The Hankyoreh | 25 March 2007
Roh proposes free trade talks with Arab Gulf nations
Riyadh (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Sunday unveiled an initiative for future cooperation between South Korea and the Middle East, proposing a free trade agreement (FTA) with member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The GCC, established in 1981 and headquartered in Riyadh, is a regional organization involving the six Arab Gulf states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — with many economic and social objectives in mind.
In an address to the Saudi Shoura (Consultation) Council, an advisory body for the Saudi Arabian king, Roh said that his government will push to initiate procedures this year for the opening of FTA negotiations with the GCC.
"South Korea will push to sign a free trade agreement with GCC nations in order to further expand the framework of bilateral economic cooperation," the president said.
"I’m convinced that the conclusion of a South Korea-GCC FTA would be enormously beneficial to both parties. The Korean government will begin procedures for the opening of FTA negotiations with the GCC side this year."
The president, who arrived here Saturday for a three-day official visit, noted that the Middle East accounts for 82 percent of South Korea’s oil imports, 63 percent of its overseas construction orders and 12 percent of its trade.
Regarding Roh’s FTA proposal, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae issued a press release stressing the need for South Korea to capitalize on the GCC nations’ strong purchasing power and rapidly growing plant market.
"South Korea’s exports to the Middle East may fall by over $500 million a year if it lags behind its key export rivals such as China, the EU, the United States and Japan in the FTA competition," the press release said.
"An FTA is also needed for South Korea to secure a stable supply of overseas energy resources. In addition, it will help Korean companies better capitalize on the Middle East’s plant market, projected to grow 100 percent annually over the coming three years," it said.
Under the new diplomatic initiative, Roh also declared the South Korean government’s desire to assist Middle East countries in their preparations for post-oil industrialization and deepen two-way cultural and economic exchanges.
"South Korea highly evaluates the Middle East’s post-oil industrialization effort and intends to actively contribute to their human resources development. We’re also ready to share our experiences in economic development," the president said.
Roh expressed expectations for brisker bilateral cultural exchanges. "The South Korean government will push for various cultural exchange programs together with private enterprises and media, religious and academic organizations, seeking to widen understanding of each other."
The president also vowed to help reinforce the annual South Korea-Middle East cooperation forum.
"The existing two-way cooperation forum will be expanded and reinforced through the participation of both sides’ ranking government officials and business leaders. It will be turned into a stage for practical and future-oriented exchanges," he said.
Following the council address, Roh spoke at a luncheon meeting of South Korean and Saudi Arabian businesspeople held at a downtown Riyadh hotel, calling for closer cooperation in plant construction, information technology, education, culture and human resources development.
With regard to education cooperation, the president said, "This year about 80 Saudi students will be sent to South Korea under a Saudi government funding program. The number of Saudi students attending South Korean colleges will eventually increase to 500 a year."