Gov. Kemp gave both an acceptance speech and a keynote highlighting the reasons behind Georgia's success in recruiting Korean investment. Credit: The Korea Society

In accepting the Korea Society’s top bilateral award on behalf of Georgia Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp’s remarks were aptly bookended by the companies that have brought Korean projects to “all corners of the state.”

U.S.-based executives from both Kia and Hyundai gave insights into why the state has seen an explosion of Korean investment — some $23.6 billion in a decade, recently driven by auto makers responding to their industry’s electric revolution.  

Introducing the governor was Stuart Countess, president of Kia Georgia, the manufacturing plant in West Point that touched off an influx of Korean auto suppliers more than 15 years ago. 

The Georgia Department of Economic Development’s role in shepherding an ever-growing parade of Korean investors since then led to its selection for the society’s prestigious Gen. James A. Van Fleet Award, named for the society’s founder.

Along with the department, the award was also presented to the Korea International Trade Association and accepted by its chairman, Christopher Koo. The event was held at The Plaza Hotel in New York City Sept. 20.

According to Mr. Countess, Mr. Kemp has been a supporter of the Kia plant since early in his first term, when the governor blessed the launches of the Telluride and Sportage models, the latter going on to become the brand’s top-selling vehicle in the U.S.

“It is safe to assume that Gov. Kemp has a reserved seat for every product launch in West Point going forward,” Mr. Countess was set to say, according to a copy of his prepared remarks provided to Global Atlanta.

That will soon include the EV9, Kia’s first U.S.-made electric model, for which the company is investing $200 million to upgrade its assembly line. 

Mr. Countess attributed that investment and other projects to the state’s vision to create an Electric Mobility Innovation Alliance, in part a response to SK On‘s catalytic investment in Commerce in 2018. 

The initiative, championed by Mr. Kemp, brings government, business and academia together to work toward the goal of making Georgia the e-mobility capital of the U.S.

“It is only through the development of strong, longstanding relationships that an ambitious target like this can be achieved. Today we are seeing that goal become a reality in a state that includes a large and diverse industry base of Korean companies like Kia,” Mr. Countess said. 

After Mr. Kemp accepted the award on behalf of the state, it was Hyundai Motor America President and Group COO Jose Muñoz’s turn to talk about how Georgia has rolled out the red carpet for the company’s Metaplant, which including battery investment will bring $7.59 billion and more than 8,500 jobs to Ellabell

Mr. Muñoz has been a frequent visitor to Georgia since the group announced that its first dedicated electric-vehicle plant would be placed there.

Earlier in the week, he helped inaugurate a partnership with Georgia Tech to work on hydrogen fuel commercial vehicles and skilling up engineers in the state.

“With an investment this significant, you can imagine that many states were interested in this manufacturing facility. For those of us on the site selection team, we listened to many compelling presentations. None were more compelling than the state of Georgia and no one was more engaged than Gov. Kemp and his economic development team led by Pat Wilson,” Mr. Muñoz wrote in a post on LinkedIn. He added that North America now accounts for a quarter of Hyundai Motor’s global sales. 

Mr. Kemp offered both an acceptance speech and a keynote, using the latter to highlight both the Korea-Georgia relationship and investments completed during his first term and now into his second.  

These successes were in part thanks to the state hosting the third-largest Korean population in the United States, the governor said. 

“This growing community contributes an incredible work ethic, strong values and a commitment to free enterprise that sets Georgia apart from our peers,” Mr. Kemp said. 

Recent wins, he said, are also grounded in ties that have grown progressively stronger over the decades. 

A Korean consulate general was set up in Atlanta in 1976, and Georgia  put a trade and investment office in Seoul in 1985. SK Group put the first major Korean factory the state in 1996 — it made photo films in Covington, a property where it recently inaugurated a new chip substrate plant under the Absolics brand

Gov. Kemp accepts the Van Fleet Award on behalf of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Also honored was the Korean International Trade Association, represented by Chairman Christopher Koo. Credit: The Korea Society

Korea was the first country Mr. Kemp visited on a trade mission as governor, just after SK Battery had given the state 2.6 billion more reasons to pay attention to its potential as an investment source. 

In his speech, Mr. Kemp mentioned some of the names that have followed with multi-billion dollar investments of their own, including Hanwha Q Cells and LG, which is partnering with Hyundai 50-50 on its Metaplant battery operation. 

Korea has become the top investor in the state by dollar amount and job creation for three years running, and now 144 Korean facilities have found a home in Georgia. 

The Van Fleet Award is most commonly used to decorate influential individuals for their “outstanding contributions to the promotion of U.S.-Korea relations,” with previous recipients including presidents of both countries, secretaries of state, military generals and business leaders including the chairmen of prominent chaebols (conglomerates) like Hyundai, Samsung, SK and CJ Group (another recent Georgia investor). 

The society said focusing this year’s award on organizations that drive trade and investment was indicative of how the alliance is evolving as trade is increasingly framed as a national security issue. 

“We are entering a new phase of the multifaceted, dynamic relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea,” said Thomas Byrne, president and CEO of The Korea Society, in a news release. “Both awardees are serving to enhance trade and investment between the two countries, creating high-paying jobs in American communities and securing supply chains in critical technologies.” 

Mr. Kemp also alluded to this sentiment, noting that Korean companies have seen Georgia as a “good bet” amid an uncertain global economy. 

“In the face of global economic and political challenges, with shipping costs higher than ever, ongoing supply chain disruptions, and fallout from lockdowns and government-control in China, companies know they can depend on our people,” the governor said. “Georgia’s quality workers, low cost of doing business, high quality of life, and speed-to-market solutions are priorities for our state agencies and local communities.” 

He added that the state’s growing ports have direct links with Korea and that Delta and Korean Air fly nonstop to Seoul. For companies searching for reliable sources of clean energy to lower their carbon emissions, he also pointed out that the first new nuclear reactor installed in the U.S. in 30 years came online in March at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle. (He did not mention that it came in years late and billions over budget). 

As he has in previous public forums, Mr. Kemp publicly acknowledged Yoonie Kim, director of Korean investment for GDEcD, for her role in crafting the strategy for welcoming new Korean firms and helping them settle in the state.  

“She has spent countless hours building the understanding between our state and Korean companies that has helped fuel three straight record-breaking years for economic development,” Mr. Kemp said. “She has been instrumental in bringing literally billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs to Georgia communities.”

A major contingent from Georgia made the trip to New York, including GDEcD’s Commissioner Pat Wilson, Chief Marketing Officer Mark Jaronski, along with Ms. Kim. 

Georgia Power CEO Kim Greene, Delta Air Lines Executive Vice President for External Affairs Peter Carter, Savannah Economic Development Authority President and CEO Trip Tollison, Savannah Area Chamber President and CEO Bert Brantley and former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and his wife Julianne also attended. 

New Korean Consul General Suh Sangpyo was unable to attend, but the governor mentioned that he had met with the Atlanta-based diplomat recently. 

Korean companies with a presence in Georgia including Kumho Tire, LG and Superior Essex, were scheduled to be in attendance.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens introduced Mr. Koo, the KITA chairman, who shared that his father had received the same honor back in 1997 while serving as the chairman of KITA, which today has 73,000 member companies. 

Attendees honored Korean War veterans in their midst with a standing ovation, according to those who were in the audience.

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...