When South Korea sent back its ambassador to war-torn Kuwait in March, a second key diplomat was by his side: the construction attach'e. With a world-class construction industry, South Korea does not want to miss a chance to snatch up a chunk of huge contracts to rebuild Kuwait's infrastructure.

In the 1970s and '80s, the Korean economy was boosted by the buying boom of oil-rich Middle East nations, which used the inexpensive technical skills of Korean firms, to build anything from shopping centers to roads. Projects in Kuwait alone approached $3 billion.

In the five-month buildup to the Gulf war, South Korea was at first hesitant to support the United States, partly because it did not want to offend Iraq and lose $755 million in contracts there. But US officials traveled to Seoul to remind South Korea that United Nations forces helped rescue it 40 years ago. With the pending projects in Iraq all but lost, South Korea finally contributed $500 million to the US war effort.

The war aid might have been a good investment - helping relations with the US and the restored Kuwaiti government.

``The $500 million was just peanuts, but it served a diplomatic purpose,'' says Lee Chong Ho, deputy director general for overseas cooperation in the Ministry of Construction. ``We're just waiting for the US Army Corps Engineers to finish up their survey of Kuwait's reconstruction needs. Then we expect new projects.''

Korea's strength is that its contracting firms, such as Hyundai Engineering & Construction Company, already have lots of heavy equipment spread around the region.

Since Korea did not send any combat troops to the war, it is unlikely that its companies will be chosen as prime contractors on Kuwaiti projects. But Korean firms are willing to work in joint ventures or subcontracting.

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