Monthly Archive: March 2010

Message #1 to an Associate: Thoughts on Working for a Korean Government Entity

An associate of mine is working to land a job with a Korean government office to support their work promoting Korea overseas. He has a remarkable background, having lead an organization elsewhere in Asia for several years, as well as having worked with top government leaders in the US. He's truly got a unique resume and his international network is impressive. He's also a hard-worker who generously shares his deep knowledge with others. I'm not exaggerating when I say that he could really make a difference for some government agency in Korea that is trying to promote some aspect of Korea overseas.

P1000530But his efforts thus far have not led to much interest. Indeed, he can barely get responses back from the officials he's been contacting and this is before he even starts talking compensation, which he reasonably expects should be at an international level.

For various reasons, I am trying hard to put him in touch with the right people and based on my recommendation, he's already contacted the GyeongGi Province Foreign Investment Attraction Office and a top official for the province of South Choongcheong. In addition, I forwarded his information to a colleague having a close relationship with someone close to the mayor of the city of Incheon. This is Korean-style networking at its best and if anything is going to work for my associate, one of these will.

But as I reflected on my experiences in Korea (in particular, with the province of Gyeonggi) and discussions with another American associate working in one of the Korean central government agencies, I'm questioning the feasibility of a foreigner being able to do very much within government circles. I sent my associate an email a couple weeks ago right after the GyeongGi Province advisors meeting. Here it is in slightly edited form:

Hi <Associate>,

Frankly, based on my contacts with people related to GyeongGi Province and seeing the struggles you’re having, in spite of your strong background, I think finding a satisfactory position in an Asian organization is going to be tough. As far as Korea goes, the Korean government agencies just aren’t going to turn over a bunch of responsibility to a foreigner and they aren’t going to pay adequately for it. You’ll find a few examples where Korean MNCs are hiring foreign executives, but they are operating on a direct profit motive with executives whose value on the international market is proven; within the government agencies, it’s an “old boys’ network” and they don’t know you. Remember, GyeongGi Province just got my limited efforts and resources for nothing because I am fitting that into a long-term strategy to build my understanding and network in Korea but they sure aren’t asking for my advice on policy; you may not have the patience for such an approach.

I was impressed with the caliber of people at the GyeongGi Province meeting yesterday. These weren’t slackers or country hicks; many/most have degrees from foreign universities and deal with foreigners on a daily basis. I don’t doubt someone like you could come in and bring dynamism to the process, but I find it hard to think anybody in that room is ready to take orders from someone younger than them and who doesn’t share their Korean outlook. I’m not one of these foreigners who moans about always being an outsider; it’s not something they do deliberately, it’s just a fact of how things are. It would make no more sense to complain that I can’t walk through walls.

I’m going to keep pursuing your applications with GyeongGi Province and South Choongcheong Province (plus one more with the Mayor's office in Incheon). We will eventually learn something from it. Hopefully I can get you at least a phone interview or two and that can help to understand better. But unless you’re willing to come in at a junior level at a low salary, I can’t see things going anywhere soon.


On the other hand… your work with <non-Asian organization in Asia>, etc. will most likely be appreciated by foreign companies and organizations in Asia. Since they bring in foreign talent all the time, they operate at international levels of compensation and don’t have hang-ups about foreigners in positions of authority. Also, knowing Korean isn’t a pre-requisite. I could be wrong, but I bet this is a better angle for you. Of course, this is hardly an unexplored niche since this is where most non-Koreans go first anyway and the number of available positions is very limited.

Your experience looking for a job in the US is interesting. It sounds like you and I operate in something of a middle-world. Our perspective back home is more international than most; but in Asia, we’re still not Asians. It’s a tough, narrow niche sometimes but one that is wide open with the right strategy which helps to bridge cultural gaps.

I think you have to keep thinking about how your skills and background match the opportunities and then figure out which opportunities match with your goals. I sense you’re going to have to get your feet on the ground here sooner or later in order to get all that straight; the long-distance approach almost writes you off as an outsider from the start.

I wouldn’t tell you not to take a great opportunity in the other places you're looking; but I hope you make it to Korea.

Let’s keep discussing; tell me where you think I’m wrong. I’m learning a lot also.


