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SEOUL — Some 600 delegates from 16 countries are in Seoul this week for the 14th annual Asia Society conference, focusing on the emergence of South Korea as a regional powerhouse and how the security environment affects business in northeast Asia.

The conference, “Envisioning the World’s Next Great Market,” kicked off Wednesday with a press conference attended by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard and an opening gala with South Korean government officials.

“South Korea already plays a significant role in Northeast Asia’s economy but this conference will examine whether it can make a strong case for becoming the region’s next hub,” said Nicholas Platt, Asia Society president.

Delegates said Wednesday the biggest challenges to South Korea’s ascendancy would be labor issues, trade concerns and, most importantly, the security situation with North Korea. With six-nation talks about North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapons program progressing slowly, many business interests say they are wary of committing fully to business on the peninsula.

But at least one company is putting a heavy bet on the Koreas’ future: The Gale Company, a global real estate firm, is embarking on a $20 billion project to build New Songdo City, which the company pitches as the “most audacious piece of real estate in the world.”

The development literally is rising out of an empty piece of reclaimed land six miles from Inchon International Airport outside Seoul. Eventually, it will be home to 500,000 people and the centerpiece “free economic zone” of a South Korean trade hub with foreign property ownership, international schools and hospitals, even a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

“I get nervous about everything,” Stanley Gale, the company’s president, joked at the Wednesday press conference when one reporter questioned him about his firm’s $20 billion gamble. “But I mitigate that by looking at the big picture. I am absolutely convinced that a peaceful, evolving solution is going on as we speak.”

Wednesday night, acting South Korean President Goh Kun welcomed the delegates, pitching his country as a “hub” for business development in the region. Goh is among several South Korean government officials, along with the minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the minister of Unification and the mayor of Seoul, attending the meeting.

The Asia Society has hosted the conference each year since 1989, bringing together policy-makers and business figures to discuss economic trends and political developments in the region. The society, headquartered in New York, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education organization with the self-stated goal of broadening the understanding of Asia in the United States.

The conference is co-sponsored by the Dow Jones Company.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Platt noted that besides South Korea, only China and India have hosted more than one Asia Society annual meeting.

That, Platt said, shows how much weight South Korean carries in the world economy and that “it requires this much attention. It shows Korea has moved on to another stage.”

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