Domestic Economy

Quantum Leap in Tehran-Seoul Trade

Iran’s non-oil exports to South Korea saw a sharp rise and stood at more than $2.14 billion, 16 times as much compared to the whole of last year
Quantum Leap in Tehran-Seoul Trade Quantum Leap in Tehran-Seoul Trade
Iran and South Korea signed dozens of preliminary deals that could lead to contracts worth tens of billions of dollars during South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s Iran visit

South Korea has been, in recent years, one of Iran's main trade partners.

Yet, up until last year, the East Asian country had the upper-hand in bilateral trade balance with the Islamic Republic, as it exported $3-4 billion worth of goods to Iran annually.

Iran's exports to South Korea topped $1.39 billion for the March 2011-12 fiscal year.

Based on figures released by the Islamic Republic of Iran Customs Administration, however, during the eight months to November 20, 2016, Iran's non-oil exports to South Korea saw a sharp rise and exceeded $2.14 billion, 16 times as much compared to the whole of last year.

This is while imports from South Korea decreased to almost the same amount during the eight-month period.

Among the reasons for this substantial increase in Iran's exports, according to experts, are the lifting of economic sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, the landmark state visit by South Korean President Park Geun-hye in May and the increased activity of Iranian private sector in the Korean market, according to an article published by Persian weekly Tejarat-e Farda.

Due to the ratification of her impeachment proposal, Park's presidential powers and duties have been suspended since December 9, 2016, and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has assumed those powers and duties as acting president.

> Benefits of Park's Visit

"Iran-South Korea commercial ties during the sanctions period decreased by over 60%, under the pressures of western sanctions. The Tehran visit by South Korean president, who was accompanied by a 236-strong delegation, had a significant effect for rebuilding economic ties between the two countries," secretary-general of Iran-South Korea Commercial Council, Pouya Firouzi, said.

The visit–the first by a South Korean president in more than half a century–represented South Korea’s efforts to tap into business opportunities in Iran.

“I believe Iran can become a land of opportunity for many South Korean firms,” Park told reporters on a plane back to Seoul.

“I will make efforts to create the second Middle East boom,” she was quoted as saying by The Korea Times.

During her visit, the two countries signed dozens of preliminary deals that could lead to contracts worth tens of billions of dollars. Seoul hopes the signed memoranda of understanding could pave the way for South Korean companies to eventually win massive infrastructure projects underway in Iran.

South Korea’s presidential office has described the MoUs as the “biggest-ever economic accomplishment”.

The Korea Electric Power Corporation opened an office in Tehran in May with a visit by KEPCO CEO Cho Hwan-eik, one of the delegates on the mission.

KEPCO signed 10 business agreements, including four major electricity infrastructure projects, with Iranian counterparts such as the Iran Power Generation and Transmission Company.

The Korea Shipowners’ Association and Shipping Association of Iran signed a memorandum of understanding to form a taskforce to expand direct shipping between Asia and the Middle East. Member companies of the associations are expected to form an alliance.

Incheon International Airport also signed a memorandum of understanding with Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. The two are expected to send delegations on a regular basis to share information on airport operations, aircraft management, development of infrastructure and co-marketing projects.

Woori Bank launched a Tehran office on May 2. It is the first South Korean bank to set up its office in Iran. After economic sanctions on Iran were lifted in January, Woori Bank sent experts to research the Iranian market and gained the approval of the Central Bank of Iran on April 12 to open an office in Tehran.

The Tehran office is not capable of banking operations. It will collect market information and connect already established branches of Woori Bank in the Middle East in Dubai, the UAE, and Bahrain.

The bank also signed a business partnership with Bank Pasargad, the second-largest bank in Iran, to boost bilateral trade, share information about local markets and provide financial services.

Last but not least, the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways signed a memorandum of understanding with Hyundai Rotem on May 3 for the supply of 150 diesel multiple-unit cars worth $260 million by the South Korean rolling stock manufacturer to IRIR. The DMUs are to be used on routes covering 960 km, Railway Gazette reported.

Firouzi believes Seoul can play an important role in helping Iran enter the international market since it has free trade agreements as well as preferential trade agreements with many countries.

Iran, with access to the 400-million market of the region, can be a hub for the redistribution of Korean goods.

"There are many untapped production capacities in Iran. This provides the Koreans with ample opportunities for starting joint productions with Iranian partners, which will carry with them considerable added-value for the two sides," Firouzi said.

> Iranian Private Sector Role

Komeyl Tayyebi, professor of economy at Isfahan University, believes Iran's satisfactory trade performance is largely due to successful marketing on the part of the Iranian private sector.

"There is mutual understanding between Iranian and Korean governments. This understanding has always existed between the two sides, whether in the pre-sanctions period, during the time sanctions were in effect and after they were removed," he said.

"In reciprocal visits and talks, Iranian economic players managed to carry out a comprehensive survey of the Korean market and decide which Iranian products are in demand and fit for exports to that country. Fortunately, our businesspeople were successful in identifying Iran's export capacities and made great use of the opportunities."

Tayyebi says if stumbling blocks, including capital controls and problems related to finance and banking, are solved by the Iranian side, then commercial interactions between the two countries can expand even further.

> Prosperous Areas for Joint Investment

"There are many fields in which Iran and South Korea can engage in joint cooperation and trade. The steel industry, with the many upstream and downstream industries related to it, is a vast area for joint investment. There are also fields of household appliances and electronic devices manufacturing, which provide lucrative grounds for joint cooperation and investment," he said.

According to Tayyebi, other such areas are herbal medicine, cosmetics, automotive and transportation.

"Iran sees the South Korean economy as a model for its own economic growth. Therefore, I see a bright future ahead of economic interactions between the two countries. South Korea is a leading country in technology and innovation, and the path is paved for technology transfer from that country to Iran," he said.   

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