Category: korea studies

Exploring Korean business, language and life from Ansan, Korea

Overview of My Ph.D. Research at Hanyang University into Self-Employment in the Korean Service Sector

The self-employment sector is often seen as a driver of innovation and economic growth where entrepreneurs incubate and develop new ideas into lucrative businesses. Indeed, virtually every company begins life through an entrepreneurial process and many are born within a framework of self-employment. However, not every self-employed business grows to become an economic powerhouse. In fact, most new companies fail within a few years. Most that continue longer remain small, providing no more than a livelihood for their owners, many of whom are also the main, or only, source of labor, and whose retirement from work signifies the end of the business.

Lucas and others have asserted that self-employment rates fall with economic growth as successful firms achieve economies of scale, allowing those firms to raise wages and hire workers out of the self-employment sector. In line with this, the Korean self-employment rate has fallen from nearly 70% in the 1960s to close to 25% today. However, 25% is still exceptionally high compared with other countries at a similar level of development. For example, the self-employment rate is well below 10% in the US and only slightly higher than 10% in Japan. Only three OECD countries (Turkey, Greece and Mexico) have higher self-employment rates than Korea.*

In Western countries, many express a desire to become self-employed and those in self-employment report higher life satisfaction than wage earners. However, Korean self-employed are characterized not by an awareness of the opportunities they see in their businesses, but in a sense of despair at the lack of alternatives. The self-employed in Korea are concentrated in a few service businesses (e.g. food service, personal and goods transportation, personal services, retail sales), and compared to wage earners, the self-employed suffer from higher household debt and work longer hours. On average, the self-employed are also older and have lower levels of education than wage earners.

A current academic and policy topic is whether the Korean self-employment rate is too high, and if so, why and what can be done to reduce it. Some research has concluded that the Korean self-employment rate should be somewhat lower and has linked high self-employment rates to lower economic growth. Various reasons have been suggested for the high Korean self-employment rate. These include jobless economic growth across the economy as a whole, particularly with a shortage of options for older workers; lack of a social safety net for the unemployed and retired; the combination of early retirement age for most career workers and the large cash severance packages they receive upon retirement and the proliferation of franchising in recent years.

Much self-employment-focused public policy in Korea (what there is of it) is directed at supporting so-called “small merchants” through business consulting, market protection and financial support. The Korean term for small merchants (소상공인) is even defined in laws and regulations supporting them, with this definition of small merchants largely, but not fully, overlapping with the “weak self-employment” definition I propose in my research (which is described below).

Another relevant issue is lagging development of the Korean service sector as a whole. The service sector encompasses most economic activity not part of the manufacturing, agriculture and public sectors. It includes everything from restaurants and retail outlets, to medical, legal and transportation services. The service sector in Korea makes up nearly 70% of total Korean employment and over 80% of self-employed work in the service sector. However, productivity in the Korean service sector is strikingly low. Average service-sector per capita productivity in OECD countries is around 92% that of manufacturing, but in Korea, per capita productivity in services barely exceeds 40% of the level in manufacturing. In certain service industries (especially those with high self-employment rates), productivity levels languish below 25% of the manufacturing average. Furthermore, even from this low base, productivity increases in key service businesses are not keeping up with productivity growth in manufacturing.

I am investigating several research questions related to the Korean service and self-employment sectors. If self-employment is linked to entrepreneurship as a a driver of economic development, why are the high levels of self-employment in Korea not being celebrated? What are some links between high self-employment rates and low service sector productivity. If Korean self-employment levels are in fact too high, is public policy supporting self-employment contributing to the national economy overall or is it undermining development? What meaningful measures can be taken to improve the Korean service sector in the context of self-employment, as well as the lives of Koreans working in the self-employment sector.

A first step in answering these questions is understanding the heterogeneous reality within the self-employment sector. I identify three types of self-employed, each of which exhibits unique characteristics, entrepreneurial motivations and economic functions. The first type is the traditional entrepreneur, someone who invests and innovates to build a business that provides returns to its investors and promotes economic growth through higher productivity and employment. A second type of self-employed is someone I refer to as a “professional-type”. A professional self-employed is a person with in-demand, high personal-capital skills offering a professional service who could find a good wage job in his or her specialty but instead has chosen to work independently to earn more, enjoy better working conditions (such as working from home or while travelling), or to just have more control over his or her work schedule and processes. The professional self-employed fills critical needs in the market and is rewarded well for the value he or she creates. Finally, the third type of entrepreneur is someone without unique skills who becomes self-employed as a way to earn a living, in many cases, due to being unable to find a job. The so-called “weak-type” self-employed does not innovate or successfully grow the company but uses the business mainly as a means of subsistence. Motivation for self-employment is commonly explained by the “push-pull” hypothesis. Under this hypothesis, some become self-employed by being “pushed” into it due to lack of alternatives (the weak self-employed), and others join the self-employment sector by being “pulled” by the opportunities they see (the entrepreneur and professional self-employed).

