With the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement passed by Congress and awaiting final Korean approval, Gwinnett County‘s sister community from the country made its first official visit to metro Atlanta since they linked up two years ago.

A delegation led by Mayor Shin Yeon-hee of Gangnam-gu, a wealthy, cosmopolitan district of more than 550,000 people within Seoul, participated in business meetings and discussed trade during a luncheon hosted by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Shin, who brought companies to explore the U.S. market, called the visit a “stepping stone” for further cooperation between two communities that have more in common than meets the eye.

While Gwinnett doesn’t have near the population density of vertically oriented Gangnam, the partners share an emphasis on education and a development trajectory that has taken them from farmland to suburbs to thriving areas in their own right, said Nick Masino, the chamber’s vice president of economic development.

“Thirty years ago no one knew where Gangnam was, probably, … and literally 30 years ago I don’t think (Interstate) 85 even stopped in Gwinnett,” Mr. Masino said. Now Gwinnett has about 850,000 people who speak more than 125 languages and dialects. It’s also home to three Fortune 500 companies.

Gangnam has its share of world-renowned facilities. The COEX Convention Center at the heart of the district hosted last November’s Group of 20 summit. Upscale shopping malls, corporate offices and skyscrapers abound, including one housing the Korea World Trade Center. The area also draws 250,000 foreign visitors per year, including many medical tourists receiving care at Gangnam’s more than 2,000 clinics.

With their respective advantages, both sides are poised to benefit from the even stronger U.S.-Korea ties that will come with the free-trade agreement, Ms. Shin said. She added that the deal would help Korea compete with Asian neighbors like Japan, a high-tech powerhouse, and China, a low-cost manufacturing hub.

Gangnam stands ready to welcome companies of all sizes enter the Korean market, regardless of the FTA’s outcome, Ms. Shin told GlobalAtlanta.

The agreement, which still faces some controversy in Korea, would eliminate tariffs on nearly all American manufactured goods and would open the door to U.S. cars and other products. It also would allow U.S. law firms, consultancies and package-delivery companies to enter Korea.

Kia Motors Corp. and other large companies will likely fuel most of the deal’s projected $10-$12 billion boost for U.S. exports. Small companies will benefit more from the renewed appetite for business deals the agreement will bring, said Craig Lesser, managing partner of Pendleton Consulting Group, who spoke on how the FTA would affect Georgia.

Mr. Lesser endeared himself to the audience by welcoming the mayor in choppy Korean. A former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Mr. Lesser was influential in luring Kia’s $1.2 billion plant in West Point, the largest foreign investment in the state’s history.

In 66 years as a republic, Korea has become a tech-savvy, export-driven economy that has quickly produced dominant global brands like LG and Samsung, Mr. Lesser said. With 49 million people, Korea ranks No. 26 in population, but the country punches above its weight as the world’s 12th largest economy and America’s seventh biggest trading partner, Mr. Lesser said.

Georgia’s exports to Korea grew by 39 percent to $632 million in 2010. Those numbers will likely increase with the FTA, but the pact could also benefit Georgia manufacturing in a more indirect way. Kia will make more cars in Georgia as it ramps up U.S. sales to offset gains in its home market by new American entrants, Mr. Lesser predicted. More Kias would mean more parts made by the many suppliers that have set up shop near the plant, supporting thousands of Georgia jobs.

GlobalAtlanta visited Seoul to cover the launch of the sister-community partnership in June 2009. See more Gangnam coverage here

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...