Flags of South Korea Arkansas and Japan

Arkansas Governor Sanders Visits South Korea and Japan on Economic Development Mission

Korea Japan Asia

Through an economic development mission to South Korea and Japan, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders strengthened economic and cultural ties with the two Indo-Pacific partners. She concluded two economic cooperation agreements in South Korea and attracted further Japanese investment in Arkansas.  

During a trade mission to East Asia in March 2024, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders visited two important Indo-Pacific partners – South Korea and Japan – to strengthen economic, cultural, and subnational ties with Arkansas.

Gov. Sanders signed two economic cooperation agreements with South Korea, which aim to promote commercial relations and information exchange and strengthen Arkansas' agricultural and lithium industries. For the latter half of her East Asian trade mission, Gov. Sanders flew to Japan to meet with Japanese officials and business executives to attract more investments back to Arkansas.  

Arkansan Ties with South Korea and Japan

South Korea is Arkansas’ 6th largest trading partner in the Indo-Pacific region, accounting for approximately $66.8 million in exports in 2023, or 1.04% of total exports. Arkansas’ top five exports to South Korea are plastics, cotton, electric machinery, nuclear machinery, and meat.  Notable South Korean firms operating in Arkansas are Kiswire, a steel wire manufacturer, tech giants LG Electronics and Samsung, and Shinwon, a fashion company.

Japan, on the other hand, is Arkansas’ third-largest trading partner behind Canada and Mexico, accounting for approximately $393.9 million in exports in 2023, or 6.11% of total exports. Arkansas’ top five exports to Japan are firearms and ammunition, paper, plastics, nuts, seeds, and beans, and nuclear machinery. Prominent Japanese companies such as Toyota-subsidiary Hino Motors, Panasonic, Kyocera, and Nippon Sheet Glass operate facilities in Arkansas. In total, Arkansas is home to 34 Japanese companies working in 44 facilities.   

Economic Agreement Forged in Sister City Ties  

On March 8, 2024, Gov. Sanders signed an economic cooperation agreement with Hanam City, South Korea. Little Rock, Arkansas' capital, and Hanam City have been sister cities since May 19, 1992.

The first time Little Rock and Hanam City were brought together was when Lee Haeng-ung, Eternal Grand Master and founder of the American Taekwondo Association (ATA), suggested the Little Rock-Hanam City sister city partnership to then-Governor Bill Clinton and Mayor Sharon Priest. Lee used to serve in the South Korean Army as a special forces instructor. After retiring from the military, he opened a dojang (Korean for training hall) at Osan Air Force Base, where he met and taught American serviceman Richard Reed. After Reed concluded his military service, he invited Lee to the United States, where Lee founded ATA in 1969. He relocated its headquarters to Little Rock in 1977 because the city’s topography reminded him of South Korea.

Arkansas has historical connections with the Korean War, with 6,300 Arkansans participating in the war. Little Rock houses the Arkansas Korean War Veterans Memorial in MacArthur Park, which honors the 461 Arkansans who died during the war. The park commemorates General Douglas MacArthur, who was born in Little Rock for his contributions in the Pacific Theater of World War II and the Korean War. Notably, Hanam City shouldered most of the costs of the memorial's construction ($570,000) with the support of other organizations.

The Little Rock-Hanam City sister city partnership also advocates for people-to-people and cultural exchanges. In July 2016, Little Rock hosted Hanam City youth ambassadors and their chaperones to learn more about the sister city partnership. Little Rock has also sent youth delegates to Hanam City for cultural exchanges.

According to Mr. Neal Jansen, director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission’s (AEDC) Asia Office, another purpose of the trade mission to South Korea was to introduce Gov. Sanders to Mayor Lee Hyun-jae and the sister city partnership with Hanam City. Mr. Jansen shared with the East-West Center in Washington that before the agreement was signed, a roundtable discussion regarding the sister city partnership was held to exchange updates on the relationship and outline near-term goals.  

