Left to right: John Lee, past president of the Korea SEUS Chamber of Commerce; Sung Kim, U.S. ambassador to Korea; Ahn Ho-young, Korean ambassador to the U.S.; Cedric Suzman, programs director, World Affairs Council of Atlanta.

The U.S. and South Korea should work together to boost the number of professional visas granted to skilled Koreans, bolstering both countries’ services industries and enhancing training for thousands of American workers now employed by Korean companies, the country’s ambassador to the United States said in Atlanta.

Speaking to the Korea-Southeast U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Ahn Ho-young noted that Korean companies such as Kia Motors, which has a billion-dollar plant in West Point, Ga., are responsible for 20,000 jobs around the Southeast.

Korea is already a member of the Visa Waiver Program, a list of 38 countries whose citizens are allowed to stay in the United States for 90 days for tourism or business without obtaining a visa. U.S. citizens have reciprocal rights in Korea.

But government support is needed to enable skilled professionals to work  longer stints in the United States, especially as Korean companies continue to expand and open facilities here, the ambassador said.

“We need a more rapid exchange of talent,” Mr. Ahn said.

The ambassador noted that the Kia plant is at full capacity and that Dasan Machineries, which makes components for the automotive and defense industries, announced recently that it will open a plant and U.S. headquarters in Duluth, a $30 million investment over the next three years. In total, there are more than 60 Korean facilities operating in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Sung Kim, U.S. ambassador to Korea, said more visas would mean stronger exchanges in the services like law and accounting, which are gradually being opened up as a part of a free trade agreement the countries implemented in 2012.

“When you can export more services you invite more investment. We need to make it happen,” Mr. Kim said.

Mr. Ahn pointed out that 70,000 Koreans study in the U.S., the third highest population behind China (about 200,000 students) and India (100,000).

“But their populations are so much higher than Korea’s,” Mr. Ahn said. “We are 10 times more represented.”

He also noted that Atlanta and the Southeast continue to be hubs where more Koreans and more Korean-Americans are coming to work and live.

“It’s a most beneficial relationship; it’s people-to-people,” he said.

The two ambassadors, whose plane was delayed several hours from Detroit, spoke on a variety of political and economic issues as part of a roadshow put on by the Korean Economic Institute.

They spoke to members of the Korea Southeast U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the World Affairs Council of Atlanta as well as business and political leaders. Sponsored by the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP and Coca-Cola Co., the program focused mainly on the political situation on the Korean peninsula.

Mr. Kim, the U.S. envoy, said that while there is close cooperation between South Korea and the West, “We still must be prepared for a conflict [with North Korea]. That is the cornerstone of our policies.”

The U.S is fully committed not only to South Korea but to Asia more broadly “by being fully engaged and involved in the long-term,” Mr. Kim said.

President Barack Obama recently returned from an Asia trip where he sought to reassure allies that his planned diplomatic “pivot” to the region was moving ahead as planned. He visited Korea and met with the nation’s female president, Park Geun-hye.

Mr. Ahn said reunification “will happen,” but preparation for that fateful moment requires vast improvement to North Korea’s infrastructure, which is “not in the best of shape,” and acknowledgement that the nations’ differences are wide and growing wider.

He also noted tension in other areas of Asia as well, including between Japan and China and the rest of Southeast Asia as a result of territorial claims over disputed islands.

“There is serious tension there and we must do what we can to resolve these disputes peacefully, but it is worrisome,” he said.

Korea and Japan especially find difficulty working together, given the wounds many Koreans experienced under Japanese occupation in the 20th century.

Mr. Ahn pointed out that in 2002 Korea and Japan co-sponsored the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament but despite “sharing so many things,” longstanding issues have undermined the relationship.

For more information or a photo gallery, visit the Korea-SEUS Chamber site at www.koreaseuschamber.org.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...