MB’s brother tweaks troubled Tripoli ties

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MB’s brother tweaks troubled Tripoli ties

Signs of trouble in relations between Korea and Libya prompted the president's elder brother to make a trip to the North African country to straighten out soured diplomatic ties, sources in the government said.

Diplomatic sources said last week that two Koreans were arrested by Libyan authorities in two separate incidents on charges of violating the Muslim country's religious law. According to the sources, a Christian pastor was arrested about a month ago and a farm owner, who was a friend of the pastor, was arrested earlier this month. The farm owner was accused of financially supporting the pastor's illegal missionary work in the country, sources said.

While the Korean government said it was trying to facilitate the men's release, other signs of trouble have appeared in recent weeks. The Economic Cooperation Bureau of Libya abruptly stopped its operation on June 24 and diplomats were reportedly withdrawn from the mission.

Omens of rockier relations were seen earlier this year. When former National Assembly Secretary General Park Kye-dong visited Libya in late May, Suleiman al-Shalumi, foreign affairs secretary of the Libyan General People's Congress, presented him with a 60-page document describing negative coverage in the Korean media of the country's leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi. Startled by Libya's complaint, Park said he responded that the Korean press was even more critical of President Lee Myung-bak.

"I was tipped by the Korea-Libya friendship society that the relationship was sour, but it was even worse than what I had thought," Park told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Other government officials said the Libyan government had made an official complaint to Seoul in March about Korean textbooks' negative depictions of the country. "Libya is upset because Korea had a negative view of the country, although it had won so many business deals," a government source said.

The relationship between the two countries has been heavily focused on economic ties. With Daewoo Engineering and Construction's project to build a medical school for Garyounis University in Benghazi in 1978 as a starting point, 29 Korean companies have been working on 288 projects worth $34.6 billion in total. They are eyeing more power plant and subway construction projects in the country.

The two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1980.

According to Daewoo Engineering and Construction President Seo Jong-uk, he was shocked to learn in late June that some of his company's officials, who were preparing to visit Libya, had not been able to get visas. Daewoo is working on five construction projects totaling $1.42 billion, including a power plant in Misurata. It is also bidding for another power plant project worth $440 million.

"Libya allowed Korea Express to take over the world's biggest waterway project after its parent company, Dong-A Construction, went bankrupt," said Seo. "Libya has been such a generous country to Korea, so the situation was very extraordinary."

Alarmed by the soured ties, Grand National Representative Lee Sang-deuk, elder brother of President Lee, left for Libya accompanied by top executives of Daewoo Engineering and Construction, Posco Engineering and Construction, Korea Express and Hyundai Engineering and Construction. Lee and his entourage stayed in the country from July 6 to 13.

During his stay, Lee met Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi three times, having been inspired by a local saying that an angry person will only be soothed after three meetings. "The first meeting was very awkward, but the third meeting was a lot better," an executive who accompanied Lee said.

Lee has refrained from talking in detail about his trip. "The Libyan leader is trying to develop the country's economy and shows an unconditional trust to Korean companies," Lee said.


By Ser Myo-ja, Ko Jung-ae [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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