Gov. Terry Branstad announced plans Monday to lead a trade delegation to South Korea and eventually open a small permanent office there as a way of expanding Iowa's already considerable presence overseas.
Branstad said similar trade missions to India and China could follow. He didn't offer details about the timing or cost of his plans.
"I think trade's important, and I think in areas like Korea where you have some opportunities it makes some sense," Branstad said. "It will be a small office and we'll try to do it in the most efficient and economical way we can."
Branstad was elected in November, 12 years after he completed four previous terms as governor. In his earlier tenure, the Republican was a major promoter of trade, opening offices in Japan and China and retaining a contractor in Mexico.
The state maintains its office in Japan, where it employs two people and has an annual budget of $321,250. It also has a four-person office in Germany with an annual budget of $473,500 and maintains contractors in Mexico and China.
Branstad linked this proposal to a trade agreement recently reached between South Korea and the U.S., which is awaiting ratification by Congress. That deal would open the door to more exports from Iowa, he said.
Branstad's proposal was welcomed by Sen. Swati Dandekar, a Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce Committee.
Dandekar, of Marion, said a trade office in South Korea and missions to other countries would add a personal touch to trade efforts, which she argued is especially important to Asian nations.
"I think it's very positive," Dandekar said. "In Iowa, we have the opportunity to export our pork to South Korea, and I really think when it comes to having a trade office the businesses who are interested in buying pork from us will see our trade office and ask them who they should contact."
Iowa State University economics professor Harvey Lapan was more skeptical. He said trade missions and an office would help Iowa companies make contacts but would mean little to the state's economy.
"I'd be somewhat skeptical about what exactly the presence of an Iowa trade mission in Korea is going to do other than maybe put them in contact with potential exporters," Lapan said.
Lapan said any significant increases in exports to South Korea would rely more on federal pressure than efforts to individual states.
"The only benefits one could see are to make businesses aware that might not be of the possibility of importing or to ease administrative paperwork," Lapan said. "In principle, a trade agency could ease that paperwork."
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor's office hasn't yet worked out the details of the plan. The Iowa Department of Economic Development did not immediately respond to a request for information on Iowa's existing trade efforts.