Here's an article from the December 20, 2010 issue of the Korea Times:
Chinese investor pulls out due to tension
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Some prospective foreign investors are increasingly becoming concerned about the escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula, with one Chinese investor already postponing plans to invest in a major property development project in Incheon.
The brouhaha over South Korean military’s live-fire artillery exercise Monday further increased the tension between the two Koreas. Last month North Korea opened fire on Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people ― two South Korean marines and two civilians.
Joseph Chiang, president of Lippo Incheon Development, said the situation between South and North Korea has affected the company’s marketing efforts for Midan City, a leisure and tourism-oriented project on Yeongjong Island.
“ (The situation) does affect our marketing efforts. One large investor in China made up their mind to invest, but due to this situation, they had to postpone action till further developments,’’ Chiang told The Korea Times.
Several Chinese investors had earlier expressed interest in investing in Midan City, which is part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone. The project is envisioned as an “all-in-one-city’’ with shopping malls, resort hotels, medical facilities, a golf village and entertainment facilities.
It seems the extensive international news coverage on North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last month has made a dent in South Korea’s image.
Steven S. Bammel, president of Korea Consulting & Translation Service, said the situation between the two Koreas is certainly affecting the nerves of foreign investors in South Korea.
“There’s no doubt that foreign investors looking at Korea hesitate when they see the situation. With so many other less risky but attractive investment destinations elsewhere in East Asia, Korea loses out. For example, after the Cheonan (navy boat sinking) incident in the spring, I had a client cancel a trip to Korea and other clients have asked me nervously what’s going on,’’ Bammel told The Korea Times.
However, for many expatriate businessmen already living in Seoul, the current tension on the Korean Peninsula may not make much of an impact in their daily lives and future business plans.
Bammel, who also runs the website KoreaBusinessCentral.com (KBC), said there has been surprisingly little concern shown by KBC members in the North Korean situation.
“I’d say the average member is thinking more about day-to-day business and life than about war; this mirrors the views in Korean society at large. I’ve been posting to a discussion on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War for several months now but it gets far fewer comments than a discussion about the challenges of foreigners working in Korean companies,’’ Bammel said.
A European businessman, who declined to be identified, admitted that his business partners from abroad have called to check on the current situation. “I assured him it was business as usual, but it’s difficult to say what North Korea will do,’’ the businessman said.
The timing of South Korea’s live-fire artillery exercise coincides with the start of the annual Christmas holidays for many expatriates in Seoul. This means foreign officials at the various chambers of commerce have left or are planning to leave for abroad this week. The Korea Times tried to contact officials at the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea and Australian Chamber of Commerce in Korea, but was told that they were out of the country.
Here's an account of the composition and first singing of the hymn to Kim Il-sung on his 60th birthday, as told and interpreted for Kim Jong-il's official biographers.
Apparently Kim Jong-il was in charge of arranging the birthday party for his Dad and as part of that, he commissioned lyricists and composers to spent fifteen months writing a song.
"Many songs were written but none of them appealed to Kim Jong-il."
"With the deadline approaching, Kim Jong-il visited the composers late at night…. Despite all those sacrifices by the Great Leader, '[the composers] had not yet produced a single song that would pray for [Kim Il-sung's] long life.' Kim Jong-il continued:"
"… This song must not be a mere ballad; it should be a hymn of the entire people expressing their ardent hopes and wishes."
"Bingo! The writers 'felt inspiration'…"
"Kim Jong-il pronounced the hymn 'flawless.'"
"[At the banquet], the performers stood to sing… but they could not, they were sobbing so hard."
"Both the conductor and the orchestra were similarly affected and everyone at the banquet gave way to tears. Dear Comrade Kim Jong-il… called in several other singers.. but the voices of these singers also faltered and the audience, who were standing up, began to join them, singing between their sobs. The whole house plunged into a whirlwind of excitement…. The sound of weeping could be heard everywhere."
Wow! I think I'd like to get a recording of that hymn…
I remember where I was when I first heard that the US Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded (in typing class, 11th grade – Lomalinda, Colombia), that the Ceausescu regime had fallen in Romania (backpacking – Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh) and about the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks (living room at home – Irving, Texas). In the modern history of Korea, the sinking of the Cheonan naval frigate will go down as a similar seminal moment. And where was I when it happened? In Yoido, Seoul, having beers after the inaugural meeting of the World FTA Forum.
I'm not sure about the Challenger or Romania events, but the 9/11 attacks have generated plenty of conspiracy theories about who really committed the act; likewise, all minds in Korea are not of one accord when it comes to what happened with the Cheonan. (Click here for some of the "alternate" theories.) And as with the US reaction to 9/11, the Korean government has taken a hard-line stand, not willing to let this incident go without a response. Still, the actual options available to the Korean government are surprisingly limited. (Check out this article in the Korea Times.)
