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SKorea president makes high-profile Chicago visit

Oct. 15, 2011 - 13:22 By

CHICAGO (AP) _ After a White House state dinner and a visit to a Michigan auto plant, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak's arrived in Chicago on Friday to further economic ties with a state anxious to tap emerging markets in his homeland.

Lee's first stop was a dinner hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and attended by many of Illinois' political and business heavyweights, including Gov. Pat Quinn and executives from United Airlines and Caterpillar Inc.

``Chicago is a city of immigrants and all of us are proud of this heritage,'' Emanuel said in remarks during dinner at the Chicago Cultural Center. ``Chicago is home to the third-largest Korean community in the United States. Over the years, we have forged strong business, economic and personal relationships with our Korean friends.''

South Korea already imports corn and soybeans from Illinois farms, and the southeast Asian country is hoping to forge stronger economic ties to the state, said Chul Huh, the South Korean consul general in Chicago. About 45 South Korean companies do business in Illinois and the state is home to a large Korean community, he said.

Lee's arrival on Thursday in Washington came a day after Congress ratified a trade pact between the two countries that was the biggest such deal for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1994. He was feted at a White House state dinner, then accompanied President Barack Obama to a General Motors plant in Michigan on Friday before heading to Chicago.

``It is wonderful being here in Chicago,'' Lee said. ``Korea and Chicago go back many years. In 1893, Korea took part in the World Fair. It was the first time that Korea went overseas officially.''

The South Korean president's visit to Chicago is as important as one earlier this year by Chinese President Hu Jintao, when retired Mayor Richard Daley was at the city's helm, said John Roberson, a Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce official.

``What it does, it shows there is interest from the very highest levels of government,'' said Roberson, executive director of the small business development and resource center and international trade center for the chamber.

Huh said Korea has strength in the IT and electronic fields while Chicago and Illinois can offer many companies with expertise in financial and professional services and agriculture.

That's why building more relationships in Illinois is key for South Korea, Roberson. ``We are very good at helping other companies do what they do better,'' he said.

Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc. has a component manufacturing plant in South Korea, as well as an office and a dealer to serve its customers, company spokesman Jim Dugan said.

``It's an important market for us so we view it as a very good opportunity,'' he said of Lee's visit.

Lee was scheduled to meet with about 300 representatives of the Chicago's Korean-American community before he leaves on Saturday, Huh said.