A wave of South Korean investments is once again heading for the vast mainland market - with project values set to surpass the previous peak achieved in 1996, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra). Led by big names such as the Samsung Group, the companies hope to enlarge their present production bases on the mainland in anticipation of a brighter economy in the country after it entered the World Trade Organisation in December last year. Players in the services sector such as Shinsegae Department Store were also planning to enlarge their presence in catering for the domestic consumer market, the South Korean government-backed trade organisation said. The trend was evident by the growing investment values by South Korean firms in China. Governmental financial institution The Export-Import Bank of Korea said in the first eight months, approved investments by South Korean companies in China totalled US$970.54 million. The amount surpassed the US$960.04 million achieved in the whole of last year. South Korean investments in China reached a peak in 1996 of US$1.95 billion but the value had dropped since then due to the impact of the economic crisis in Asia. Park Han-jin, general manager of Kotra's overseas research department, said: 'Attracted by low labour costs, South Korea [investments] flooded into China in the early 1990s. Their investments focus mainly on manufacturing industries such as electronic and electrical sector in northern China.' At present, manufacturing remained the focus as it accounted for 85 per cent of the estimated South Korean investments, said Mr Park. Operation bases were still being established mainly in Shandong and Liaoning. 'However, investors have shown signs of extending to other sectors such as retailing, food and beverage business, and they have been shifting operation bases from the north to the east because of growing wealth in the region,' said Mr Park. He estimated the total number of South Korean companies in China was more than 10,000. It has been reported that Shinsegae Department Store planned to open a store in Shanghai this year and hoped to boost total outlets to 40 by 2010. Last week, 28 South Korean enterprises clinched contracts worth US$13 million with mainland enterprises in a Shenzhen trade conference. Car manufacturing is seen as investment potential by South Korean companies. Since last month, General Motors' South Korean venture, GM Daewoo Auto Technology, had been holding talks with a Chinese partner to bring Daewoo products to China and was also looking into possibilities in Japan. In May, Hyundai, the seventh-largest vehicle maker, signed a 30-year agreement with the Beijing Automotive Industry.