[OUTLOOK]Tapping the black-gold mineThere is one place the world is paying extra attention to these days, although Korea remains uninterested. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is emerging as the new oil road. Naturally, a point of strategic importance can hardly enjoy peace. The history of Baku has been a series of incidents. Alfred Nobel, famous for being the founder of the Nobel Prize, amassed a fortune here, and Baku made its name as a mecca for oil exporters before Saudi Arabia rose as an oil power. Then the Azeri (the chief ethnic group of the country) capital declined and experienced a long slump until it made a comeback on the international stage as Azerbaijan gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition to developing the oil bonanza in the Caspian Sea once again, the 20-billion-dollar Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project is generating an enormous amount of money. The BTC pipeline is a new route for oil produced in Central Asia into Western Europe through Turkey. Thanks to the pipeline, Azerbaijan can pocket billions of dollars every year, even in poor years. It is a jackpot this country of only 8 million had never even dreamed of.
Azerbaijan means “the land of fire.” The status of the country finally suits its name. While the per-capita national income still remains around $1,000 dollars, its rate of growth is already the highest in the world. Last year, the economy grew by an amazing 18 percent. Azerbaijan’s position in the international community has jumped as well.
Though the “presidency” was handed down from father to son, as was the case in North Korea, Washington has never brought up Azerbaijan in the talk of “axis of evil.” As the Caspian Sea energy supply route, which had been dominated and shut down by the Soviet Union, was completely reinvented, Azerbaijan became very important not only economically but also militarily and diplomatically. Since the Clinton Administration, Washing-ton has been giving Azerbaijan VIP treatment.
Despite the political uncertainty, Azerbaijan is bound to make a display of its influence as the new oil dynasty at the center of Eurasia, along with Kazakhstan. Is Korea aware of this significant change of dynamics? Korea does not have an embassy, a counsulate or a Korea trade center in Azerbaijan. The Korean Ambassador to Uzbekistan concurrently represents the country to Azerbaijan. The Internet homepage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade contains inaccurate information and indicates that the former president, who has already passed away, is still ruling the country. We can assume how uninformed the government of South Korea is of Azerbaijan. Seoul has little interest in the country and makes little effort to learn more.
Companies are not much different. While advertisements for Samsung or LG cell phones can be found on billboards in the streets of Baku, no Korean company has opened a branch or an office in Azerbaijan. Daewoo Group had been quite successful selling automobiles here before its fall, but its business came to nothing. Reporters have to rely on a local businessman serving as an honorary consul general to mediate interviews. It is absurd that Korean companies are so indifferent to Azerbaijan, which will surely become the next goldmine.
Baku is gaining vitality day by day, transforming from its wretched look of the past. Old buildings are torn down and renovated and new structures are being constructed all over the town, yet surprisingly, no Korean construction company, despite their expertise in building, has entered such a booming market.
What would the Azeri government do with the enormous profit it is making from oil production and pipeline? In addition to the major construction projects for new roads, buildings and houses, numerous business opportunities await in Azerbaijan, but Korean companies are nowhere to be found. Are they fully occupied? A Korean businessman I met in Dubai told me, “Why would you want to go to a place like Azerbaijan and create trouble? Younger members of the staff would probably want to quit the company if they were assigned there.”
Bureaucrats can be unadventurous because their job security is solid. But if even companies are so reluctant to venture out, the future of the Korean economy is truly unpromising.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Maganize. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-kyu