Photographs: The above photos are from our recent trip to the Chiri mountain area. The top was taken at Yeongok temple and the bottom is from Jinju fort of the Namgang river below.

A Difficult Job: Some E>K Mistranslations Along with the Corrections

Some files are just like that; they come with a disproportionate number of confusing phrasings that are easy to misunderstand. 

We had a job like this last week and when I went back to check my team’s work, I came across error after error and ended up re-proofing the entire thing! Normally I’d be pretty upset with this many mistakes, but it was an ultra-rush job and the content was particularly hard, so I let them off lightly. Anyway, I was just glad my colleague responded so promptly and got things fixed quickly for me once I’d pointed them out. 

Here are some examples from the job, which was regarding consulting to a Korean-owned restaurant doing business in the US.


Source: “Holistic consulting is not a “thinking outside of the box” edgy strategy.”

Mistranslation: “전체적인 컨설팅은 ‘주어진 범위 밖에서의 사고’라는 가장자리 전략이 아니다.”

Corrected translation: “전체적인 컨설팅은 ‘주어진 범위 밖에서의 사고’라는 틀을 깨는 전략이 아니다.”

Explanation: My team understood “edgy” as “edge” rather than “unconventional”.


Source: “With our success rate, the MO is incredibly clear.”

Mistranslation: “저희의 성공률에 의해 뒷받침되는 MO는 놀랄만큼 명확합니다.” 

Corrected translation: “저희의 성공률에 의해 뒷받침되는 운영 방법은 놀랄만큼 명확합니다.”

Explanation: The team had no idea what MO meant and just left it as-is. On the other hand, how many native English speakers would have caught that it means “modus operandi”?


Source: “That’s more important than the sides to go with your burgers.”

Mistranslation: “이것이 귀사의 버거 사업에 있어 지엽적인 부분들보다 더 중요합니다.”

Corrected translation: “이것이 귀사의 버거 사업에 있어 비주력 상품 부분들보다 더 중요합니다.”

Explanation: The team translated “sides” as “unessential parts” whereas “sides” is a short form for “side menu items”.


Source: “Your offering and the way you offer the food do not fit ‘quite right’ with the US venues.” 

Mistranslation: “귀사의 상품 구성과 상품 제공 방식은 미국 시장에서는 ‘상당히’ 부적합합니다.”

Corrected translation: “귀사의 상품 구성과 상품 제공 방식은 미국 시장에서는 ‘약간’ 부적합합니다.”

Explanation: Here, “quite right” was translated as “very much” rather than “a little”.


Source: “Weekly payments with TBD milestone payments based on results achieved.”

Mistranslation: “달성 결과를 근거로, 주간 단위로 TBD 성과급으로 지급”

Corrected translation: “달성 결과를 근거로, 주간 단위로 미결정 성과급으로 지급”

Explanation: The team figured “TBD” was some industry abbreviation and left it in English rather than translating it as “to be decided”!

Ah, the joys of the translation profession! Who ever said this is easy and anybody with a little language ability can do it?

On Becoming a GyeongGi Province Foreign Investment Attraction Advisor, Part 2

The advisor meeting on Friday, February 19, 2010 was held at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Suweon. As this was my first time to hold an official title in Korea and I didn't have any idea what to expect in advance, I was apprehensive before the meeting. In particular, I had volunteered to give a presentation even though it was my first time to have attended.

The advisory committee meets twice per year and is made up of a cross-section of the Korean business world, each specializing in a particular subject matter. There are four advisors with expertise in the large Korean conglomerates, six focused on strategic global regions (two for the US), two from think tanks, six in miscellaneous areas (finance, accounting, law, services, FDI and PR (that's me)) and four from academia. No advisors, as far as I know, are paid for their support and so each of us was in attendance as volunteers. Several government officials from the Foreign Investment Attraction Office were there, too.

3-7-2010 10-46-52 PM  I was very impressed at the calibre of people in attendance. Though the meeting was held in Korean exclusively (except for the Japanese head of JETRO in Korea, who participated through an interpreter), I doubt many advisors would not be easily conversant in English; many have studied and worked overseas. I recall that the Director General has a Ph.D. from an American university and worked for something like 10 years in the research department of a US multinational corporation. 

