When a delegation of South Korean officials gathered at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana last week, the circle of dialogue naturally turned to relationships and stronger ties.
While not unusual, the discussion followed Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent mission to Southeast Asia, where he met with the Korean Foundation to discuss energy, agriculture and general trade.
In the spirit of reciprocation, members of the foundation arrived in Missoula last week to continue those discussions. Academic exchanges and cultural programs were also among the topics.
“With the governor going, all of a sudden Montana came on their radar screen,” said Abraham Kim, director of the Mansfield Center. “This is the first fallout from that mission.”
South Korea currently stands as Montana’s second-largest export market, with trade standing at roughly $205 million in goods and services.
It’s a partnership the Mansfield Center is looking to build on by making deeper investments in person-to-person ties. Kim traveled with Bullock on the recent mission to Southeast Asia, and he sees potential in developing a full-blown sister-state relationship with South Korea.
“We’re living in a globalized society,” Kim said. “Montana needs to be part of that global community, and Asia is going to be an important part of that.”
During their visit, members of the foundation joined the Mansfield Center to host a Korean dinner before screening a documentary exploring South Korea’s 70-year rise from abject poverty to an economic power.
James Person, deputy director of public policy at the Wilson Center, said South Korea’s history is well depicted in the 2014 documentary “Ode to My Father.” Directed by Yoon Je-Kyoon, the film captures the rise of modern Korea from 1950 onward – a shift sparked by the nation’s own Greatest Generation.
“It’s important to appreciate that South Korea is one of our top allies, both in security and economics,” Person said. “It’s the second-largest export market for Montana, but, unfortunately, there’s no sister agreements right now with South Korea.”
Montana has sister agreements with Japan and China, and both the Mansfield Center and the Korean Foundation would like to expand that to include South Korea. While efforts continue to increase trade, Person said, the human ties are already there.
Part of those ties stem back to the Korean War and Montana’s reputation for having one of the largest veteran populations per capita in the U.S. In a roundabout way, Person said, Montana played a role in Korea’s rise to become a modern nation.
“There’s that link between Montana and Korea,” Person said. “These veterans have done a lot to contribute to the formation or creation of one of the greatest security alliances the U.S. has. Montana contributed to making Korea what it is today, and making that alliance what it is today.”
As the world’s demographics change and new nations gain economic power, Kim said, places like Korea are going to become important to Montana’s own future, both economically and culturally.
Fifty years ago, South Korea was poorer than Bolivia and Mozambique, according to the magazine Foreign Affairs. Today, it stands among the world’s wealthiest nations, with a mature democracy and advanced technology.
“If you look at our foreign relations, there are the political relations, but we also need economic relations, business ties and academic exchanges,” Kim said. “This partnership with South Korea can really have spillover effects both politically and economically.”
Across the country, China and India top the list when sending students to study in the U.S., while South Korea ranks third. However, Kim said, South Korea ranks highest when viewed per capita.
Roughly 1,600 foreign students are engaged with the University of Montana, contributing more than $4 million annually to the state’s economy. A stronger relationship with South Korea could further enhance those numbers, Kim said.
“Having more international students coming here not only contributes to the economy, but also (to) the diversity of Montana,” he said. “Relative to our neighboring states, we need to do a little more work. But there’s potential for Montana to expand and make these connections.”
To get there, Keum-jin Yoon and Seayoun Lee of the Korea Foundation said they hope to build a better understanding of South Korea in the U.S. Their foundation already invests in cultural and academic programs at Yale and Harvard, along with other large U.S. universities.
Now, they said, they’re looking to expand their reach to UM and invest in a growing partnership between Montana and South Korea.
“We have many international exchange programs with partnerships with universities in the states and other parts of the world,” said Yoon. “What we do is promote the better understanding of Korea. Our mission is to make friends in the world.”