My research focuses on these weak self-employed in the Korean service sector. I am not so much concerned with the dynamics of their plight, but rather with the negative impact their presence may have on development of the Korean service sector. To focus my analysis effectively, I have defined a new concept, which I refer to as “self-employment congestion” and a new metric called the “self-employment congestion rate”. In contrast to the self-employment rate, which measures the proportion of non-wage earners in the labor force (and thus covers all three types of self-employed), the self-employment congestion rate attempts to capture just the proportion of weak self-employed in the labor force. Weak self-employed are defined (in currently updated form; we used a slightly different definition in 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017)) as non-wage earners with reported earnings less than the average reported earnings of all workers across the entire economy (both wage earners and non-wage earners) in the respective year and who do not report having any paid employees. This definition includes self-employed working with unpaid family workers, as well as the unpaid family workers themselves.

I received inspiration for the concept of self-employment congestion from recent research published by the OECD (McGowan, Müge Adalet and Dan Andrews & Valentine Millet (2017), “The Walking Dead? Zombie Firms and Productivity Performance in OECD Countries,” Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1372, OECD). This paper investigates the negative effects of so-called zombie firms on the economic performance of non-zombie firms. Zombie firms are defined as non-competitive companies kept alive by bank forbearance and other support measures provided to avoid the unemployment that would result from closing such zombie firms. McGowan, et al. defines “zombie congestion” as the proportion of total capital tied up in zombie firms in a respective industry.

Applying a similar logic, my research asserts that weak self-employed remain in self-employment even at low income levels due to lack of alternatives. This is in spite of the fact that, from an overall economic standpoint, it would be better if they were in wage positions or out of the employment market altogether. In 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017), we attempt to demonstrate that high self-employment congestion in a particular service business has a negative effect both on the earnings of the weak self-employed themselves and on other participants in the same business. Under McGowan, et al., zombie congestion assumes an unnatural supply of funding, which drives up wages and thus, maintains the demand for labor at an unnatural level. On the other hand, under the concept of self-employment congestion, an unnatural surplus of labor pushes down the return on labor, leading to an unnatural degree of competition, thus reducing overall ROI in the market, and as a result, reduces innovation and drags down economic development in the Korean service sector.

In 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017), we demonstrated that self-employment congestion has a negative impact on the earnings of self-employed people working in service businesses. This would seem to be a self-evident and unremarkable finding. However, we also demonstrated that self-employment congestion has a negative impact on the earnings of wage earners working in service businesses with high levels of self-employment congestion (though not in businesses with low levels of self-employment congestion). In addition, we demonstrated that the negative effect of self-employment congestion in low self-employment congestion businesses is focused on lower earning self-employed persons, but that the negative effects of self-employment congestion in high self-employment congestion businesses weigh more heavily on higher earning self-employed businesses, and especially on the very highest earning group.

This last conclusion implies a lack of differentiation (and by extension, ability to innovate) in high self-employment congestion service businesses because high levels of self-employment congestion should not otherwise have such a negative effect under effective quality differentiation. The reasoning being that if providers were able to differentiate effectively at higher quality levels, then regardless of the congestion at the bottom of the market, buyers would simply buy from higher quality providers. However, without differentiation, increased congestion results in higher market encroachment on those with more market share (i.e. the more successful ones). This implies that price competition is the main operator in these service businesses (mainly businesses with low barriers to entry and relatively little opportunity for innovation), preventing even successful market participants from breaking free of the self-employment congestion headwinds and achieving economies of scale.

Our analysis indicates that the effects of self-employment congestion are not just limited to the weak self-employment sector itself and that self-employment congestion has broader negative effects, causing difficulties to both wage earners and more successful self-employed (entrepreneur and professional types), leaving open the possibility that high levels of weak self-employment may be a factor holding back development of the Korean service sector as a whole. This conclusion calls into question the wisdom of government efforts to promote self-employment in Korea, suggesting that stronger efforts to guide weak self-employed into wage earning, unemployment or retirement could free up resources to positively contribute to development of the Korean service sector.

Notably, running the same set of analyses using the self-employment rate (rather than the self-employment congestion rate) does not produce significant results. Therefore, the fact that these results were achieved using self-employment congestion rates, but that the results were not replicated with self-employment rates, strongly supports the concept of important heterogeneity in the Korean self-employment sector, and that efforts to study self-employment should take into account these different types of self-employed (entrepreneurial, professional and weak) in order to achieve more meaningful conclusions about the sector as a whole.

At this point, I see several potential pathways for further research. I would like to investigate the channels through which self-employment congestion negatively impacts the economic results and activities of non-weak self-employed and wage earners. I would also like to further reinforce the concepts presented here by finding other impact channels and comparing results of self-employment congestion with self-employment rate-based analyses using a wider range of data, variables and analytical methods, as well as data from other countries. It would also be interesting to look at the factors promoting higher self-employment congestion, potentially including franchising and employment market dysfunction. These conclusions could then be applied to policy recommendations that productively inform government policy toward the self-employed in Korea and elsewhere.

