When South Korea's top import promoter arrived in the Twin Cities on Saturday, the first thing he did was head to a Lunds & Byerlys for some apple cider made from Minnesota-grown SweeTango apples.
"That's something we've got to have. It's very delicious," said Shinn Tae-yong, chairman of the Korea Importers Association. "We want to know more about products of Minnesota."
Shinn flew to Minnesota at the behest of the director of the state's Korea trade office, Imm Han-kyong. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development last year hired Imm, who goes by Hank, to promote goods produced by the state's companies and farmers in South Korea.
The country, home to 50 million people, last year was the seventh-largest buyer of Minnesota products, spending $714 million chiefly on beef, pork, grains, machinery and plastics. That was up from $624 million in 2013 and $707 million in 2012.
South Korea's imports of U.S. products, particularly of food, have risen sharply since a free-trade agreement went into effect between the two countries in March 2012. However, South Korea's trade surplus with the U.S. has also grown in that period, meaning U.S. purchases of South Korean products have accelerated more quickly than South Korea's purchases of U.S. products.
Shinn said that's something he and the 8,500 importers who belong to his trade group are trying to change. "Our mission is to make balanced trade," he said.
South Korea mainly runs trade deficits with countries that supply it natural resources, such as oil and gas, and the U.S. currently does not export its energy production.
In the Twin Cities, Shinn visited Land O'Lakes, the Minnesota High Tech Association and the Mall of America, where he planned to study the business model for a destination shopping center. South Korea, where retailing is controlled by a small number of large companies, has only a handful of Western-style shopping malls.
Shinn, who was part of the delegation accompanying South Korean President Park Geun-hye to a summit with President Obama last week, had a personal reason to visit Minnesota. His father, a dean at a prominent law school in Seoul, taught at the University of Minnesota's law school for a year in the 1950s, and his sister went to graduate school at the U in the 1960s.
As Shinn looked over the variety of goods at the downtown Lunds & Byerlys, Imm encouraged him to try pepperjack cheese. Koreans' affinity for kimchi, the condiment that typically comes in the form of fermented cabbage seasoned with red pepper, should mean there's a market for pepperjack, Imm said.
Shinn liked it. "This is like Koreanized cheese," he said.