. “On this issue, time is not on our side,” he said of North Korea’s missile program and expressed his concern about the failure of current diplomatic initiatives to contain North Korea’s nuclear programs.
South Korea felt especially vulnerable to the possibility of North Korea launching a “dirty” bomb,” he said. He also warned that “When diplomacy fails, soldiers walk in.”
Mr. Lee called the construction of factories by South Korean companies in Kaesung, a North Korean city adjacent to the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea, an experiment that would help North Korean society eventually change.
With 6,000 North Koreans working in these factories, he said, “Something important is taking place. We have planted a seed toward change.”
But it would take 20 to 30 years for the benefits of the program to be evident, he added.
To learn more about programs of the Southern Center for International Studies, go to www.scis.org, or of the World Trade Center Atlanta, go to www.wtcatlanta.com.