* This overview is largely based on 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017), “자영업 혼잡의 경제적 영향에 대한 분석: 서비스부분 자영업자와 임금근로자의 소득에 미치는 영향을 중심으로,” 산업혁신연구, 제33권, 제4호, pp. 145-174. See 스티븐 밤멜ㆍ서환주 (2017) for detailed citations. While the underlying research effort is mainly mine, the paper was a joint effort with Hwan-Joo Seo, my advisor in the Ph.D. program at Hanyang University, ERICA Campus in Ansan, Korea.

My Response to HS Yoon’s Comments on the Sewol Tragedy in Today’s “Last Three Weeks in Korea” Newsletter

HS,

 
But do you really not understand why Koreans are demanding answers from the government over the Sewol tragedy? If you object to the government protests like that, your readers who don't have a full understanding of the situation will think Korea is a nation of lawless and irrational street demonstrators and "impure elements."
 
You suggest people should be protesting at the offices of Chonghaejin. But what good would that do? There's nobody there, since the state's already chasing those people down and throwing them in jail as fast as it can. Who would defend scum like the ferry captain, the crazy cult leader who runs the organization (and was already investigated in connection with a mass murder many years ago) or any of the other members of the greedy company?
 
But HS, are those crooks solely responsible for the tragedy? The world will always have folks who don't give a damn for the lives of others; we don't just sit around and let them kill people though. The government is responsible for safety oversight and rescue operations.
 
I didn't need the Hangyoreh to point it out for me to sense that President Park's public association of the ferry captain with the word "murder" just a few days after the event was very un-president-like. I believe murder requires a deliberate intent to kill but if President Park can expand the meaning to gross negligence, then let's ask how many other murderers there are.
 
How about the Coast Guard that showed up on scene unprepared and did virtually nothing? They could have entered the boat themselves and rescued the passengers! Is that not gross negligence? The Coast Guard won't release all the video footage of the time immediately after the sinking began. They've obviously got stuff to hide. Then there's the Coast Guard control tower on Jindo that didn't bother to check in at all with the boat passing by and where employees were later found to be destroying evidence.
 
P1020954Would the boat have even capsized in the first place if corrupt government officials had not been allowing it to operate far in excess of legal weight limits?
 
If the lifeboats had deployed, the passengers would have been evacuated and saved. What officials turned a blind eye to the corrupt safety inspections that lead to broken safety equipment?
 
The government outsourced the rescue to a private salvage company called Undine that was more interested in its own commercial privilege than rescuing passengers. How else do you explain it taking nearly a week to even enter the damn ferry? No litany of excuses about how cold or fast or muddy the water was will convince me that all the resources of the country were focused on the rescue in a timely fashion.
 
I'd also like to know how the authorities could herd the families of the missing into a gymnasium in Jindo and leave them there out in the open for days, while letting the media sit up in the balcony filming them 24 hours a day. I have asked myself what that would be like had I just suffered the loss of a child. 
 
After such tragic loss, followed by humiliation day after day, what do you really expect from the families of the deceased? My wife visited an acquaintance a few days ago who lost her daughter in the tragedy and is now in the hospital, a nervous wreck. Her daughter's body was found with fingernails all torn up from trying to claw her way out of the sinking tomb. I can't think of anything sadder.
 
President Park showed up in Jindo the day after the event to say she'd do everything she could. Maybe she did; I don't know. But from what I've read, she didn't really know what was going on for almost ten hours after the sinking started! Someone asked me recently if I thought President Park had done a good job dealing with the crisis. As an American, I'm not sure we'd expect more from our president in a situation like that (which is probably why President Bush weathered the Hurricane Katrina disaster as well as he did) but Koreans clearly do, especially when the system failed at so many levels and this resulted in such loss of life.
 
At this point, I'm not sure what another apology from the President would do, but don't you think a proper accounting of the government's responsibility in the tragedy is in order? Can we let the forces on the Right just keep saying it's all the result of the actions of a few? 
 
BTW, I don't know why you say the Left is "impure"; then the Right is "pure"? Some of my dearest friends and associates in Korea are on the Left and I swear, they are good people.

 
Of course, the opposition will try to topple the current administration; that's their job! I'm not saying they are right or wrong, but do you think they have forgotten their (perhaps biased… perhaps not) memories of the years of JH Park, DW Chun and TW Roh? Or the actual overthrow for awhile of MH Noh and then his destruction after leaving office?
 
For whatever reason, politics is a battle and it's election time. 
 
I don't think anyone who aspires to be president of a nation has any right to feel indignant about criticism in any form. The best way for President Park to overcome the challenge is not to portray herself as a victim of harrassment and/or hit back at the protesters but to properly do her job to investigate and clean up the system, if she can. It seems to me that the pressure needs to be kept up, especially as President Park's response has been so tepid and her determination to see it through in doubt.

 
Steven

Some Thoughts from Ansan on the Sewol Sinking Five Days Into the Tragedy

President Park just declared Ansan a disaster zone in order to make the city eligible for various federal assistance. I'm sure the mood is amplified for me because I'm so close to ground zero in terms of the school that the missing kids attended, but it feels in Korea just like it did after 9/11 in the US. 
 
