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Talking Business and Sharing Culture in Belleville’s South Korean Sister City

Photo courtesy City of Belleville

Belleville officials head to Gunpo

The City of Belleville and Gunpo City (Gunpo) in South Korea are two very different places. Apart from the language and cultural dissimilarities, Gunpo, as a satellite city of Seoul, has a population of close to 300,000 people. Most of its residents live and work in high-rise buildings due to the lack of flat land in the mountainous region. The country is always on active alert for war. The one thing the two cities have in common, however, is a 23-year friendship as sister cities.

A delegation of 12 Belleville politicians, economic development representatives, media, and residents recently returned from a visit to Gunpo. This was one of several mutual visits over the years, designed to share cultural exchanges and discuss business opportunities.

Mayor Mitch Panciuk felt it was particularly important to go to Gunpo this year as there have been two Belleville visits by Gunpo officials without reciprocation. “Their relationships are very, very important,” he says. “They want to be able to see a person face-to-face and they also want to feel follow-up happens quickly. A little different than some of us in North America, where we feel an email is sufficient. That doesn’t even get you in the door there. For them, relationships are important, and you can’t have that if you don’t show up.”

The Mayor was particularly struck by the density of South Korea’s population. “South Korea is about the size of Newfoundland and they have 51 million people. Every inch of available flat space is developed. Even when you go into rural South Korea, there are high-rise buildings. That was really staggering to see that difference. It is very mountainous; the mountains there look like thimbles all over the place. Where it is flat, all the land is developed.”

The delegation noted how clean and neat the South Korean communities were. There are few garbage cans, but residents simply don’t litter. They take personal responsibility for their garbage and don’t drop it in public places. “It’s significant to see that difference,” said Mayor Panciuk. “There are no cigarette butts around like we see here. No fast food coffee cups or wrappers. It’s all cleaned up.”

“I was also amazed by the park system, which makes sense in a country so concentrated with people. They don’t have a lot of space, but they do a very, very good job with the space they have. They also understand quality of life means having municipal services for recreation purposes.”

Mayor Panciuk noted the Belleville visitors were warmly received and a traditional exchange of gifts was one of the first items on the delegation’s agenda in Gunpo. “We presented photos and a team jacket to Mayor Han and we presented ice wine and maple syrup to members of their exchange committee and their councillors. I received back from them a top set that is quite beautiful and a plate that, in ancient times, was used to determine whether the food was poisonous. I also received a ginseng set.”

“The greatest gift they gave us was the hospitality they showed us for the entire time we were there.”

South Korea represents an attractive, competitive market, and a key focus of the Belleville delegation’s visit was export opportunities. Korea represents the 11th largest economy globally and is the world’s sixth largest importer.

Chris King, Chief Executive Officer of the Quinte Economic Development Commission, was part of the Belleville delegation. This was his second trip to Korea, the first 12 years ago. He felt this visit had a greater focus on business. “They’re very export-focused, trade-focused. They import a lot of food and consumer goods and other products. We see opportunities to export products from this region into South Korea, and there’s also an opportunity for foreign direct investment. Canada and Korea have a free trade agreement. I’m a firm believer in investment following trade, so to be front and centre and be on their radar is important.”

Belleville already has one Korean manufacturer located in the city’s industrial park: Hanon Systems Canada Inc. The company has two manufacturing facilities here providing 700 jobs. Mando Corporation was founded in Gunpo and chose Belleville as its first non-Korean venture back in 1989. The company name was later changed to Halla Climate Controls and more recently, Hanon Systems Canada Inc. Hanon Systems manufactures climate control systems, which regulate temperature in cars, trucks, and other vehicles. The systems are provided to auto plants in North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

In recognition of the company’s 30-year investment in Belleville, the Mayor and others met with the President & COO of Hanon Systems at his offices in Seoul. “We asked if there was anything that we could do, either municipally or regionally, to help,” said Mayor Panciuk. “He was very pleased with their (Belleville) plant. He’s coming personally in June for the 30th anniversary and ironically, he was a plant manager here in Belleville in the 1980s. He knew about Belleville, is familiar with it, and wanted to talk about the changes in the city.”

Asked about the value of taking a delegation to Korea, the Mayor noted all Ontario municipalities are currently struggling to deliver required basic services, so other avenues must be explored. “If we simply rely on our current tax base or the provincial government, we’re really limited. For us to be able to offer more means we must go out and get more. Getting more means bringing businesses. The Hanon contribution over the last 30 years has allowed us to have a better quality of life because they have been here in Belleville. This trip was about recognizing that, appreciating it, and trying to take it to the next level.”

Belleville officials met with the Canadian embassy in Seoul at the beginning of their trip. It was a helpful meeting to better understand the economic development opportunities from South Korea, as well as the potential challenges. “Embedded within the embassy is an Ontario representative from the provincial government,” said Chris. “We had a chance to meet with her as well. You have to be there, kind of fly the flag and say, ‘We’re here. We’re open for business.’” Chris noted relationships with countries like South Korea are very important and taking the time to help trade commissioners understand what Belleville has to offer can lead to future investments in the community.

The relationship between Belleville and Gunpo began with a Belleville resident. George Kang was the owner of Victoria Convenience in Belleville in the 1990s. He was friends with Gunpo’s Mayor Cho, who told him Gunpo was interested in establishing twin city partnerships with international communities. George spoke with Belleville’s Mayor at the time, George Zegouras, who embraced the idea. Unfortunately, Mr. Kang passed away in 1996, before the sister city partnership was established. His son, Simon Kang, took over and worked with the city to finish what his father had started. Simon and his wife have been involved since. “I work with the City of Belleville as City Ambassador and then I work for Gunpo City as Twinning Advisor,” said Simon. “When we go to Gunpo, I do translation. When they come to Belleville, I act as an ambassador.” There have been eight exchange visits in total since 1996.

“Without Simon, we would not have had as good a trip,” said Mayor Panciuk. “He understands the protocol. He understands the language, obviously, so he was a great translator. He also made sure that the appropriate gifts were at all the different places. It really was essential.”

“I think Simon’s greatest fear was that, with so many people, we were going to get lost,” added the Mayor. “I think he was very relieved at the end of the trip that no one had gotten lost, no one had gotten into any trouble. We were all good.”

Mayor Panciuk said the next get-together with Gunpo officials will happen in the Quinte region. “I already verbally made an invitation to Mayor Han for a delegation to come next year. We’re just finalizing a range of dates. I’m expecting we will have a visit from them early June 2020, where we get to showcase some of our wonderful services and our industry and some of our cultural differences.”




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