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Korean companies to up investment in C. America

PANAMA CITY -- President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday agreed in a group summit here with his counterparts from eight Central American nations to cooperate for further investment by Korean companies in the region.

Lee stressed that strong and diversified investment by Korean companies in information technology, energy, mineral resources and infrastructure would contribute toward the development of Central America, his office said.

It was Korea’s third summit with the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the first since 2005.

“Today’s summit is very timely as the world steps up cooperation to tackle the financial crisis and global issues facing humanity such as climate change,” Lee said at the opening of the summit talks with SICA.

SICA, founded in 1993, is an intergovernmental organization promoting regional economic integration among Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Panama is hosting this year’s SICA summit.

“Leaders of the SICA member nations agreed on the need to strengthen and diversify cooperation with Korea in the areas of education, vocational training, rural development, energy, science and technology,” read the 13-point joint statement issued as a result of the group summit.

The SICA leaders also agreed on the need to increase the Korea-SICA cooperation fund, into which Korea has poured some $900,000 so far since 2002.

About 280 Korean companies are currently doing business in Central America, taking part in construction of thermal and hydroelectric power plants, and employ about 100,000 Central Americans.

Lee expressed Korea’s intent to join SICA as an extra-regional observer, and the SICA leaders instructed the secretary general of SICA to begin related consultations. SICA currently has four regional observers -- Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico -- and five extra-regional observers -- Spain, Germany, Taiwan, Italy and Japan.

Leaders of the eight SICA nations suggested that Korea join the Central American Bank for Economic Integration for closer economic ties, and Lee said Seoul would consider it, according to the joint statement.

Lee promised to expand financial and technical assistance for the development of Central America and step up efforts to share Korea’s experience in economic growth.
President Lee Myung-bak (fourth from left) and leaders of Central American nations pose after their summit in Panama City on Tuesday. Yonhap News
President Lee Myung-bak (fourth from left) and leaders of Central American nations pose after their summit in Panama City on Tuesday. Yonhap News

To help Central America fight and prevent crime, Lee offered a training program on public safety, for which an agreement will be signed between the Korea International Cooperation Agency and SICA. The SICA leaders also requested Korea to support an international conference on Central American strategies on public security.

They pledged to cooperate for Seoul’s successful hosting of the G20 summit in November and asked Lee to help reflect SICA’s interests in the global economic talks.

The annual two-way trade volume between Korea and SICA has grown from $4 billion in 2006 to $6.7 billion last year.

Korea offered some $10.65 million in development aid to SICA member countries last year, about 91 percent of which went to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.

After the summit, Korea and SICA issued a special declaration condemning North Korea for its alleged attack on a South Korean warship.

In their declaration, SICA leaders “condemned the attack against South Korea and promised close cooperation on the international community’s efforts to secure peace and security in the region.”

They also called for the Cheonan incident to be resolved in accordance with international law and the U.N. Charter.

Having held summit talks with the Panamanian president on Monday, Lee held a series of bilateral meetings on Tuesday with his counterparts from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Lee also met Tuesday with vice president of the Dominican Republic Rafael Alburquerque, who requested for Korea’s investment in construction of a coal-fired power plant, electric power transmission and distribution systems. Alburquerque also welcomed Korea’s active support to rebuild quake-stricken Haiti, which neighbors the Dominican Republic.

With Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, Lee reaffirmed the two countries’ cooperation in dealing with the Cheonan case, climate change and low-carbon, green growth.

During his summit with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, Lee requested support for 10,000 Koreans and 145 Korean companies in Guatemala. Korean companies, which have invested $150 million in Guatemala, account for 10 percent of the Central American country’s exports and employ about 70,000 Guatemalans.

Lee also asked Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to support some 40 Korean companies running clothing and sewing factories in Honduras, and to cooperate for a swift and fair trial of a Korean woman who is charged with murder in the Central American country.

With El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, Lee discussed cooperation in infrastructure and energy sectors, trade and investment. El Salvador plans to build a hydroelectric power plant and expand a diesel power plant.

Lee will head to Mexico on Wednesday for a three-day state visit and a summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Cheong Wa Dae said.

The summit in Mexico, slated for Thursday, will focus on major bilateral issues such as ways to step up cooperation in trade, the aviation industry and energy, a news release said.

Lee’s tour of the Central American nations comes as Seoul campaigns to play a bridging role between advanced and emerging nations.

Lee is scheduled to return to Seoul on Saturday.

By Kim So-hyun
Korea Herald correspondent  (sophie@heraldcorp.com)
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