The government's cancelled all public festivals (yeah, no Street Arts or Tulip festivals in Ansan this year), election campaigning is forbidden and the news keeps talking about the national trauma that's being suffered by the citizenry (not to mention the relatives of the missing, or of the missing themselves, or their friends who were rescued and are now wracked with guilt). Commentators on the left and right are going on and on about the rotten core of Korean society. 
 
Huh
The ban on electioneering has at least gotten one Ansan politician I know to shut up a bit after having posted multiple SNS and text messages last Wednesday on how horrible he felt about what happened and how he was heading straight down to the accident site. I'm not sure why, especially since he's not an office-holder; not even a candidate. He's a "preliminary candidate" for mayor. His sign says he'll be a mayor who is good at working; apparently he can't work quietly though. According to the news, they've finally chased out these scumbags from Jindo who were posing for photos and sharing in the free food brought in by real volunteers for the relatives of the missing. Way to go, Mr. Soong Huh!
 
Meanwhile, the government keeps throwing hundreds of rescuers, divers and ships into the mix and then talking about how hard it is to get into the sunken vessel. So here we are, five days into it, and they still can't find 80% of the kids even though they know exactly where they are.
 
I've got a detective friend here in Ansan who investigates deaths in the district where the school's located. He's gone off the grid and is surely down there at Jindo IDing bodies. He told me that after 20 years of this, he doesn't get any emotional feelings from his work anymore, but I bet this time is different.
 
Cauvery went to his first funeral a couple nights ago. He and Treasure don't seem too affected by the disaster, but who really knows, right? They have other friends with missing older brothers and sisters too so there should be more funerals in the schedule soon. As an aside, Treasure tells me the teachers at school are having an easier time than usual keeping the classes under control.
 
Lots of people I know are letting me know know they're praying for the situation. One competent dive team on the first day would have been worth more than all the prayer in the world though. Why does nobody ever point out the obvious and/or hold the pious accountable for the ridiculous claims they make about the power of speaking to the ether? To post this kind of opinion on my Facebook discussion where all the prayer comments have been posted would be considered insensitive and offensive. Thus, I'm hiding this over here on my blog that few of them are likely to read (if you did use the "p" word and then make it this far, sorry…) It seems at least as insulting to the deceased to bring up something as glib as prayer at a time as serious as this. This irritates me, big time, especially on Easter… you know, the day of resurrection and other superhero stories like that. 
 
For those who are curious, here's the address of the school: 426 Gojan-dong Danwon-gu, Ansan-si, Gyeonggi-do. (And here's the website: https://danwon.hs.kr/.)
 
I'm told that the authorities have closed off Danwon High School to anyone but students; I guess so many well-wishers from around the country were coming to express their condolences and lay flowers that it just became too much. The focus for related events in Ansan seems to have moved to Hwarang park, which is quite near Danwon High, and there's tons of room there, so it's a suitable place. As far as I know, evening candlelight vigils are being held there, starting around 8pm each day. 
 
For those wishing to visit, here's a map. The closest subway stop to the park is Choji station.
2014-04-19_21-12-17
 
Myunghee reports that business at Only Coffee is way down since the sinking.

Book Review: Dominion from Sea to Sea by Bruce Cumings

2014-02-14_23-00-48I enjoyed Dominion from Sea to Sea, though I would have liked to find more specifically Asia/Korea historical content. This is just a personal preference though and knowing US history interpreted through a Pacific lens is good.
I can’t say my reading level is as advanced as Cumings’ writing skills in parts. He’s the master of the literature review, and my eyes glazed over in sections like the intro and appendix as he discussed Schumpeter, Marx (two thinkers I’ve heard of) and others (many who I haven’t heard of).
My favorite parts were the sequential presentations of history, and especially when explaining about the movement of people over time. I was a bit surprised how nasty and cynical Cumings got attacking the major actors of Silicon Valley. It was fun to read though, and Seattle’s now tops on my list of places I’d like to move to in the US (if I can get out of Texas; hate that place, but it’s where the roots are…)
There was one thing in the book that really did stand out as a question mark. Cumings writes with such skill most of the time about complicated concepts, that I take it as policy to respect his intellect and not ask too many questions or advocate alternative opinions. (He’d be a scary person to disagree with in person!)
However, when he got to one section that I know a bit about, I rather felt he got petty. While recounting his visit to US military bases in Korea, he didn’t sound any more profound than the average expat two weeks into his Korea experience. At one point, he referred to the “sad state of Korean-American relations”, and I couldn’t figure out where that came from, as well as “In the camp towns around American basis in Korea the atmosphere is often malevolent, with an air of resentment and cold stares”. Cold stares? Well, Koreans don’t generally smile at strangers anyway…. but no. And it was certainly not in context with the rest of the paragraph. So it did make me wonder if Cumings is just a bit too dramatic thoughout, even on the parts I can’t speak about with confidence.
Anyway, I generally feel embarrassed about my own writing after reading Cumings. He must have a photographic memory with perfect recall; I can’t imagine how he puts so much solid information into such a compact space, and then wraps in such masterfully crafted prose.
I probably won’t read this one a second time but it now joins my collection on the bookshelf of valuable literature for future reference back.

