Exclusive: South Korea may sign GM Korea funding deal by April 27 - KDB chair

By Hyunjoo Jin and Ju-min Park
An employee works at an assembly line of GM Korea's Bupyeong plant in Incheon, South Korea March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyunjoo Jin and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - Korea Development Bank (KDB) may sign a preliminary agreement by April 27 to financially support General Motors Co's <GM.N> troubled South Korean unit, provided interim due-diligence on the unit is satisfactory, the chairman of the state-run lender said on Tuesday.

GM proposed in February an investment of $2.8 billion into its money-losing South Korean operations over 10 years, days after announcing a sweeping restructuring. It has asked Seoul to provide a share of the funds for the overhaul.

The U.S. automaker owns 77 percent of its South Korean unit, GM Korea, while KDB owns 17 percent. GM's main Chinese partner, SAIC Motor Corp Ltd <600104.SS>, controls the remaining 6.0 percent.

Lee Dong-gull, chairman and CEO of KDB, told Reuters the bank may offer around 500 billion won ($468.42 million), proportional to its 17 percent stake in GM Korea, to help fund GM's pledged $2.8 billion investment.

This is the first time KDB has offered a time-frame for a decision of whether to financially back GM Korea. The bank and government officials have so far been non-committal.

GM's president told Reuters last week that common ground must be reached on a long-term restructuring of GM Korea by this Friday, and if there was none, the operation would likely seek bankruptcy protection.

GM shocked South Korea in February with plans to close one local plant and leaving the fate of three others unclear. It is seeking government funding and incentives as well as labor cost cuts to save the unit, which in 2017 posted a net loss of $1.1 billion, its fourth straight year in the red.

"If GM injects equity into the unit, we will inject equity. If GM extends loans to the unit, we will extend loans as well,” Lee said, adding KDB prefers to take part in a rights offering rather than lending to the unit.

"We may be able to reach a very meaningful agreement by April 27, whether it is a verbal promise or conditional MOU," he said, referring to a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

The KDB chairman said its interim due diligence report on GM Korea is scheduled to be out on Friday, but GM Korea has not so far submitted sufficient documents for South Korea to assess its financial viability.

He said the bank would be able to sign a legally binding deal with the U.S. automaker only after a final report is out in late April or early May.

"We are in continued discussions with the KDB and the government with intent to inject new funds and convert debt into equity," a GM Korea spokesman said.


LEGAL ACTION

Lee said KDB would have no choice but to consider taking "appropriate legal action" should the U.S. automaker opt to liquidate its South Korean unit without consulting the bank.

Lee said GM should offer a long-term commitment to South Korea to get government support and recover public trust.

He said many South Koreans believe that GM may eventually leave South Korea when government subsidies dry up, as the U.S. automaker did in Australia and Europe.

"They have to show a commitment to remaining as a good corporate citizen," Lee said.

"What GM really needs to know is that anti-GM sentiment is very strong in South Korea. I told GM that they need to make me feel comfortable before I can make some kind of decisions."

Lee had a series of meetings with Barry Engle, head of GM's international operations, who visited South Korea to discuss a restructuring plan with the government and the GM Korea union.

GM Korea and its union plan to hold another round of talks on a restructuring deal on Wednesday morning, a union spokesman said on Tuesday. "We are trying to resolve the problem with a dialogue," he said.

GM Korea was one of GM's major manufacturing and engineering bases in Asia after its 2002 purchase of failed South Korean car maker Daewoo Motors. But the unit has struggled in recent years since GM pulled its Chevy brand from Europe, hitting exports to GM Korea's major market.

"The mutual trust hit rock bottom. We have to enhance trust and this will not happen overnight," Lee said.



(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Ju-min Park; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)