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August 21, 2017

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Automakers seek an edge in South Korea

SEOUL--Big names in the global auto industry have been flocking to South Korea recently.

Starting with the surprise visit by Toyota Motor CEO Akio Toyoda in January, Renault-Nissan Alliance chairman Carlos Ghosn announced a new investment plan in Korea in July and Ford Motor's CEO Alan Mulally last week renewed commitment to the Korean market. On Tuesday, Torsten Muller-Otvos, CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, is also scheduled to visit Seoul.

Industry watchers say South Korea is one of the most dynamic markets in the Asia-Pacific region, where car deliveries continue to grow.

"Korea may be a small market of 1.5 million annual car sales. But the market never stops evolving and its import car market, in particular, still has full potential to further grow," said Kim Pil-soo, professor at Daelim University College and auto expert.

South Korea saw yearly sales of import cars surpass 100,000 units last year for the first time. Their market share currently at around 10 percent is expected to increase to 15 percent in the near future.

Kim also added global leaders in the auto industry would not hesitate to visit South Korea, home of their emerging rival Hyundai Motor Group.

"The CEOs may also want to check the Korean market, where their global rivals Hyundai and Kia take up almost 80 percent. If they succeed in expanding presence first in Korea, they would gain more momentum in overseas competition with Hyundai."

The three carmakers — Toyota, Renault-Nissan and Ford — whose chief executives visited Korea this year are facing increasingly fierce competition with Hyundai and Kia vehicles as they vie mainly for smaller and more affordable segments globally. In South Korea, they also compete to impress Korean drivers in the import car market where German makers are still dominant.

In January, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda selected South Korea for his first overseas business trip since the Japanese carmaker was hit hard by last year's tsunami.

"I wanted to thank Koreans for their support after the earthquake and announce Toyota has been reborn since then," he said, introducing the new Camry, Toyota's flagship sedan, at a Seoul hotel in person.

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