Kotra accused of behaving like a tour guide for VIPs abroad

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Kotra accused of behaving like a tour guide for VIPs abroad

A lawmaker criticized the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency for showering attention on lawmakers and top public servants when they travel overseas while it charges companies for its services.

Saenuri Representative Kim Sang-hoon said Thursday that the agency, commonly known as Kotra, has become a valet service for influential travelers instead of supporting Korean companies’ overseas businesses, which is its real purpose.

Kim said his criticism was based on an analysis of the agency’s services for lawmakers, top public servants and state-run company heads over the past three years.

According to Kim, lawmakers and high-ranking government officials enjoy VIP treatment from the agency, free of charge, when they go overseas.

Through its 120 overseas offices in major cities of 82 countries, the agency provided protocol services starting with being welcomed at airports. The agency also provided interpreters and transportation to the visitors and arranged meetings with local officials, background research and briefings. Tour guides, meals and send-offs at airports were also provided. The visitors paid nothing and the agency used its budget - taxpayers’ money - to fund its activities.

From 2011 until last August, 1,829 VIP guests from Korea used the agency’s services. Among them, 668 were lawmakers. This year alone, a monthly average of 43 lawmakers used the agency’s services.

The destinations of the guests were often cities popular with tourists. According to Kim, 92 visited Taipei, while 84 visited Stockholm. Seventy-nine went to Madrid, and 38 went to Istanbul of Turkey. Another 38 chose Dubai.

In contrast to the on-the-house treatment given to VIPs, Kotra charged fees to its main clients - representatives of companies trying to do business abroad.

The agency provides businessmen with “overseas travel services,” which includes making hotel reservations, hiring interpreters and scheduling meetings with local buyers or business associates.

The “overseas investment environment survey service,” which features a briefing on the investment climate in the market and an introduction to a local investment agency or law firm, is also a popular program.

The agency charges up to 580,000 won ($547) for each service package.

“It is unfair for the agency to provide similar services to lawmakers and top government officials for free while charging companies,” Kim said. “It is also against the agency’s mission.”

Because the offices are operated on tight budgets with limited manpower, pampering VIPs is likely to hurt their ability to help visiting businessmen.

The agency’s Silicon Valley office, one of the most frequent destinations of VIP visitors over the past three years, has a relatively small monthly budget of $4,670. Its office in St. Petersburg has a single Korean staffer, but it entertained seven groups of lawmakers or top civil servants last year.

“Not only Kotra, but also other state-run organizations, have no choice but try to please the legislature which decides their budgets, and the government ministries which evaluate their performances,” said Oh Jung-gun, professor of economics at Korea University.

“The National Assembly speaker and ministers must ask lawmakers and public servants to refrain from using the free services of the agency.”

BY KIM KYUNG-JIN [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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