Park planning visit to Iran

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Park planning visit to Iran

President Park Geun-hye is considering a trip to Iran, the Blue House said Monday, as Korea looks for ways to deepen its economic engagement with the second-largest market in the Middle East.

“It is my understanding that the president is considering a visit to Iran,” Blue House spokesman Jung Young-kuk said Monday.

He said, however, that no other specifics were decided.

If Park visits Iran, she will be the first Korean president to do so. Seoul and Tehran established diplomatic ties in 1962, and the two countries have maintained a relatively strong strategic partnership. Earlier this month, the government lifted a series of economic and financial regulations imposed on Iran over its nuclear weapons program in 2010, as international sanctions were lifted on the country.

While the Blue House did not elaborate, Park’s trip is expected in April or May, based on the presidential diplomatic calendar. The visit will likely include a summit with her Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, and a push to regain businesses that were shut down five years ago due to the sanctions.

Park’s tentative plan for a visit to Iran was made public as concerns grew that Seoul was responding too slowly.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran just a week after sanctions were lifted, becoming the first international leader to do so. He secured 17 lucrative agreements with Tehran for energy and trade projects. The two countries agreed to increase bilateral trade more than tenfold to $600 billion in the next decade.

According to Japanese media, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering visiting Iran later this year. Rouhani and Abe had a meeting in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss cooperation.

Seoul officials were optimistic about Korea’s chances in Iran.

“During the decades of economic isolation, companies from only a few countries, including Korea, stayed in Iran and helped the country through its hardships,” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency. “The Iranian government has a high opinion of Korea thanks to this.”

A month before the Iranian nuclear deal was reached last July, Cho Tae-yong, then-first vice foreign minister, visited the country. Foreign Minister Yun also visited the country last November and met with his counterpart as well as President Rouhani.

Other top officials, including Korea’s minister of land, infrastructure and transport and assistant commerce minister, also visited Iran last year to discuss economic cooperation.

Korea is one of Iran’s top trading partners. The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries reached $8.6 billion last year. Iran exported almost $4.5 billion worth of goods to Korea, mostly crude oil, making Iran the fifth-largest exporter of oil to Korea.

Korea exported $4.1 billion worth of goods to Iran, mostly electronic devices, home appliances, cars and industrial machinery. At the same time, many Korean companies are engaged in infrastructure and construction projects in the country.

The Park administration held an intragovernmental conference Monday morning to explore opportunities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the director-level meeting, along with officials from the Ministries of Strategy and Finance; Trade, Industry and Energy; Land, Infrastructure and Transport; and Health and Welfare. The Bank of Korea also participated in the meeting, known as the Iran task force.

“This is a meeting to coordinate strategies to support Korean companies entering the Iranian market,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “This is not a meeting to make a decision.”

Korea will also restart a ministerial-level economic conference with Iran next month. The Joint Economic Cooperation Commission will be held in Iran on Feb. 29, and trade ministers of the two countries will participate. The last meeting took place in 2007.

An economic delegation of 130 members, including businessmen, will visit the country.

If Park’s trip to Iran is realized, she is also expected to use the opportunity to send a message to North Korea to follow Tehran’s lead in winding back its nuclear weapons program.

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