Lee Myung Bak, the frontrunner for South Korea's forthcoming presidential elections, says that he is "positive" about India and the US's decision to cooperate in the field of nuclear energy and hopes that the deal will go through. He added that he would welcome India's membership of the UN Security Council.
Lee belongs to the opposition Grand National Party, and is tipped to win the presidential elections in December 2007. His two-day visit to India is testimony to the increasing importance of bilateral relations with India for South Korea.
Speaking at a business forum on Thursday, Lee proposed a Korea-India 'Commission for a Better Future' to enhance business, political, educational, scientific and educational ties between the two countries. "This commission will serve as the first major link not only between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans but also between Northeast and Southwest Asia," he said.
India and South Korea enjoy a wide range of economic relations including trade, investment and joint ventures, and are currently negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
Two-way trade between the two countries increased from $950m in 1991 to $9.2bn in 2006. Since 1991, South Korea has invested $752m in India, in addition to Posco's $12bn investment in an integrated iron and steel plant in Orissa, which is the largest single investment in India.
Korean automobile majors like Hyundai have established sizeable manufacturing capacity in India, producing cars for the Indian as well as African and European markets. Many Korean companies operating in the Middle East have been hiring Indian employees.
South Korea has been seeking to expand its investments abroad since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It has forged closer economic ties with both India and China. However, Lee said, China is a competitor while India is a partner that shares many similarities with the South Korean economy.
Taking the example of ITES, Lee said, with Indian expertise in software and data processing and South Korean expertise in hardware and infrastructure "it will not take long to establish Indo-Korean dominance in the IT field."
Lee invited Indian corporations to list their equity on the Korean Exchange. He also pointed out that Korea has world-class expertise in infrastructure development, which can help remove the bottlenecks that India is facing.
Lee also called for early conclusion of the Indo-Korean FTA, which, he said, would benefit from the recently concluded US-Korea FTA. In answer to a question, he said he hoped the Indian government would resolve the controversy over land acquisition for the Posco plant as the project will be beneficial to both countries.
While conceding that economics forms the bedrock of Indo-Korean relations, Lee spoke of the need to cooperate on other issues like energy security, environmental conservation, terrorism, pandemics and demographic change. The Korea-India Commission for a Better Future, he said, could be a good step towards expanding bilateral relations beyond economics.