Reflections on Face and What It Really Means for Life and Business in Korea

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

One of the appeals of the Far East to many Westerners is the mysteriousness of these cultures that we are told have been around for so long and developed independently of Western influences. With all the yin-yang thinking, concepts of body centers of energy in martial arts and Oriental medicine (e.g. acupuncture) and other "deep" ways of seeing things, can we be anything less than awed?

A concept that gets bandied about a lot when describing E. Asian culture is "face" and it is sometimes described as an especially important aspect of life in Asia that should be respected at all cost. However, I've had my doubts that the Western conception of face is more than an approximation of the true meaning of it in Asia or that it's any different than a universal desire not to be humiliated or insulted. (See previous blog post from 2011.)

This article explores the topic and attempts to identify nuances of face in Korea (and by extension, Korean business) that are overlooked in the common Western understanding.

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Some Definitions

My first encounter with "face" came just a month or two into my Korea experience back in 1994 when the Korean owner of my place of employment fought with my American boss in public and afterward was heard saying (in English), "I lost my face"… Notwithstanding that adding "my" to the sentence changes the nuance in English a bit, I recall wondering how he would have expressed this thought in Korean. It took me awhile to figure out what the Korean words and phrases are for face and its variants, so for the record, here they are:

  • face – 체면 (chaemyeon)

The word is derived from Chinese, with the first character meaning "body" and the second meaning "face, surface, side". The dictionary on Naver describes chaemyeon in Korean as "sense of one's duty or face that one presents to others". This is a little (but not much) different than "one's sense of honor or dignity", that I would say is probably the best way to represent the meaning of face in English. 

  • lose face – 체면을 잃다
  • save face – 체면이 서다
  • to be honorable – 체면이 있다
  • to be dishonorable – 체면이 없다

These are not words and phrases Koreans use all that often though and they are not standard terms you would normally hear when a Korean is expressing embarrassment, offense, anger, or even certain types of shame. It's also not the word a Korean would use when talking about how they feel after losing in a competition or negotiation. It might not even be the most appropriate term to use in the context of getting tricked or deceived, unless it involves some deeper personal disgrace.

On the other hand, Koreans might discuss chaemyeon when referring to information about themselves that they wouldn't want to share publicly if it would make others think less of them, or when wondering why someone else would behave in such an undignified way ("Have they no shame?").

So what's really different between Korean "face" and Western "honor"?

"Face" Seems to Be an Inexact Western Interpretation of Asian Chaemyeon

4016608384_40dc9403afThere's a dish in Korea called "donkas" (돈까스 in Korean and most often translated to English as "pork cutlet" – Photo of donkas at left used with permission from ZenKimchi.com). One thing that makes this meal interesting to me is that it's a Korean interpretation of a Japanese interpretation of a Western meal. It's popular enough in Korea to be a true Korean food (kind of like tacos are to Texans), but having originated elsewhere and been adapted to Japanese and then Korean tastes, it's not exactly what we'd expect from a pork steak dish back home.

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate how a concept can change when it moves from one culture through the filters of another.

In my 2011 article mentioned above, I suggested that the concept of saving face as we often understand it may have been the brainchild of a Westerner observing things about Asian culture that were hard to for him to understand. I've suspected that since Asians have been hearing Westerners talk about Asian face for so long, they've started to believe the rhetoric themselves and have come to see it as a uniquely Asian trait after all. 

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I recently had the opportunity to see what a Korean understanding of the Western concept of face might look like when reading the book 박근혜의 인생. I picked this book up because I thought it was going to be a biography of the current Korean president, but it turned out to just be some guy's hagiographic exposition on President Keun-Hye Park's wonderful traits as a leader. It's a crummy book. (I'm not saying she's a crummy leader, BTW.) But one spot that caught my attention was on page 193 where he quoted another book describing Park and then added his own explanation. The following is the original Korean passage and then my translation of it, and I added the red font for emphasis.

"굉장히 냉철하고 자기중심이 확고하다. 상황이 어려울 때 참모가 우왕좌왕해도 지도자는 자기중심을 잃으면 안 되는 법이다. 어떤 상왕에도 자기 페이스를 잃어버리지 않기 쉽지 않은데 이처럼 갖기 어려운 자질을 갖췄다."

– 진희정, 박근혜 사타일, 154쫒

어떤 상황에서도 자기 페이스를 잃어버리지 않는 그런 자질을 그녀가 가질 수 있게 된 또 다른 이유 중의 하나는 그녀는 최선의 노력과 지혜를 다한 사람은 하늘의 뜻을 겸허하게 받아들이고 초연할 수 있다는 사실에 대한 확신 때문일 것이다.

“She is extremely level-headed and firmly maintains her sense of balance. When things are difficult, and even if one’s staff can’t make up their minds, a leader must not lose her bearings. It’s easy to lose face in any situation, but she has this kind of rare character trait.”

