In Min Kee's world, there is no time for self-pity or nationalist pride. He is prepared to offer Americans just about anything they want--at the right price.
"We are here to sell," the manager from Korea Land Corp., a government real estate development agency, said during a recent stop in Los Angeles. "We can sell everything but our families."
At the tail end of a tiring sales trip across the United States, Min is willing to try just about any tactic, including self-deprecating humor, to drum up interest in his ballooning property portfolio.
Looking for a high-rise office building in Yoido, Seoul's financial district? How about a luxury resort on Cheju Island, the popular honeymooners' destination? Min is certain he can meet your needs from among the $2.2 billion worth of real estate his agency has agreed to liquidate for distressed South Korean firms.
"We expect there will be another profitable year or years when our economy recovers," Min said. "But we need to get money in our pockets now. That's our bottom line."
Min is part of an army of South Korean officials and executives circling the globe looking for buyers for high-rise office buildings, resorts and golf courses built before last summer's currency crisis brought Asia's high-flying economies to the brink of collapse.
It's a buyer's market, particularly for U.S. investors armed with a dollar that has strengthened by as much as 80% against the hardest-hit Asian currencies.
But South Koreans, in fierce competition with debt-strapped investors throughout Asia, are balking at lowering their prices enough to close many deals. And prospective buyers have been further spooked by the slide of the Japanese yen, which threatens to send the rest of Asia into another nose dive.
Worried Asian officials got some breathing room Wednesday when the U.S. government intervened in currency markets to bolster the yen.
But that relief could be short-lived unless the Japanese government moves quickly to reassure investors that it is serious about tackling its bad loans and further stimulating its economy.
In the meantime, pressure is building in South Korea, where bankruptcies and unemployment are on the rise. Prices of downtown office buildings have dropped by at least 30%, and land is being sold at half-price, according to Korean real estate experts. Vacancy rates in downtown Seoul have climbed to 30%.
A scarcity of mortgage financing meant that most prime real estate in South Korea was purchased on an unsecured basis by the giant chaebol, or conglomerates, that had easy access to low-cost financing. Now those companies are under mounting pressure to raise cash to reduce their debt.
Earlier this month, three of the nation's giant chaebol--Hyundai, LG Group and SK Group--announced plans to sell real estate assets and subsidiary companies valued at about $12.5 billion, according to E&Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group.
To boost his country's appeal, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is acting quickly to remove laws restricting foreign property ownership and to offer expanded tax breaks and other incentives. Korean firms that dispose of nonbusiness-related real estate are being offered tax concessions.
South Korean officials are also working hard to dispel the image that they are hostile to foreigners or foreign capital.
"It has often been said that the negative attitude of Koreans toward foreign companies acts as a major obstacle to attracting foreign investment," Tae Young Park, Korea's Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy, told a luncheon crowd at a recent real estate seminar in Los Angeles. "However, the shock of the economic crisis has dramatically changed this attitude."
The flow of foreign money into South Korea is starting to pick up, jumping to $570 million in April from a low of $90 million in November, according to the Korean government. U.S. investors account for about one-third of the total.
But most of that investment is being made by foreign firms that already have operations in South Korea and are taking advantage of the depressed market to expand their presence.
Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard, which has been operating in South Korea since 1974, purchased its headquarters building in Yoido for $100 million.
In addition, the Silicon Valley company announced it will invest $150 million more to establish a finance company and expand its present facilities.
"The U.S. dollar goes a lot further and there are many Korean companies in their restructuring plans who are looking for cash," said Brad Whitworth, a Hewlett-Packard spokesman.
Most investors are holding back, however, convinced that prices haven't fallen far enough and fearful that the continuing weakness of the Japanese economy will send the region into another free fall.
Stewart Kim, managing partner of Los Angeles-based Pacific Gemini Partners, an asset management firm, recently arranged meetings between officials from Korea Asset Management Corp. and some leading U.S. real estate investors.