SK Group seeks business bonanza in Vietnam

By JONG-HEON LEE, UPI Business Correspondent  |  Oct. 13, 2004 at 12:35 PM
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SEOUL, Oct. 13 (UPI) -- Chey Tae-won, chairman of SK Group, South Korea's fourth-largest conglomerate, returned home on Wednesday after a five-day business trip to Vietnam which company officials said paved the way for making inroads into several of the strongest potential markets in the Southeast Asian nation.

Chey, who traveled to the country as a member of delegation that accompanied President Roh Moo-hyun's state visit, was dubbed as the biggest beneficiary of the presidential visit that focused on economic cooperation in the energy and telecommunications sector between the two nations.

SK Group has South Korea's biggest oil refinery, SK Corp, and top mobile phone operator SK Telecom Co, as the main growth engines for the family-run business empire.

"Chey's tour paved the way for SK Group to make inroads into the Vietnamese market that offers a great long-term potential," said Kim Man-gi, senior manager of the group's public relations team.

SK Corp. signed an agreement with PetroVietnam on the transfer of refining technology to Vietnam's state oil monopoly, as part of efforts to increase chances of its participation in oil development projects in the Southeast Asian nation.

Despite being Asia's sixth-largest crude producer, Vietnam still has to import most of its oil products because it lacks refinery technology and major refineries. Under the agreement, SK Corp will provide oil refining know-how to PetroVietnam and help it train refining engineers.

Instead, Chey Tae-won, chairman of SK Corp, won a pledge by PetroVietnam President Tran Ngoc Canh to push for joint exploration activities in Vietnam's offshore oil fields. SK Corp wants to participate in the upstream oil development projects in Vietnam as part of efforts to ensure stable crude oil supply.

PetroVietnam has been inviting foreign oil and gas companies to join Vietnam's 2004 Licensing Round that covers nine blocks named 122-130 in Phu Khanh Basin offshore. The deadline for bids to be submitted was set for March 31, 2005.

The Vietnamese state oil company said that preliminary studies showed the basin, close to Vietnam's two biggest producing fields -- Bach Ho and Su Tu Den, has oil and gas reserves estimated at 1.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

"SK Corp plans to make brisk investments to win more oil exploitation rights in Vietnam and expand increasing efforts toward upstream oil projects there," a SK Corp spokesman said.

SK Corp owns a 9 percent stake in the Vietnamese oil field of the 15-1 bloc that include three fields -- Su Tu Trang, Su Tu Vang and Su Tu Den -- described as the Golden Triangle by Vietnam's oil sector, according to SK Corp officials. Since October 2003, it has been producing 85,000 barrels of crude oil in the Su Tu Den oil field.

In Hanoi, Chey also met Vu Khoan, Vietnam's deputy prime minister in charge of energy, to enlist Vietnam's cooperation in its oil exploration in the country.

SK Corp has recently made strenuous efforts to develop upstream fields overseas to help ensure stable crude oil supply. The oil refiner which controls nearly a third of South Korea's oil market has stakes in 16 upstream oil or gas blocks in 11 countries including Yemen, Vietnam, Peru and Egypt.

Energy-deficient South Korea, the world's fourth-biggest oil buyer, has been encouraging private companies to take part in upstream oil and gas projects abroad by offering favorable loans in an effort to secure stable sources of energy.

President Roh helped Chey win oil development projects in Vietnam. Roh signed an agreement with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Duc Luong on the bilateral cooperation of in the energy sector. Upon returning home, Roh ordered his Cabinet to take necessary steps to help SK Corp secure more energy resources from overseas.

SK Telecom has also reaped big benefits from Chey's business tour of Vietnam. The mobile phone operator was given a great change to expand its business on the Vietnamese market as the leaders of the two nations agreed to upgrade their partnership in the telecommunications sector into a joint venture.

SK Telecom started providing mobile phone service in Vietnam last year under a 14-year contract with Saigon PosTel, Vietnam's mobile phone carrier. The contract calls for the transfer of SK Telecom's code division multiple access (CDMA) system to its Vietnamese partner after 2016.

However, in the form of a joint venture, SK Telecom, along with its South Korean partners, will be able to operate the business in Vietnam permanently. It also allowed SK Telecom to expanding the CDMA network's coverage, which has been limited to Hanoi and some metropolitan areas, nationwide.

SK Telecom, which has already attracted more than 100,000 subscribers in Vietnam, is seeking to increase customers to 500,000 next year and 1 million by 2006. "Vietnam has only 3.4 million mobile phone users, or 5 percent of its total population. It has a big potential for our wireless business," said Lim Su-kil, a company spokesman.

SK Telecom launched commercial operation of its CDMA network under the brand of "S-Fone" in Vietnam last year.

"The Vietnamese government helped us start up S-Fone's operations and in dismantling Vietnam's market monopoly," Lim said. "Vietnamese consumers would be benefiting from a competitive market environment in terms of price and service."

To support for the company's cellular phone business, Chey met Vietnamese Post and Telecommunications Minister Do Trung Ta to discuss SK Telecom's code CDMA network in Vietnam, and invited him two days later to an event of S-Fone held in Hanoi.

"The achievements made during Chey's tour is expected to make Vietnam a beachhead for tapping the bigger Southeast Asian market," Lim said.

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