– Geun-Hye Park’s Style (Hee-Jeong Jin), p. 154

Another of the reasons that she has the character trait of never losing face in any situation is that she is certain of the fact that people who exert their best efforts and act wisely can humbly accept the will of Heaven and rise above it.

I don't think the author ever used the Korean word chaemyeon in this book; but here, he quotes another Korean author using the Korean transliteration of the English word "face" and then uses it himself in the same context. Both authors seem to understand "losing face" when written with an English pronunciation as being the opposite of "calm, cool and collected", which is not quite the same as the way Westerners understand it. 

Sometimes Koreans use foreign words to express concepts that carry connotations not as easily expressed in Korean (other examples include "leader – 리더", "charisma – 카리스마" and "style – 스타일"). And in this case, it turns out that "face" can be another word Koreans, at least sometimes, choose to interpret from an outside perspective and not using Korean terminology.

This tells me that the concept of "face" is at least partially something Koreans are interested in because they've heard so much about it but that they don't feel entirely comfortable using chaemyeon to describe what they're thinking we mean by it. It also tells me that "face" and chaemyeon don't actually mean exactly the same thing, and apparently even the word "face" has different nuances for Westerners and Koreans.

Face is merely an approximation of chaemyeon, and not something particularly unique to Asia. In any culture, nobody anywhere likes to have their honor or dignity compromised.

So, if this is what face is, what's chaemyeon?

Face in Korea is Not Uniquely Korean, But It is Manifested in Uniquely Korean Ways

I've recently been watching a Korean TV series on KBS called Eun-hee. It's the fictional story of several families trying to come to terms with events that happened before and after the Korean War. These modern TV "dramas" (which is another English word used in Korean with an English pronunciation but slightly different meaning) set in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are particularly interesting to me. Perhaps it's because I didn't experience this Korean history directly and shows like this let me see, not what it was really like back then, but what Koreans of today want to remember it was like during those years.

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Anyway, in a series of recent episodes, the good-for-nothing nephew of the owner of a tofu factory embezzles money from the company and tries to blame it on Eun-hee, the lead character of the show. Amid rampant rumors among the factory staff, it gradually comes to light who the real perpetrator is and the characters are left figuring out how to deal with the situation.

Several options are considered and attempted. Since the guilty party is the nephew of the president, it would really reflect badly on the good owner to announce the truth to the factory workers, but the president can't let the issue slide either (that would look bad too). Somebody has to take the fall for the crime and Eun-hee is about to get fired. However, before this happens, a friend of Eun-hee borrows money and gives it to the company management saying he'll take responsibility for the crime, and then quit his job. Eventually, another friend of Eun-hee's sells his camera equipment to get some money, which he then takes to the nephew, telling him to return it to his aunt (the owner), explain it was an oversight and apologize for an honest mistake. This is what ends up happening.

We see the Asian concept of "face" in various forms here. To expose the nephew would have shamed the owner because it was her relative. But to leave the crime unpunished would have also called into question the owner's commitment to a clean work environment. On the other hand, to punish Eun-hee would have been terribly unfair, so her friends looked for options — and eventually found one — to save everyone's chaemyeon.

Somehow, in a Western context, I think we would find this situation pitiful. If the owner of the company can't keep her nephew in check, she should kick him out. Letting someone else take the fall for it, though not unheard of in a Western context (called "scapegoating"), is simply shameful. I don't think a Westerner would be terribly impressed by the efforts of the friends either to take false responsibility themselves. 

But in a Korean setting, this is a story of heroism and evokes sympathy for just about everyone (except the nephew). I would say this cuts to the essence of what "face" really is in Korea. It's not that Koreans have a unique sense of honor, it's that they prioritize it above some other values (an honest reckoning of wrong or squeezing the last advantage out of a situation, for instance) to avoid situations that would bring unpleasantness out into the open.

6a011279704a5b28a4014e89940928970d-800wiI'll point out that this Asian concept of face reminds me of the doctrine of atonement in Christian theology, where someone's got to take the punishment for sin, and it doesn't necessarily have to be the person who did the crime. This came to mind several years ago when former Korean President Moo-Hyeon Roh committed suicide during a corruption investigation. (Photo at right is the site of President Roh's death and his memorial from my photo weblog.) He doesn't appear to have been completely clean, but he must have judged that his death would a) atone for whatever errors were committed, both for himself and for others, b) bring the investigation to an end for everyone involved, and c) allow those who had previously worked with him to move on in their political careers without the baggage of the scandal. As for a), his political enemies still see him as seriously flawed, but his decision was successful in terms of b) and c), especially as his former confidante Jae-In Moon made a respectable run for the presidency last year.

Applying the Concepts of Face and Chaemyeon to Life and Business in Korea

I have found (from unhappy experience, sometimes) that showing unpleasant emotions in business in Korea can be unexpectedly counterproductive. It can be tempting to cross the line of civility since, for example, a Korean is more likely than a Westerner to stay on the line while being yelled at over the phone. Koreans will often appear to maintain their cool (and even a smile or laugh!) in an awkward situation, but this apparent calmness should not be mistaken for compliance or agreement. Verification of intent may require waiting for actions, rather than words.

