Fri, 11 Feb 2000

Gus Dur wins support from South Korea

SEOUL (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid won the support of his "mentor" South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in boosting bilateral economic ties and also came to a general agreement on reviving Indonesia's ailing Timor national car project.

"We agreed to restart the national car project along with its promotion," Abdurrahman claimed after their 90-minute bilateral talks.

Speaking at a joint media briefing following the talks here on Thursday, Abdurrahman however stressed that the renewed project would comply with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and hinted on a possible change in its name from Timor.

"When we talk about Timor, maybe (East Timorese independence leader) Xanana Gusmao will now feel it is his, not ours, and in that sense we can change the name," he said.

Abdurrahman is in the last stages of a 16-day overseas tour.

Before arriving in Seoul, Abdurrahman had often praised Kim, who has made a name for himself as a strong advocate of democracy.

Here he repeated his acclaim for the president. "I suspect I come as a student to his teacher," Abdurrahman remarked.

South Korea is one of Indonesia's most important investors and trading partners.

In 1996, South Korea's KIA's Motor Corp. joined with PT Timor Putra Nasional (TPN), owned by then president Soeharto's youngest son Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, to develop a locally manufactured car within three years.

The project drew international criticism as Soeharto extended it exclusive tax and import breaks.

Responding to official complaints, the WTO ruled against the Timor car as the Indonesian company was selling wholly imported KIA cars with no local content. The operation ground to a halt with Kia formally pulling out last year.

After the fall of Soeharto, the Indonesian government also withdrew much of its financial backing.

"We will involve Malaysia in developing the national car project as a part of a strategy to enlarge the market," said Abdurrahman about the newly resumed car program.

Fetty Aziza, TPN's media relations officer, said KIA Motor remained committed to its cooperation agreement with the national car company despite a new merger between the company and its former rival Hyundai Motors.

"We have directly checked with KIA's president Chun Monggur, and he confirmed that his company remains committed to the accord," said Fetty in Seoul.

Abdurrahman is due to visit a KIA assembly line south of Seoul on Friday to further explore the possibilities of relaunching the project.

In addition to the car project, Abdurrahman seemed to have won a commitment from Korea to help the Indonesian economy.

"In connection with efforts to revitalize the Indonesian economy, President Wahid asked us to increase Korean investment in his country," Kim told journalists.

"In response, I told him that Korea will increase its support for the development of Indonesian human resources and send a trade and investment mission consisting of government officials and businessmen to Indonesia."

Seoul will also present a US$40 million soft loan for a hospital water treatment plant in Indonesia.

Abdurrahman added, "I also asked the President's help in drawing up an industrial market plan for Indonesia".

According to official data, two-way trade in 1999 reached $6.3 billion with Indonesia enjoying a $1.4 billion surplus.

Looking relaxed and satisfied with his meeting with Kim, Abdurrahman said he had enjoyed his stay in Seoul.

"However, I do regret that I'm not able to visit Kwang Ju to pay my respects to the student's struggle there," Abdurrahman noted.

In his now typical playful manner, Abdurrahman said he was not effected by the temperature of minus seven degrees Celsius, as he was kept warm by an overcoat given to him by former president Soeharto.

He said Soeharto gave it to him several years ago.

However, he complained that the sleeves were a bit too long.

"Soeharto's arms are a bit longer than mine," the President said with a smile. (prb)