A new partnership aims to expand opportunities between Wisconsin and one of the state’s biggest foreign trade partners.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., or WEDC, and the Wisconsin Alumni Association in Korea signed an agreement last month to promote the state both as a good place to do business and as a welcoming destination for Korean students.
The partnership will also encourage Korean investment in Wisconsin and provide connections for the state’s businesses with partners and customers abroad.
South Korea is Wisconsin’s fifth-largest trade partner, according to WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes. She said South Korea imports everything from agricultural products to medical and industrial equipment.
Last year, Wisconsin companies exported over $653 million in products to South Korea, an increase of 14.5 percent from the previous year. South Korea is one of the five countries that together take in about 65 to 70 percent of Wisconsin’s total exports, which contributed to a second consecutive year of record exports.
"They love Wisconsin dairy (products) in Korea," Hughes said. "We also import from Korea, so there's a really good back-and-forth already in place."
Hughes said the agreement is the first of its kind and stems from Korean alumni championing Wisconsin.
"I'm really excited about this innovative opportunity. I'm excited to see where it goes," she said. "But credit is due to those Korean Wisconsin alumni who want to celebrate the education that they received."
Although the new partnership aims to boost business opportunities moving forward, its roots go back to last September when Hughes went on a trade venture to South Korea.
While there, Hughes met with the head of the Korean Development Bank and his deputy — both of whom are graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sign up for daily news!
Stay informed with WPR's email newsletter.
Hughes said UW-Madison alumni in Korea are very active in South Korea’s economy, government and education system.
"There's just lots of opportunity to work closely with that association to make connections that will benefit Wisconsin and benefit Korea," she said.
Likewise, Wisconsin Alumni Association Executive Director Sarah Schutt said the alumni association in Korea is one of the strongest chapters internationally.
"Our alumni in Korea are still extremely proud of being Badgers, they're extremely proud of Wisconsin and consider it their second home," she said.
Schutt said UW-Madison was a leading university in the United States in terms of attracting international students 40 to 50 years ago, as South Korea was going through a period of rapid industrialization. And many of their children have also attended UW-Madison.
"That's why we have a high concentration of our alumni who are now in these leadership roles in Korea," Schutt said. "They are using their networks and influence and really trying to pay back to the state where they got their education and find opportunities for Wisconsin to have active business in Korea."
In a statement, Wisconsin Alumni Association in Korea president Seog-hoon Kang said the association is committed to fostering educational, cultural and economic exchange between Wisconsin and South Korea.
"This partnership will provide opportunities for our members to connect with Wisconsin businesses and institutions, and to explore new avenues for collaboration and innovation," Kang said.
Hughes said the partnership aims to increase Wisconsin exports and give businesses “the opportunity to spread their wings” internationally.
"This is a great targeted example of being able to do that," she said. "And to, at the same time, give those Korean businesses who want to access the U.S. market an opportunity to come here."