Being aggressive with a smile rather than a frown, using extra words to avoid coming out and saying things directly, yielding on small points and even behaving in passive aggressive ways could all be more effective negotiating techniques in a Korean setting than a bulldozer approach. (Nevermind that "bulldozer" is the somewhat popular nickname given to some Koreans who've been successful in business, such as former Korean President Myung-Bak Lee (who was less successful with this approach in politics of late)).

Westerners doing business in Korea would be advised to handle awkward situations with a delicate hand and with as little direct confrontation as possible. It's not that wrong must be overlooked, but a solution that doesn't require people to admit error overtly can go a long way toward keeping important relationships going. Even if everyone knows what happened and the outcome is the same, the path toward that income in Korea is likely to have more bends and turns than it would in a similar situation in the West and if you stay cool, important relationships may just survive the turmoil.

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

Reflections on Studying for a Ph.D. at a Korean University

I was discussing with an associate about my studies at Hanyang University and he had some questions about the program. He first asked about my studies, including about how busy I am over vacation and whether the first year is taken up entirely by coursework.

"The studies are going fine; I'm working on a couple papers over the vacation, but I'm not exactly spending all my time on that. Yes, the first two years are coursework, followed by a "graduation exam" and then at least one paper in a journal in order to quality for writing the dissertation. The department has figured out that if students do those in sequence, they get stuck at the "paper in a journal" requirement and don't make it through to the dissertation, so the current approach is to push us to write something even while taking classes. My program is heavily weighted to students with full-time jobs, so the attrition rate has been high, with very few actual graduates."

From this, he wanted to know about the "paper in a journal" and what quality criteria is has to meet. He also asked about how the dissertation is assessed.

"I don't know exactly what the quality criteria are for the journal article, but there is a list of recognized English and Korean journals which are accepted by the university. I'm thinking it's a nationally managed list, but I'm not sure. As for the dissertation, it is assessed by a committee of five professors, which includes my advisor; I think he chooses the other four (At least, when I did the masters thesis and there were three on the committee, I found out after I'd already chosen the committee that my advisor was supposed to have had that right; he wasn't too happy about me having made the selections.). I'm almost certain there aren't external examiners though. There is a defense but I'm not sure how that goes either. At the masters level, the defense was definitely a kids-glove treatment, but we're led to believe that the Ph.D. may be different."

Discussion about the Korean Media’s Inclination to Over-Represent the International Presence in Korea

I had an interesting email exchange this week with an acquaintance in academia about the role of foreigners in leadership positions in Korea. I made the following comment:

Are there really any long-term successful cases [of foreigners in leadership positions in Korea] that are more than objects of curiosity? We've already spoken of Charm Lee; it seems the incoming Korean president has her own pet foreigner, Dr. John Linton, who's going to head up some integration department or something, I believe. But Dr. Linton (if I recall correctly) grew up in Korea as the son of American missionaries, so how typical can he be considered? I heard it through the grapevine that Charm Lee ended up feeling somewhat isolated in his position there at Tourism Korea…. I suppose there might be other cases that don't hit the news, but I doubt if many/any since the Korean media is digging so hard to find whatever foreign faces they can put on TV and the newspaper….

My acquaintance commented on my choice of words, such as "objects of curiosity" and "pet foreigner", and he asked me if could back up my statement about how the Korean media is digging to find foreign faces they can put on TV and the print media.. To which I responded as follows:

I don't have any data per se about the media's inclination to over-represent the international presence in Korea, but based on living here, it's pretty obvious. 

How else do you think I got on TV, in magazines, the newspaper over the last couple years? It's certainly not because I had anything particularly interesting to share other than my experience and perspective as a foreigner.

There's a morning show that translates to "Human Theater"; it's a weekly series of cute five-day documentaries about the lives of ordinary people in Korea with special stories to share… At least half the time, there's an international element to it. We have this show on after breakfast at our house most weekdays…

The same few people pop up in the media all the time… 

I used to read the Chungang Ilbo newspaper (owned by Samsung) and their Saturday edition tends to include these stories a lot… 

I was at a conference on North Korea a couple years ago and attended with another Westerner. There were a couple hundred Koreans in the room, too. Guess who's photos showed up on the front page of the newspaper the next day, with the caption "Foreign Researchers"?…. (To be fair, I recall there were two other Westerners in the room who didn't get into the paper though…)

They have an annual event here that's a Korean copy of TED called TECH+; they were practically begging foreigners to sit in the audience by giving tickets away a couple years ago… 

This fact has actually been a bit of a disappointment for me on KBC; One of my goals was to increase my network in Korea; problem is that within six months I was connected to everybody and the same people show up at all the expat events… There's very little additional networking available at this point since the community is so small…
It can't be much different here than anywhere else in Asia…

A Comparative Study of Organizational Commitment in Korea, China and the US

An article published in Korea (조직몰입 선행변수의 효과에 대한 국가 간 비교연구: 한국, 미국, 중국을 중심으로 – 심원술, 김진희) a few years ago studied the factors leading to organizational commitment in companies of Korea, China and the US. 

