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‘Mexican FTA talks looking bright’

Talks for a long-stalled free trade agreement between Mexico and South Korea could resume by the end of the year, according to the incoming Mexican ambassador to South Korea.

The talks, stalled since 2008, could restart with impetus from a face-to-face meet-up between the nations’ leaders on the sidelines of either of two multilateral summits in September and October, said Mexican Ambassador to South Korea Jose Luis Bernal.

“We are waiting for the next meeting of our leaders,” Bernal said during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Hannam-dong in Seoul on Monday. “New high-level contacts are now possible because we have new governments both in Mexico and in South Korea.” 
Mexican Ambassador to South Korea Jose Luis Bernal gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Hannam-dong, Seoul, Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)
Mexican Ambassador to South Korea Jose Luis Bernal gestures during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Hannam-dong, Seoul, Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)

President Park Geun-hye could meet one-on-one with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the APEC CEO Summit in Bali from Oct. 5 to 7, Bernal said, adding a resolute: “They will get together.”

Asked whether they would meet one-on-one at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in late September, Bernal said: “That is a possibility and there will be a chance to meet at the APEC summit in October.”

South Korea and Mexico launched free trade talks in 2007, but negotiations have been stalled since the second round in 2008, in part due to concerns within the manufacturing sector in Mexico and consternation within the agricultural sector in South Korea.

Korean farmers were wary of foreign agricultural products driving down their bottom line. The manufacturers in Mexico, for their part, were also sensitive to Korean auto exports and other high-value goods. Some 70 percent of Mexican exports are industrial products, according to the Mexican Embassy.

But Bernal was quick to point out that the global financial slowdown was as important a factor in stalling a potential deal as trade sensitivities.

With signs of recovery in Mexico and South Korea and two new governments well in place ― Nieto was sworn into office in December and Park in February ― the two sides are ready to sit down again and hammer out an agreement, Bernal said.

The better financial conditions make Mexico, an all-around manufacturing powerhouse, attractive to Korean foreign direct investment. Mexico’s fundamentals bolster this perspective, with inflation at about 4 percent and national debt at 37 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.

In June, the Export-Import Bank of Korea opened a $20 billion credit line for Mexico aimed at funding infrastructure projects. The Mexican president is looking to a multi-year infrastructure plan to develop distribution channels in the industrial central region of the country and complement a raft of reforms aimed at broadly boosting economic growth.

In August, Korean Air started direct flights to Mexico for cargo.

The Mexican ambassador said an agreement would further spur investment by creating certainty and consistency.

Bernal’s arrival is also a sign of the seriousness of purpose of Mexico. He has held the rank of ambassador for nearly two decades and has more than 30 years’ experience as a diplomat.

“One of the main priorities for my posting includes upgrading the strategic association between South Korea and Mexico and to do what we need to have an agreement,” he said.

Bernal arrived in South Korea no more than two months ago, presenting his credentials to the president in mid-August.

The career diplomat has expertise as an economics and trade specialist and experience working with international economic groups such as the OECD and APEC.

At 57, his energy is palpable and the Mexican Embassy has an engaged schedule in September and October to match. Mexico celebrates its 203rd Independence Day on Sept. 16.

The embassy has flown in Chef Isvi Torres, the head chef at the Hilton Garden Inn Queretaro in Mexico, to help celebrate the country’s world-renowned cuisine by preparing special dishes at L’Orangerie at the Seoul Millennium Hilton Hotel through Sept. 30.

Following the theme of food, the embassy also organized a food photo exhibition at Cheonan Museum through Sept. 15 in the framework of the Cheonan International Well Being Food Expo.

In addition to Bernal’s ambitious goal of completing a Mexican-South Korean trade and investment agreement, Bernal is also looking toward bilateral cooperation in technical training and education.

Mexico participates in South Korea’s Knowledge Sharing Program to glean insights from its education system, one of the most competitive in the OECD. President Nieto has made invigorating the economy through educational reform a hallmark issue early on in his six-year term.

“If you look at the experience of successful economies over the past 50 to 60 years, then South Korea comes to mind immediately. South Korea’s rapid industrial development was accompanied by huge investments in education,” he said.

In August, a group of Korean education experts visited the four states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Chihuahua and Queretaro, which are located at key areas in Mexico’s industrial center. They assessed Mexico’s strengths and made suggestions, Bernal said.

Improving education and technical training in key locales is crucial for sustaining industrial competitiveness and economic growth. Bernal said that Hidalgo’s Urban Industrial Corridor of the South was an example of an industrial success story, but that the rest of the state remained impoverished.

“Local authorities are doing a great job in terms of developing educational institutions, but more has to be done,” he said.

“The University of Hidalgo is now one of the best in Mexico, but that does not mean everyone is getting a great education. This is the beginning of a process.”

By Philip Iglauer (