There are apparently 2-3 other Americans, but they were each represented by a Korean representative at the meeting so I didn't meet them. I was the only Westerner there and every advisor is male.

I spent the meeting mostly listening. And coming from a US perspective, it was interesting to note that foreign investment in Gyeonggi Province doesn't only mean American or European investment. In fact, a great deal of the group discussion was taken up by the topic of attracting FDI by Japanese companies. In particular, with the recent Toyota quality issues, which is apparently top-of-mind in Korean business today, advisors were asking what kind of value proposition GyeongGi Province could offer Japanese companies so that they can escape the high costs of Japan while still maintaining quality. The conclusion was that while Korea is not a cheap country anymore, the cost/quality ratio is competitive. 

I noted also how the pitch being given by GyeongGi Province when it courts the CEOs of multinational companies is that, rather than trying to sell in the Korean market directly, they should simply use Korea as a production location for re-exporting elsewhere. This is interesting to me on various levels because it almost came across to me as an acknowledgement that the Korean market is too small and/or too difficult to crack and that foreign companies shouldn't bother themselves with trying to export into it.

I think this overlooks a very important competitive point about the Korean market, which is that it is probably one of the best test-beds for foreign companies before or during their entry into other Asian markets (i.e. China) and that Korean offices of MNCs punch above their weight in terms of introducing innovations that are then applicable globally. I cut an article out of the Korean version of the Jungang Daily back on November 19, 2008 ("다국적기업, 한국서 배운 '성공 노하우' 들고 세계로 간다") which describes this in detail. 

This is a profound advantage that Korea offers and I may suggest giving a presentation at the next advisor's meeting in August about this very topic. I don't remember anyone at the meeting mentioning this and I bet such a Korean advantage may not be adequately recognized in the efforts of the province to attract FDI. By being able to emphasize the creativity of its people and dynamism of the market helps the province move beyond the quality/cost dimension and truly give substance to the catchy slogans that every city and province in Korea keeps coming up with.

Overall, the meeting was a fascinating opportunity for me to experience Korean business from the inside and continue building my network. 

Business Introduction Provided to Korean Business Culture Trainers (US)

I was contacted by a leading US multinational looking for Korean business culture training for a team being dispatched to a site in Korea. I was able to refer her to two excellent associates of mine at Korea Business Central ( who have deep knowledge of Korean business and culture, as well as extensive corporate training background.

Toyota’s Despicable Contempt for Korean Consumers

The Koreans are thrilled silly about the Toyota quality problems. They're trying not to gloat but their glee is barely concealed, especially as Hyundai and Kia auto sales increase so rapidly in the US. But this isn't really what my post is about today and I'm going to depart a bit from my normally Korea-friendly perspective.

3-3-2010 8-52-44 PM In an editorial in the Jungang Daily yesterday (유교가 '아시아의 세기' 감당할까), columnist Hwan-Yeong Kim (in photo at left) talked about the way Toyota is apologizing for their quality problems. Apparently the president of Toyota showed up at a press conference with American journalists and only bowed 70-degrees when he apologized the first time. He then had to come back and do it again at 90-degrees. But when he got to China, he bowed 90-degrees the first time. And it seems he hasn't bothered to show up in Korea to apologize at all.

So Mr. Kim is irked that Japan's paying so much attention to keeping the Chinese happy but is ignoring the Koreans. He backs this up by pointing out that when Toyota started selling their Lexus models in Korea, they sold at higher prices here than anywhere else in the world and that this showed contempt for the Korean consumer.

But just today, the Jungang Daily ran another article with this title: "Why do Automobiles for Export Have Safety Devices but the Ones for Domestic Consumption Do Not?" (수출 차엔 기본인 안전장치, 내수 차엔 없다?). Apparently the Korean car makers are willing to outfit their cars with less value for Korean consumers than they are in overseas markets. 

Or how about this? When Hyundai first sold its Genesis model in the US, the prices were so much lower there than in Korea, people were buying the car in the US, importing it back to Korea and still saving money. In early 2008, we bought our Kia Pride (called a "Kia Rio" in the US) in Korea for much more than it would have cost back home.

