A small victory in resources

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A small victory in resources

Bolivian President Evo Morales has been in Korea since Wednesday as part of a three-day visit tied to an invitation from President Lee Myung-bak.

On his first day here, Morales met with Grand National Party Rep. Lee Sang-deuk - the elder brother of President Lee and a special envoy on resources - and heads of the state-run Korea Resources Corp., trade companies and energy producers. The talks, and indeed most of the trip, centered primarily on lithium development. Morales also visited LG Chem’s research headquarters to examine technology related to producing lithium batteries.

The visit is part of a strategy to win over Morales, who has the authority to choose foreign partners in state projects involving the extraction of lithium carbonates from a salt flat in Uyni, southern Bolivia, which has the world’s largest known reserves of lithium.

The Bolivian president’s visit could mark a turning point in our diplomatic efforts to secure this scarce resource. Lithium is used in rechargeable batteries that power laptop computers, mobile phones and electric vehicles. The government sees the technology as a future growth engine, one that could help fuel Korea’s economy for years to come.

But while we may be one of the world’s most advanced countries when it comes to producing lithium batteries, that distinction will be of no use to us if we fail to secure the key raw material needed to make the technology.

The future of our rechargeable battery industry - not to mention the local IT and electric vehicle sectors - depends on Korea’s ability to secure lithium. But the world’s reserves of lithium are rare, and observers say they could be depleted in as few as 11 years.

The salt flats in Uyni contain about 5.4 million tons of lithium, or nearly half of the world’s known reserves, that have yet to be extracted. So it’s no wonder the Korean government has been campaigning hard to participate in lithium development in the country. We have many rivals, of course. Japan and France have long been vying for a piece of the project. China and Brazil have also jumped into the competition.

President Morales’ visit could set us apart. But it alone is not enough to guarantee a future deal. Even though the two sides have now signed an initial agreement to cooperate on research and development in this area, a final deal remains distant. Bolivia can always sign an MOU with another country as well. We must aggressively pursue this issue until we can ink a final contract. We should also broaden our diplomatic endeavors to resource development on foreign soil, as it could determine the future direction of our economy.

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