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South Korea strives to beat Japan and China to UK trade deal

Trade ministry holds hearing to discuss economic benefits of a post-Brexit FTA

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in poses with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May during a summit in Brussels in October   © AP

SEOUL -- South Korea is striving to beat Asian rivals Japan and China to a free trade deal with the U.K., once the nation leaves the European Union.

The trade ministry in Seoul hosted a hearing Wednesday to discuss the economic benefits of a post-Brexit deal with the U.K., South Korea's second-largest trade partner in the EU.

"It is important who can strike a better deal [with the UK] more quickly," said Park Chun-il, a director at Korea International Trade Association. "l think the government is moving timely to be prepared in advance."

Companies from both countries are expected to benefit from any such deal, including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor from the South Korean side, and Dyson and Diageo from the U.K.

Samsung sells smartphones and home appliances to the U.K. and Hyundai exports its sedans and SUVs to the country. Dyson's vacuum cleaner is popular among South Korean customers and the East Asian nation is one of the largest importers of Diageo's Scotch whiskies.

Some 300 South Korean companies are doing business in the U.K, with investments hitting $1.1 billion in the first quarter, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Trade between the two countries reached $14.4 billion last year.

EU member states are unable to negotiate trade deals with third countries, meaning that the U.K. would have to wait until it leaves the bloc in March next year to start any formal talks.

Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet last week approved a draft Brexit proposal that would keep the U.K. in the EU customs union indefinitely until it can strike a trade deal with the bloc and resolve the difficult issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Almost immediately, however, ministers began to resign from the government, sparking a leadership crisis and putting into doubt whether Brexit would go ahead as scheduled.

Japanese companies have signaled that British proposals for withdrawal from the EU do not resolve uncertainty over their future investment in the U.K.

Japan is one of the Britain's largest foreign direct investors and its companies have long seen the country as a gateway to Europe's 500 million consumers. Since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, several companies have announced plans to shift operations or headquarters to Europe.

The question of Britain's future relationship with the EU is considered such a priority in Japan that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe voiced concerns about the lack of clarity during his visit to the U.K. in October.

British ministers have also expressed interest in joining the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, a move welcomed by Japan's Abe.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in Tokyo this month, Greg Clark, secretary of state for business, said the U.K. would remain "unashamedly enthusiastic" about foreign direct investment after Brexit, including from China. However, Britain had to "keep its systems of scrutiny up to date" to be able to continue to welcome such investment.

Chinese investment in the U.K. is increasing rapidly. In 2017, foreign direct investment from China came to $20.8 billion, against a total of $28.8 billion for the 16 years to 2016, according to Baker & McKenzie, the international law firm.

This is still dwarfed, however, by the amount from Japan, which accounted for foreign direct investment of $69 billion in 2016.

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