To me, the most interesting point of the article was its conclusion that the effect of horizontal relationships of workers on the commitment of those workers to their organizations was about the same in all three countries but that the authors gave different reasons for each.

  • Korea is a group-oriented culture, but workers find that relationships with coworkers are important because of the trend in Korea toward a more individual outlook on life, as well as the need to get work done through informal channels in an office environment where work roles are ambiguous. Korea was the only country of the three to show that vertical relationships between workers were also an important influence on organizational commitment, which would reflect the strongly hierarchical corporate and social structure of Korea.
  • China is also a group-oriented culture, but as it is a socialist society, corporate hierarchies are relatively flat and lower-level workers wield a relatively large amount of authority when compared with the authority of workers under a capitalistic system, in terms of decision-making and goal setting. Therefore, horizontal relationships are important in China.
  • Of course, US workers are described as being more individualistic than those in either Korea or Japan due to American ideology and the US capitalist economic tradition, and so, because of having independence and high job mobility, relationships with coworkers are important to the American worker, both in one's current job and in furthering one's career going forward. 

I'm not sure these conclusions are all warranted just from the data in the paper, but it is important to note that Asians in general (and Korean, in particular) see large social differences between themselves and other countries in Asia and don't think of themselves as just "one more Asian country".

Korean Views on Japanese Society and Economy are Changing

Japan is a popular topic of discussion among Koreans. The themes used to focus mainly on a) how bad the Japanese were during their 34-year colonization of Korea and b) how advanced they are and that it would really be nice to catch up.

Today, the tone is much different.

Koreans still talk about how much they resent the Japanese colonization, but now that Korea's on a roll with the success of its economy and popularity of Korean culture throughout Asia (and even in Japan), and as Japan's still working through its 20-year funk, Koreans are gaining quite a bit of confidence in their analysis of Japanese society and economy and where it's all going.

9-21-2012 12-34-35 AMI remember seeing the Korean book on the right at the bookstore recently denying that the Japanese "samurai" concept is anything more than a modern myth (사무라이정신은 거짓! – The Samurai Spirit is a Lie!). A recent study by Citigroup estimates that Korea will have the 4th highest per-capita GDP in the world in about forty years (and far higher than Japan). I often hear about how the Japanese are "becoming soft" and how they've lost their motivation to succeed, as exemplified by the opinion of one Korean I heard say that Korean young people and Japanese young people don't have a lot to talk about because Japanese young people are more concerned about part-time job working conditions than they are about developing their careers. I even came across some discussion online recently about some Western fortune teller who predicted that Japan will become a Korean colony within the next thirty years; of course, this prediction was met with a lot of interest and enthusiasm by Koreans.

Recent Korean opinions about the Dokdo Island issue are pretty uniform; I have yet to find a single Korean who can express with any sympathy the Japanese argument for why the islands historically belong to Japan. The closest I've heard is the position of a professor at Hanyang University saying that because so much of Korean culture and so many Koreans (commoners, royals and artisans) emigrated to Japan over the past one or two thousand years or so, Japanese see Korea as their long-lost half and so they can't understand why Koreans behave with such independence if, in reality, they're the same people. Thus, on this argument, Japanese claims on Dokdo boil down to the idea that it doesn't really matter whether Dokdo was a recognized Korean territory long ago or whether the Japanese rightly claimed it in the late 1900s; the Japanese are just claiming what's been theirs all along.

One point I can't quite get a clear viewpoint on is whether Japan is still ahead of Korea or not. According to a recent article mentioned on Korea Business Central, the Korean standard of living is on par with that of Japan. But more commonly I hear that the Japanese economy is 4-5 times larger than the Korean one and that Korea is still decades away from catching up on a per-capita GDP basis.

In a recent conversation, the opinion came up that Japan is turning inward, as Korea is becoming more international (and in particular, more like the US, which is an assertion I hear quite a bit). When I pointed out that, from what I've heard, Tokyo is a lot more cosmopolitan than Seoul, I was told that this is only a surface thing and that the Japanese maintain a distance between themselves and anything foreign… or else they find a way to make that foreign thing Japanese. I tend to think a good number of non-Koreans would say the same things about Korea, but my point here is to draw the distinction between the Korean view of themselves and their view of Japan.

Comparing Old and New Maps of the Ansan Area

I found this map section in a map of the Seoul area over at the Korean War Project. It shows Ansan from around 1950.

Old Ansan

Here's what the identical map section looks like today in Google Maps:

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Note how many of the location names in the map above correspond to neighborhorhoods in the new map (notwithstanding some spelling differences.) The comparison also shows just how much of the sea has been filled in to make room for the city today.

For reference, the subway line in the current map follows the rail line shown in the old map that was built during the Japanese colonial period to connect Incheon with Suweon. Both lines are shown in red in the comparison map below and some of that old line still remains along the tracks of the subway. 

Old Ansan

For more about the modern development of Ansan.