How Sister Cities Play a Key Role in Diplomacy

By Rebekah Cha and Luke Witzig

A container ship leaves Pusan, South Korea
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

As the United States scrambled to combat COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic, the state of Maryland garnered international attention for an unconventional diplomatic maneuver. 

Yumi Hogan, the wife of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, utilized connections with her native South Korea to help her state procure 500,000 test kits directly from the U.S. ally. 

Instead of relying on the federal government to contact South Korea at the national level, the Hogans made use of their state’s diplomatic powers to approach a foreign country and procure much-needed supplies for their constituents.

The test kit mission, dubbed “Operation Enduring Friendship,” arrived as the rest of the United States struggled to increase its testing ability. The operation received international recognition as well as criticism. Nevertheless, it sparked an important conversation on the role of sub-state diplomacy in a highly interconnected world.

Paradiplomacy, the diplomatic efforts of sister cities and non-central actors, holds a distinct advantage over traditional relations between central governments. 

Regardless of what may be happening at the state-to-state level, paradiplomatic ties are often deeply rooted in personal relationships. This allows them to endure and create valuable economic outcomes. 

Take for example the sister city relationship between Chicago and Busan. The two cities signed a sister-city agreement in May of 2007 to expand and deepen the cultural exchange between the two cities and increase economic opportunity. 

Their sister city relationship has helped facilitate key economic partnerships. Busan collaborated with the Chicago Argonne National Laboratory to decommission its oldest nuclear reactor, the Kori-1. Busan also sponsors the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago, which promotes Korean-owned businesses in the greater Chicago area. 

Additionally, the two cities have actively pursued educational and development exchanges through non-central actors and organizations such as the Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Symposium and the Chicago Sister Cities International.

What is notable about the Chicago-Busan sister city relationship is not just the economic outcomes, but also the conditions in which the partnership was created. 

According to Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling, Americans reported their lowest favorability of South Korea on record in 2006 with a score of 44 out of 100. During this period, tensions between the United States and South Korea were high due to perceived trade imbalances and disagreements over how to respond to North Korea’s missile testing of its nuclear weapons. 

Despite these less than favorable conditions, the cities of Chicago and Busan were able to sign a sister city agreement during one of the most uncertain moments of US-South Korean relations in the last two decades.

Ella McCann, former Program Manager at the Chicago Sister Cities International, argues that the conditions in which the Chicago-Busan relationship began and its continued success over the last fourteen years demonstrates how sister cities can create formidable partnerships even in the midst of diplomatic turbulence at the national level. 

However, many international relations scholars have continued to underestimate sister city agreements as only loose exchange commitments. This analysis fails to recognize both the diplomatic durability of sister cities and the mutual economic development that is sustained by personal relationships between the two regions.  

Another example of an impactful sister city agreement is between Los Angeles and Busan, which provides an important lesson for the international economy. The agreement is rooted in the shared commitment of the two port cities to combining L.A.’s commercial hub with Busan’s maritime resources.

In 1998, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan took advantage of his city’s global network and pushed for an incredibly expensive trade mission to Asia along with 80 other city leaders from across the country. 

On his visit to Busan, Riordan met with business executives of potential international partners to the Los Angeles Port. He recognized that diplomatic cooperation abroad would be vital to ensure his city’s economic prospects and legitimize its regional success worldwide. 

More than twenty years later, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as L.A.’s airport, have become the premier gateway for Korean companies entering the U.S. market. They currently oversee 40% of the countries’ commercial trade flow regulations. 

This is supplemented by the Korean-American population of over 350,000 in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles is a valuable destination for Korea’s expansion into the U.S., and the population of Korean-Americans provides a considerable advantage to ensure consumer sales for the 24.9 billion dollar market shared between Californian and Korean businesses in L.A. County.

As an influential port city, Los Angeles demonstrates the benefits of an active paradiplomacy to attract trade and investment. In return, Busan has spearheaded trade and international development initiatives on a national level and has invited other non-state actors to voice their regional prerogatives in the process.

The Busan Business Agenda, which was designed to promote freer trade and secure profitable returns for the Asia-Pacific region, was first implemented as part of the 2005 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Busan and exemplifies the city’s efforts in establishing itself as Korea’s center for international business exchange.

As a follow-up, the city launched Busan’s Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation which aimed to connect regional leaders worldwide – indiscriminate to their lack of traditional state capacities – with other multilateral organizations to achieve sustainable development goals. 

Advancements like these prove Busan’s capabilities in securing a profitable business environment as a global leader, and this attracts megacities like Los Angeles to continue investments into the Asia-Pacific region. Likewise, the Busan Trade Office in L.A. aims to strengthen sister-city relations between the two cities as personal ties become more pertinent for Busan-based companies to operate in L.A.

With Los Angeles “following the sun” and Busan establishing its “city of tomorrow,” the two sister-cities share liberal democratic values and economic incentives that position them as life-long partners for their shared future of peace and innovation.

Traditionally, it has been difficult to quantify numerically the direct impact of each sister city partnership for global initiatives like sustainable development. Yet, what is clear is that paradiplomacy is stimulating economic growth, resolving urban problems, and significantly impacting national foreign policies. 

Moreover, the need for city leadership has become more apparent during the pandemic. This is also reflected in President Biden’s push to delegate more diplomatic leverage to mayors and provide efficient resources for subnational diplomacy.

True to their historic roots, sister cities place a great emphasis on civic engagement through partnerships with different communities abroad. Every year, an estimated 1.13 million people across the U.S. participate in sister city programs and events through their many educational, cultural, or trade exchange missions which connect an average of over 2,000 international partnerships between cities.

Minjeong Kim, Director of The Korea Foundation’s Washington D.C. office, believes that cultural and public diplomacy, which are popular arrangements leveraged by sister city diplomacy, contribute to the national interest and open invaluable opportunities to boost soft power abroad. 

The increasing prevalence of paradiplomacy to pursue local interests is not a new concept in foreign policy academia. It is also not unusual for governors to exercise broad powers especially during times of crises, but often the international capabilities of subnational actors are limited to their respective political and legal frameworks. 

However, this increasingly globalized world will continue to provide opportunities for non-traditional forms of diplomacy. 

Cities are well-positioned to channel their urban spirit into creating an innovative marketplace where business and culture intersect. Through paradiplomacy, cities can become destinations for meaningful diplomatic exchanges to happen.

Rebekah Cha and Luke Witzig are both recent graduates of Wheaton College. Their research, funded by The Korea Foundation, focuses on “paradiplomacy” between the U.S. and South Korea. 

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