Mon, 15 Dec 2003

Choi, South Korea's pioneer in RI

Johannes Simbolon, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Indonesia and South Korea were technically enemies in the late 1950s as the country, ruled under then founding father Sukarno, had political ties with the communist North Korea rather than South Korea which was said to be -- according to Sukarno -- an American puppet.

However, in 1960s a business delegation from South Korea arrived in the country, heralding the beginning of a brisk and intense business and trade relationship that exists til today.

Apart from the unquestionable destiny penned by God, it was businessman Choi Gye Wol, then aged 46, who helped to make the extraordinary visit happen. He was then chairman of the Korean Development Company (Kodeco) Group.

Choi never dreamed that the trade and business relations between the two nations would become as strong as they are now: South Korea is one of the largest foreign investors in Indonesia with a total investment of US$9.5 billion and the annual trade between both nations reaching $7.9 billion annually.

When he met with The Jakarta Post recently in a hotel in Jakarta, Choi, now 86, with white hair, looks like an old and wise monk who has had a tranquil life in seclusion, rather than as a pioneering businessman.

"God has guided me to do unbelievable things. Without His help, I would not have been able to do all these things."

He reminisced about how he got to know Indonesia. He said he was in Tokyo in 1951, where he had a broad range of acquaintances within the Japanese political elite. Those contacts helped in his business deals, including the monopoly rights to distribute garments to the Japanese market.

One of his Japanese colleagues, Funada Nada, the then speaker of Japan's parliament, asked him to entertain several visiting leaders from West Papua New Guinea (now West Papua or Irian Jaya), saying he did not have time to take care of them.

As a friend, Choi accepted the request and agreed to pamper the Papuans during their stay in Japan (they stayed in the posh New Japan hotel) to accomplish their political mission. West Papua New Guinea was then under Dutch colonial rule.

He asked the Papuans to choose either to become independent, remain under the Dutch government or join Indonesia.

It was such a tough decision that even after six months, the Papuan leaders had not reached a decision, while Choi had been running out of cash.

However, funds totaling US$300,000 (now valued at about $5 million) were donated by a banker after Funada called a meeting of several high-ranking Japanese officials. The money would be used to cover his living expenses for another three years.

Over the period, Choi managed to push the Papuans to decide on the fate of their homeland.

"I let them make the decision. Each option was fine with me because I did not have any vested interests in the country. I was only interested in helping my Japanese friends.

"They finally decided to join Indonesia," Choi recalled.

As he didn't know where the Indonesian embassy in Tokyo was, Choi could only contact an Indonesian official named Bambang. He told him about his Papuan friends. Bambang quickly sent them to Jakarta to meet Sukarno.

Years went by, Choi started to forget Indonesia until one day in November 1962, one of the Papuan leaders, who he identified as Wanma, contacted him and said he was in Tokyo as part of the entourage of Sukarno's state visit.

"'Sukarno wants to meet you. Don't you want to meet him?' he asked. I said to him 'What for? I am a businessman. He is a politician. Furthermore, Indonesia and South Korea have no relationship'," Choi recalled.

However, Choi later changed his mind. At that time, South Korea's Prime Minister Kim Joing Pil was in Tokyo on his way back from Washington to Seoul.

The trip to Washington was a political debacle for President Park Chung Hee, who took power in South Korea following a coup a year earlier. Park sent Kim to Washington to gain the U.S. acknowledgement of his government. However, President John. F. Kennedy refused to meet him.

"South Korea was then so lonely, politically. The U.S. did not accept them and they were also not part of the third world nations club formed by the Bandung Asia-Africa conference," Choi said.

South Korea's rival, the communist North Korea was part of the that historical conference.

An official at the South Korean embassy informed Choi about Kim's presence in Japan. Choi then proposed to arrange a meeting between Kim and Sukarno, arguing that if Sukarno, the leader of the Bandung conference, accepted Kim, Park's government would automatically be acknowledged by all third world nations, which took part in the Bandung conference.

Kim, together with Choi, then met Sukarno at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Kim diplomatically told Sukarno that Choi wanted to do business in Indonesia, but the obstacle was that there was no political relationship between the two nations.

"Sukarno said 'No problem. Business first, then political relations'," Choi recalled.

That was the start of the political and business relationship between both nations.

Emboldened by the successful meeting between Kim and Sukarno, in March 1963, Park sent an official delegation comprising several high-ranking officials and Choi to Indonesia to look for logging business opportunities.

On the direct order of Park, South Korea's central bank provided Choi with a $4.1 million loan to start business in Indonesia.

"At that time, South Korea was a poor country with the central bank holding only $43 million in foreign exchange reserves," Choi said.

Now, Kodeco has become a giant business group here. Its logging business in Kalimantan and Papua, which prospered in the past, has been hard hit by illegal logging activities, while its oil unit, which for many years failed to find hydrocarbon resources, recently found significant gas reserves off of Madura island.

For many, the firm might be less known compared to other South Korean firms, such as Samsung, LG or Hyundai, which have become global brands. But, Choi is the man who opened the road for all of them to enter this archipelago. For all he has done, we need to say, "Kamsa Hamida (Thank you) Mr. Choi."