Mr. Jansen explained that the economic cooperation agreement’s text was focused on commercial relations, information exchange, and the agricultural sector. He credited the strong Little Rock-Hanam City sister city partnership for facilitating networking between businesspeople and citizens on both sides of the globe. He added that the trade mission was also an opportunity to encourage more South Koreans to visit Arkansas.   

Mr. Jansen also identified various Arkansan industries that could benefit from further cooperation with Hanam City, including soybeans, rice, machinery, lithium, battery technology, home electronics, and steel industries. When asked about semiconductors, Mr. Jansen stated that Arkansas manufacturers can provide the inputs used in them, such as films and casings.

Mr. Jansen added that they wanted a similar economic cooperation agreement with Uiwang, South Korea, the sister city of North Little Rock, during this trade mission, but time constraints prevented them from fleshing out the agreement.  

Economic Agreement with KITA and KUSEC

On March 11, Gov. Sanders signed a second economic cooperation agreement in South Korea with the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) and the Korea-U.S. Economic Council (KUSEC). Gov. Sanders also met with the executives of Hyundai and KIA, as well as Ryu Jin, chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries and chairman and CEO of Poongsan Group, one of the largest metal makers in the world.  

KITA is South Korea's largest business group, with more than 73,000 member firms. It represents the rights and interests of South Korea's business community and performs a variety of roles, including providing direct assistance, fostering private sector trade cooperation, developing new trade methods, training trade professionals, and developing trade infrastructure.

KUSEC is the sole private economic entity that works with the United States and serves as South Korea's counterpart to the 50 federal state governments. It acts as a link between the US federal government and South Korea's local governments and serves as a dispute settlement body in trade issues between the two countries. KUSEC also sponsors programs for South Korean students and government personnel to go to the United States.  

The economic cooperation agreement with KITA and KUSEC bears similar priorities to Hanam City’s document, but with an emphasis on the lithium industry. South Korea is regarded as an industry leader when it comes to lithium, whereas Arkansas is rapidly establishing its own lithium industry. Lithium reserves have been discovered in the brine thousands of feet beneath southern Arkansas, with firms such as Standard Lithium and ExxonMobil taking an interest in the state. The agreement urged Arkansas and South Korea to work together to establish commercial relations, with an emphasis on utilizing lithium resources and exchanging expertise between the two.  

Gov. Sanders’ delegation had a productive visit to South Korea. They visited cities such as Seoul, Busan, and Andong to market Arkansas as a prime trade and investment partner for South Korea. At the end of her visit, Gov. Sanders met President Yoon Suk-yeol and discussed Arkansas-South Korea economic relations.  

Meetings in Japan

Gov. Sanders spent the last leg of her East Asian trade mission in Japan where she met with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel and other high-level Japanese government and industry officials.

On March 13, 2024, Gov. Sanders delivered a speech to the Keidanren (Japanese Business Federation), an economic body made up of Japanese firms, national industrial groups, and regional economic organizations.

Gov. Sanders was proud of the longstanding bilateral ties between Arkansas and Japan, which were evident in AEDC’s Asia Office in Tokyo, which has been present since the 1980s. Another connection between Arkansas and Japan is the sister city partnership of Hot Springs and Hanamaki, which began on January 15, 1993. Both cities were a good match for each other because of their natural spas.  

The Arkansas delegation signed a memorandum of understanding with JETRO, an organization focused on encouraging trade and investment between Japan and the rest of the world. The delegation gave a presentation about Arkansas to showcase the state to the Keidanren. Gov. Sanders also met with the leadership of Panasonic and Kagome.  

Gov. Sanders and her delegation had a fruitful trip to Japan. The delegation was able to network with Japanese firms and government officials, market their state, and inform their counterparts about the opportunities for doing business in Arkansas. This trade mission in Japan will be crucial in fostering economic relations moving forward.

The author would like to thank Mr. Neal Jansen of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for corresponding with him via email and for being a valuable resource for this article.  

John Angelo Gerard "Jag” D.O. Calbario was a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. He is a master’s graduate in international affairs with a concentration in global governance, politics, and security at the American University's School of International Service.