As Gov. Brian Kemp set out for his first day of meetings in South Korea Monday, a familiar face greeted him on the country’s largest English-language newspaper: his own.
“Meet Georgia, the Peach State” was the headline under the governor’s photo wrapping Monday’s Korea JoongAng Daily. According to a website hosting a digital version of the international paper for download, it had been viewed more than 240,000 times, and that’s not including the print or web version.
The media buy, which includes a sponsored story calling Mr. Kemp a “visionary leader” and showcasing his interaction in Georgia with new investor SK Innovation, is emblematic of the splash the state hopes to make during the gubernatorial visit to its “hottest market.”
Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, told Global Atlanta in a recent interview before the trip that focusing more heavily on Korea is one reason for pivoting on its China strategy. The state in March failed to renew its contract with Chinese investment recruiter John Ling, believing the money would be better spent in Korea, where investment momentum is unprecedented.
“This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus” and “leverage the wins we’re having,” Mr. Wilson said, noting the buzz in the Korean press around new investments.
“It’s time to focus on that, and there’s a reason that the governor is going there first. We’re looking at this a great way to focus our strategy on foreign direct investment in Asia,” said Mr. Wilson, who is now traveling with the governor.
Georgia has attracted more than $2 billion in Korean announcements just within the last year. About $1.7 billion of that is the SK Innovation electric battery plant in Jackson County, though smaller investors have also piled on. Sangsin Brake, which Mr. Kemp was set to visit Monday, announced a $20 million deal shortly after the governor’s inauguration. That followed a $150 million plant by Hanwha Q CELLS in Dalton. Recently, Mr. Kemp personally recommended that solar panels made at that plant supply another foreign-funded project in south Georgia that will provide power for a Facebook data center.
Mr. Wilson said that deal and Mr. Kemp’s overall disposition show that the governor’s campaign pledge to make Georgia a top state for small businesses translates well to the foreign investment market. Mr. Wilson said the governor wants to understand the strategy behind foreign investments.
“He wants to get down and understand what they’re trying to accomplish, what they want to do. He is very interested in our world, and I think that it comes from the fact that he is a businessman at heart,” Mr. Wilson said.
There are also some pragmatic reasons for Mr. Kemp, who has aligned himself with President Trump, to target Korea. The country is one of the few that has already passed the gauntlet of Mr. Trump’s trade ire and mostly come out on the other side.
Mr. Trump quickly after taking office led the renegotiation of the KORUS free trade agreement to right what he felt was an imbalance on U.S. auto access in that market.
He also reached a quota deal that in effect exempts Korea from tariffs on steel imports into the U.S.
Underpinned by a strong military alliance that has become event more relevant against the backdrop of North Korean denuclearization talks, the Korea-U.S. relationship is free of some irritants that plague its ties with other nations.
One threat remains, however, that actually might have the effect of further strengthening investment ties — especially in the all-important auto sector that has been a godsend for Georgia’s FDI efforts. President Trump has continued to call imported cars and auto parts a national security threat, and in May delayed a decision to impose 25 percent tariffs on that basis.
Some companies have calculated that it’s safer to set up a base within the U.S. than to chance falling on the wrong side of what would be a massive price increase that they would have to absorb or pass on to customers. Even Korean companies like Kia Motors, which touched off this wave of investment with its plant in LaGrange, are affected, as they import an array of parts, as well as some of their own vehicles made elsewhere. They also suffer from retaliatory tariffs in some markets on vehicles made in Georgia, like the new Telluride SUV.
“Governor Kemp’s visit to Korea demonstrates how bilateral relations have become the representative example of Korea-United States economic cooperation. It is expected to become a bridge that establishes a greater relationship with Korean companies that are looking to invest in Georgia in the future.”
More updates on Mr. Kemp’s Facebook page here.