In early May, during President Park Geun-hye's state-visit to Iran, South Korea and Iran signed 66 MoUs for economic cooperation in 30 projects worth $37.1billion.
The volume of economic cooperation agreed on by Seoul and Tehran this time is the largest-ever amount and makes Korea anticipate not only big business opportunities in Iran but "a second Middle East boom' for the Korean economy, businesskorea.co.kr wrote.
The government expects that these economic cooperation projects are implemented as planned, the trade between the two nations will return to a level before the start of the international economic sanction. Bilateral trade peaked at $17.4 billion in 2011 prior to the start of the economic embargo. Since then, the figure had plummeted and reached $6.1 billion, about one-third of the highest trade volume last year.
In many aspects, Iran is an attractive market. Iran is one of the richest countries in terms of natural resources.
The nation has a market of about 80 million people. The Iranian market is a new market for South Korean companies.
During the sanctions period, many South Korean companies did not withdraw from Iran. These two facts led the Iranian people to have a good impression of Korea and Korean companies.
What's the matter, however, is that not only Korea but its rivals such as China and Japan are doing everything they can do to reoccupy the Iranian market .
In particular, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran as the first foreign head of state after the lifting of trade embargo in January this year.
President Xi held a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. During the meeting the two leaders elevated their relationship to the level of strategic partnership and saw eye to eye about expanding cooperation in all sectors such as crude oil, gas, nuclear power and railroads.
In addition, the two countries agreed to expand trade to $600 billion within ten years. This target is about 11 times the volume of trade ($52 billion) between the two countries in 2014.
The agreement signed this time also has a clause related to the construction of Silk Road on land and at sea (One Road One Belt project) pushed forward with by the Chinese government.
Under the circumstances, South Korea laid a foundation for the expansion of economic cooperation with Iran through the president's first state-visit to Iran since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations in 1962. Therefore, it is important how much South Korea will practically gain by putting this occasion to good use.
In fact, some people questioned the actual outcomes of the agreements in economic cooperation signed during President Park's state-visit to Iran just after she came back to South Korea.
On May 8, Iran's Tasnim News Agency reported that the project of Tehran Shomal Freeway for which Daewoo Engineering and Construction signed a contract with an Iranian construction company.
Hyundai Engineering and Construction revealed that the MoU with CDTIC for the construction of the $1.7 billion worth Chabahar-Zahedan Railroad and the $600 million Mianeh-Tabriz Railroad was scratched off on May 9. As some expressed concerns, the cancellation of the projects is blamed on the weak binding power of MoUs.
Such a cancelation and a threat to cancel fueled the concerns about the feasibility of the largest-ever size of economic cooperation between Korea and Iran, which was called 'hitting the jackpot'. And more people raised their voices that a thorough preparation should be made to find a way to revitalize the Korean economy through the Middle East by maximizing the results of President Park's visit to Iran as the key momentum for a second Middle East boom.
Responding to such voices, President Park herself held a private-public joint meeting to discuss the ways to promote the economic outcomes of her visit to Iran at Cheong Wa Dae. In the meeting, participants discussed follow-up measures to carry out the projects signed in Iran in the future.
The outcomes of the cooperation between the two countries, however, are most apparent in oil import from Iran. Iranian oil imports by South Korean oil refiners such as SK Innovation has been on a sharp rise since the lifting of the sanctions in January.
According to the Korea National Oil Corporation, the import of Iranian oil by Korea in the first quarter of this year soared 122.8 percent to 22,849,000 barrels from 10,252,000 barrels a year earlier.
It is presumed that a considerable amount of crude oil imported from Iran is condensate. Condensate is volatile liquid hydrocarbons from natural gas. The material can be refined to produce naphtha at lower cost than crude oil.
South Korean oil refiners expanded related production facilities prior to the importation of Iranian crude oil. SK Incheon Oil Chemical already built facilities that produce high-value-added petrochemical products based on condensate by investing 1.6 trillion won. On the other hand, Hyundai Oil Bank established Hyundai Chemical, a joint venture with Lotte Chemical and is now building a condensate refining plant at its Daesan Plant.
In the meantime, the Korea Economic Research Institute, in its report titled 'Effects of Korea-Iran Economic Cooperation and Measures for South Korean Companies', predicted on May 11 that the expansion of economic cooperation between South Korea and Iran will result in $84.5 billion in Korea's exports to Iran and create 680,000 jobs for ten years from 2016 to 2025.
The research focused on infrastructure and plants, construction services, petrochemicals, automobiles, cultural contents, home appliances and smart phones, all of which are greatly impacted by the expansion of economic cooperation between the two nations.
The institute expects that South Korea will be able to ink $84.5 billion in exports for ten years from 2016 to 2025 if Korea expands economic cooperation with Iran by connecting exports and investment in Iran.
The institute says that exports will reach $18.5 billion in construction, $17.6 billion in automobiles, $14.8 billion in petrochemicals, $11.7 billion in infrastructure and plants, $ 11.1 billion in handsets, $ 9.9 billion in home appliances and $ 1.1 billion in cultural contents.
"The ripple effects of economic cooperation between South Korea and Iran can be maximized when exports and advancement into Iran are realized at the same time," said Choi Nam-seok, a professor at Jeonbuk National University. "Thus, South Korea should go ahead with economic cooperation in a direction to expand local investment and exports complementarily."
Choi added, "The government also moved ahead with Korea-Iran financial cooperation in order to help South Korean companies that want to make a foray into the Iranian market raise funds.
"South Korea should build partnerships to get financial support with financial institutions in Korea and Middle Eastern countries as well as with international multilateral development financial institutions and export credit agencies."
Choi continued, "The domestic state-run banks can directly help domestic investors and exporters raise funds.
"It is necessary to move forward with joint businesses with European companies with financial power and to make a package deal to trade equities with construction rights in the development of resources such as oil and gas in Iran."