'Korea-Japan trade deal key to Asian economic stability'
Korea-Japan ties have never been smooth - at present marred by the Dokdo spat and other political squabbles - but it is time the two cleaned their slates and started focusing on creating an Asian economic bloc, a Japanese trade expert said yesterday.
Osamu Watanabe, chairman and CEO of the Japan External Trade Organization, urged Koreans and Japanese to look at the bigger picture.
"It's time we focused on creating a healthy environment for mutual cooperation that can contribute to the wealth of all Asian countries," said Watanabe, who is in Korea to link Japanese companies with local exporters.
The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency joined JETRO to host 90 Japanese companies visiting here to examine firms to invest in.
About half already have operations here or have relations with Korean companies.
Watanabe, 65, is a trade and former government commerce expert. He was appointed to head JETRO in 2003.
"In my view, a free-trade agreement will be a huge help in promoting the two countries' economic relationship," he stressed.
Last year, Japan invested about $2.25 billion in Asia's third-largest economy. The figure was nearly three-fold the amount in 2003.
"And more is coming," predicted Watanabe.
Japanese investors and manufacturing companies are showing an astonishingly large appetite for Korea, he said.
Culture has a bit to do with it, as Korean dramas and hit movies are part of a new rage there. But at the same time, a prevailing reluctance among Korean electronics and mechanical parts industries is delaying progress for a free-trade deal with Japan.
The companies oppose the accord on the grounds that it would erode their profits - Japan is Korea's main competitor in the global electronics and parts market.
"I know Korean companies fear the FTA, but in reality I think the treaty will help them because it will weed out the incompetent players," said Watanabe.
Companies that cringe at the prospect of increased competition will die out anyway, he forecast.
"The Korean government also needs to establish stronger support policies for small manufacturers and parts makers," he added.
This is unfortunate since as JETRO points out, electronics, info-tech and automotives are the top areas that Japan and Korea can seek mutual benefits.
Meanwhile, despite the robust growth witnessed in China, dubbed the world's factory, Watanabe sees Korea as one of the most attractive investment spots in Asia.
Mostly because for Japanese companies, Korea is still pretty near and is a destination that guarantees skilled workers and ample government support.
Keeping a smile on his bespectacled face, Watanabe politely refused to comment on the current row over Dokdo, an island between the countries that both claim.
"Business is business," he said firmly. But he did add that the two nations should try to build stable political relations that can in turn foster good business relations.