We've been discussing the incident over at Korea Business Central (Click here to visit the discussion; note that I was the first member to post an opinion that the North was likely behind the attack.) for the last couple months and it's interesting to see the comments from members at different points in time since the attack occurred. North Korea expert Marcus Noland was a guest of KBC in the Korea Business Central Series back in this interview in January; he also discussed the situation a week ago in this podcast.
The Cheonan sinking has opened up a raging public debate in Korea about what's to be done; it's also affected society deeply, such that many public events this spring were cancelled, including one here in Ansan. The banner in the photo above from mid-April says, "Considering the atmosphere in society caused by the naval vessel sinking, this year's Ansan International Street Arts Festival is cancelled. We ask for the wide understanding of the citizens." On the other hand, life in the South goes on as before; I can't think of anything that's actually changed in our daily routines (except for losing the arts festival, which I suspect the city wanted to cancel anyway).
I should point out that the effects of the incident have roiled the financial markets, leading to a spike in the exchange rate. This worked well for us when we transfered extra funds from the US last week to pay off a big chunk of our Korean apartment loan. Don Southerton has shared here about a silver lining of the Cheonan incident for the large Korean exporters, too.
The following are my opinions (guesses!) about the situation. It'll be interesting to come back later and see where I was right and wrong. Note that I accept the Korean government's position that the attack was perpetrated by North Korea, and not by the US, South Korea or anyone else.
A. The North Attacked the Cheonan To Reshuffle the Deck and Get a New Hand
With the way things were heading geopolitically, Kim Jong-Il just didn't have much to lose in the attack and sought to shake things up in the following areas.
The hardline policies of the government in Seoul were making things harder for the North and the only aboveboard way out was to humiliatingly accept the South Korean government's demands to shape up. By doing exactly the opposite of submission, Kim has signaled that the current offers on the table to him will (still) not work and thus changed the trajectory of discourse. By splitting the consensus of the other five nations in the six-party talks, he hopes to shift the framework and achieve better terms in future nuclear and aid negotiations.
Kim has used this event to rally his people around the flag and distract from the disaster of last year's currency crisis which brought on economic hardship. It also disrupts the public mood enough to introduce new lines of thought, such as those regarding the transfer of power to his son Jeong-Eun. Apparently these benefits more than offset the loss of economic revenue from shattering ties with the South, and are possibly supplemented by additional aid from China.
It is clear that Kim had thought through the next few moves, since the North's actions and statements following the incident appear to be following a script that is methodically shutting down all channels between the North and South.
By breaking the existing consensus, Kim hopes for new trends to emerge that are more in his favor. What those trends will eventually lead to, we can only wait and guess. But various interesting developments are underway.
B. China's Just Not That Interested in a Consensus
Based on the standards to which most countries are held, North Korea should have been put in its place long ago. But the implications of agreeing to the dastardliness of the Korean attack on the Cheonan are apparently more unpleasant to China than the embarrassment of looking so out of step with the international community on what happened and what should be done about it.
We are told that Kim Jong-Il, on his recent trip to China, insisted to the Chinese that the North didn't have anything to do with the Cheonan attack. But if China really does feel betrayed and lied to by the North, China's certainly not showing this and apparently there's more to the situation than meets the eye. I have to think the Chinese have some kind of understanding with the North about these types of incidents. In exchange for the North's role of keeping things unsettled in north-east Asia in ways that the Chinese approve of, China tolerates the pressure from the international community and makes sure the political system stays intact in the North.
It's hard to make sense of the thought processes there but it likely has something to do with the creeping influence of China in North Korea and China's possible objective of bringing the North much deeper into it's sphere of influence, as described in my post here.
C. South Koreans are NOT United in their Condemnation of the North
I was surprised that the Grand National Party of President Lee Myeong-Bak fared so poorly in last week's local elections, in spite of the praise it is getting internationally for its handling of the crisis. In the elections of 2007, the GNP won an overwhelming victory and interpreted that as a mandate to change the country's approach in a wide range of areas, including relations with North Korea and other nations.
Apparently that wasn't the case though; perhaps voters in 2007 were just frustrated with the incompetence, but not ideology, of the previous President Noh Moo-Hyun. Public frustration with the government's misunderstanding of its original election mandate has lead to a never-ending series of political confrontations by the opposition to try to obstruct the current government's efforts.
It turns out that a surprising number of South Koreans blame the current administration's hard line position for pushing the North into a corner and leaving them too few options (see Point A above). Many South Koreans see the need to indulge the North a lot more and not demand submission. So while the current administration has been fingering the North for the Cheonan incident, the opposition sees more merit in talking about why recent policy has make the North do such a thing, rather than discuss the obvious (that the North is a bankrupt, dysfunctional and evil state).
