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Business trends

South Korean businesses to invest $12.8bn in US

Corporate leaders play wingman for Moon before Trump meeting

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on June 28.

WASHINGTON -- Top South Korean companies have said they will pour $12.8 billion into U.S. ventures over the next five years, handing President Moon Jae-in powerful leverage going into his first talks with counterpart Donald Trump.

After arriving in the U.S., Moon attended a U.S.-South Korean business summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accompanied by executives representing 52 companies. He sat flanked by corporate VIPs, including SK Holdings Chairman Chey Tae-won, Hyundai Motor Vice Chairman Chung Eui-sun and LG group Vice Chairman Koo Bon-joon.

SK said it would partner with U.S. companies General Electric and Continental Resources in shale gas exploration and production. The South Korean company will invest a maximum of $4.4 billion over five years. The company will also start importing U.S.-produced liquefied natural and petroleum gases in 2020.

Samsung Electronics also formally announced Wednesday that it will spend $380 million to build a home appliance factory in South Carolina. The conglomerate also plans to pour $1.5 billion into a Texas semiconductor plant through 2020. LG Electronics will follow suit with its own $250 million appliance factory in Tennessee.

Patching things up

Moon's government tried to keep its distance from the summit, which it called a business matter. But in fact, the South Korean government appears to have worked with its own Chamber of Commerce and Industry to time the announcements of already planned investments in a way that gave Moon the greatest boost before his summit with Trump.

The Korean corporate titans apparently aimed their show of cooperation to help repair what has been a strained relationship with Moon since he took office in May. Wednesday's U.S. Chamber of Commerce event was the president's first meeting with them since his inauguration.

Moon was elected promising to reform the chaebol, South Korea's big conglomerates, and has taken a stern line toward them. He assailed the Korea Employers Federation business lobby through a spokesman, saying it should "take a period of sincere soul-searching and self-reflection," as quoted by the Yonhap News agency, for contributing to social polarization through the expansion of irregular, precarious employment.

A valuable gift

The Trump summit will be Moon's first big turn on the diplomatic stage. Discord has arisen between Washington and Seoul over the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, THAAD, in South Korea by the U.S. military. The future of the bilateral free trade agreement is also in question. Under the circumstances, corporate South Korea doubtless helped elevate Moon's position with the gift of the announcements.

Moon has said he aims to sit down with business leaders and discuss economic policy after returning from the U.S. How the summit with Trump will go is unclear, but the meeting does seem to have warmed relations between corporate South Korea and the government.

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