Governor Visits South Korea To Push For Plant In Ohio

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Bob Taft (pictured, right) is in South Korea to lobby Hyundai Motor Co. to build a new car assembly plant in Ohio, The Associated Press has learned.

Taft's office would confirm only that the governor was in South Korea on an economic development trip. Taft spokesman Joe Andrews said the business the state is working with asked Ohio not to make the nature of the trip public.

But Senate President Richard Finan said Taft was in South Korea hoping to lure Hyundai to Ohio. Taft left Ohio on Saturday and will return Wednesday. A message was left with Hyundai seeking comment.

Hyundai, South Korea's largest carmaker, said on Nov. 12 it is preparing to build its first car assembly plant in the United States. Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo officially confirmed plans while meeting former U.S. President George Bush, according to a company press release.

"He should be there," Finan, a Cincinnati Republican, said of Taft. "We should be in the hunt."

Bush had toured a Hyundai plant in Asan, southwest of Seoul, as part of a visit to the South Korean capital.

Finan said winning Hyundai could be difficult, since several southern states, including Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia, are also in the running.

Hyundai President Kim Dong-Jin met with Alabama officials last month in Washington to discuss the proposed plant.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, who preceded Taft as Ohio governor, said Voinovich was doing whatever he could to support Taft's efforts.

Mike Dawson, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mike Dewine, said Taft has been "a forceful advocate for Ohio jobs and there's no doubt this trip is a continuation of that effort."

Hyundai officials have said building a plant in the United States would become economically feasible when their sales in the North American market reach 500,000 cars a year. The carmaker is expected to reach the target this year.

According to the Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association, South Korean firms exported 481,000 vehicles to the United States last year, of which 397,000 came from Hyundai Motor and its affiliate, Kia Motors Corp.

On Monday, Taft ordered state agencies to reduce spending and eliminate unnecessary travel to help reduce a $1.5 billion state budget deficit.

Andrews said Taft's trip did not fall into the category of unnecessary travel. "It has the possibility of bringing dollars to the state," Andrews said.

This is Taft's third trip abroad on state business as governor. He led a business delegation through Brazil, Chile and Argentina in March, and visited Japan last year.

He postponed a trade mission to Germany last month in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)