My point, of course, is to ask whether anybody could blame Toyota for selling their cars expensively in Korea when the Korean car makers themselves are doing the same thing. Rather than moan and groan about being slighted by the Japanese, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask what can be done to create a more consumer-friendly car market in Korea.

And BTW, I sure hope the Korean makers are prepared for the day that the US media and Congress, goaded on by the US automakers, decide to turn some quality issues into another "perfect storm" of a media circus.

Korean Cultural Nationalism: “Generation High Speed”, the Vancouver Olympics, Japanese Imperialism and the March 1 Movement

There's a new term being tossed around in Korea lately: "쾌속세대". It can be roughly translated "Generation High Speed" and is being used most directly to describe the Korean athletes who competed (and often won!) in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But, at least in the Jungang Daily, which I read, the term has quickly come to refer to the whole generation of Koreans born around the time of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and who are now perceived as being the future driving force behind Korea's emergence as a world beater.

What Korea-phile wouldn't be heartened at this Korean pride in the newest generation to come of age? It's great stuff… But lately, having read the book Ethnic Nationalism in Korea by Gi-Wook Shin (I reviewed it recently here.), I have also become more sensitive to the nationalism in Korean popular culture and an article on the front page of today's Korean version of the Jungang Daily caught my eye. 

The article is entitled "아우내 장터의 망국세대, 밴쿠버의 쾌속세데, 대한분국 100년의 드라마" ("The Republic of Korea's 100-Year Drama: From the Generation of Aunae Market that Lost the Country to Generation High Speed in Vancouver"). To understand the full meaning here will require some additional historical background.

140px-Yu_Gwan-sun Today, March 1, is Korean Independence Movement Day (or, a more direct translation of the Korean: "March 1 Holiday"), which commemorates the failed declaration of independence by Korean patriots against the Japanese in 1919. The year 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Japan's formal colonization of Korea, an event of national humiliation which Koreans refer to as having "lost the country". Aunae Market is a place near the city of Cheonan where an 18-year old rebel named Yu Gwan-sun led a demonstration in 1919, was arrested by the Japanese and died the next year in prison.

Eo-Ryeong Lee, a top editorial advisor at the Jungang Daily, writes today's cover article in the form of a message addressed directly to the Generation High Speed athletes who competed in the Vancouver Olympics. He waxes glorious about how the Koreans of Generation High Speed have brought pride to the country by winning so many events which had previously been dominated by Western athletes. He even says that if Yu Gwan-sun has been born in 1988, she'd have been Yun-ah Kim, the Korean figure-skater who earned gold in women's figureskating. And if Yun-ah Kim had been born in 1901, she'd be remembered as leading the demonstration at Aunae Market. Mr. Lee refers to all of them as national heroes. The implication here, of course, is that the Olympics are vicarious war and that winning gold medals brings a fitting conclusion to the process of restoring national pride which was lost 100 years ago. 

220px-KimMedal Westerners reading this may think I'm going too far, but the truth of of the observation can really only be grasped by those who've stood amongst Koreans as they watch their athletes compete. From the World Cup to the Olympics, every Korean victory brings a little more healing to the national humiliation of 1910.

And it's not just in sports. How many Americans get warm fuzzies thinking about how many McDonald's restaurants have been opened around the world? Do we want to sing the national anthem when Starbucks, Dell and Intel dominate foreign markets? On the other hand, every time Korean companies succeed overseas, Koreans are filled with happiness and pride. 

Understanding this reality goes a long way toward making sense of Korean nationalism. As you see Koreans studying in universities, working in companies and competing in sports around the world, remember that they are "Generation High Speed", sent by the nation to reclaim the national honor.


I might also point out one more interesting aspect. The Jungang Daily generally translates the main stories from the Korean paper to the English online version. But this one wasn't translated, even though it's on the front page! What could be the reason? Is it that Koreans don't want to reveal this side of themselves? I don't think so… I bet it's that they don't think non-Koreans would really find this interesting. 

But it's in understanding such aspects of Korean culture and history that we gain insights into what motivates Koreans and to find ways to work with Koreans in business and life effectively.