This led to accusations during the campaign by the GNP that the opposition is not adequately patriotic, but obviously, this tried-and-true political strategy is not carrying as much weight as expected.
D. The Cheonan Incident Will Be Gone from the News Very Soon
The Lee Myeong-Bak administration could blame false propaganda for the demonstrations in 2008 against the import of US beef (which was actually about other stuff, in particular, panic by the opposition that the new government seemed unstoppable in its rolling back of the previous ten years of more liberal policies).
But the latest election defeat is clearly a different matter. The government must have thought it had an election winner with its hardline position against the North. Considering that the opposition's views and political strategies carry more popular weight than the government had heretofore cared to recognize, I expect that the current administration will soften its line on a wide range of issues.
I bet grandstanding over the Cheonan incident will be gone from the news soon, the Sejong city move will take place as originally planned and the Four-Rivers project scaled back and, perhaps, forgotten.
I wouldn't be surprised though if the government gives ground on the above "public" issues but then redoubles efforts to pursue its agenda in economic and financial sectors, as those appear to be less controversial, but no less near and dear to the heart of the president.
President Lee's nickname is the "bulldozer". I expect that the heady days of the Lee Myeong-Bak administration's "bulldozing" approach to political change are over though; the next few years will involve a lot more middle-of-the-road consensus and less confrontation.
E. Six-Party Talks Will Get Underway Again Next Year Without a Climb Down by the North
The North won't apologize or admit fault but still the never-ending discussions about nuclear disarmament in the North will get underway again in the context of Six-Party Talks and the old cycle of bribing the North for promises that they only keep half-way will repeat itself yet again.
Considering China's apparent interests (See Point B above), there doesn't appear to be any other likely outcome.
There's a lot of talk in Korea about the way Korean history is being taught in Japan. The two countries don't usually see eye-to-eye about Japanese colonial rule of Korea between 1910 and 1945. Lately, the debate around whether or not Japan had an official presence on the Korean peninsula centuries ago has been in the news. And of course, there's the never-ending dispute about the island of Dokdo, which both countries claim as their own. Fortunately, Korea and Japan are both modern societies that operate under the rule of law. It's hard to imagine these disputes evolving into shooting wars; they'll probably just continue to fester for a long time.
But another historical debate has the potential to blow up into something bigger. I first learned about it while translating in 2006 for Dahn World, a Korean organization with a center right outside my office window here in Ansan (see photo) and whose motto is "Health, Smile and Peace". (Note: Dahn World has been in the US news lately for some less pleasant allegations, too (click here for details), though my purpose today is not to jump into that debate.)
Dahn World's affiliate, Gukhakwon (literal meaning: "Institute for the Study of the Country"), promotes Korean history from a Korean perspective and I translated a number of articles about their work to stop the Chinese distortion of Korean history in regard to the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. Apparently Chinese "scholars" are asserting that Gogureo was a Chinese clan, not Korean. And since the Gogyuryeo occupied areas of what is today North Korea, the implication is that today's North Koreans are a sort of "Lost Tribe of China".
At the time, I didn't really think much of it. Seemed like interesting reading, but what does it matter from a practical standpoint?
The Fate of Ceausescu?
According to conventional wisdom, the North Korean government faces two apparently bad options: 1) maintain a totalitarian grip and try to avoid social chaos while the economy crumbles or 2) open up to the outside and… unleash social chaos as the people see what a lie they've lived under for so long.
Perhaps Kim Jong-Il and his cronies are running out of time even on the first option. When I saw how the North Korean regime executed one of its own former lead bureaucrats last month, blaming him for the recent currency reform fiasco, it made me wonder just how long the very top of the command structure can avoid the wrath of the people. Apparently there are already riots in North Korea about the worsening economy. How close is the regime to losing control, which would lead to its overthrow and maybe even a bullet to the head of Kim Jong-Il?…. Are we looking at another Romania in 1989?
Surely the end is coming, but how this will happen is a more open-ended question than many people realize.
Marcus Noland's Interview on Korea Business Central Got Me Thinking
South Koreans generally expect that the North Korean economy will fall eventually and that when it does, the North and South will become a unified country again. This assumes that the North doesn't have any other options and that the South simply needs to wait. But what if there is another option?
If this is what China is working toward, it would explain why China continues to be relatively uncooperative in finding a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Further, there is a very large Korean-Chinese community in northern China and China is the closest thing North Korea has to a friend. Even as I write this, Kim Jong-Il is preparing to take the train (he's afraid to fly) to China with outstretched hands to see what goodies the Chinese will give him.
Apparently Noland isn't the only one with this opinion, nor is this opinion limited to outsiders. At lunch yesterday with my advisor at Hanyang University, Professor Seo explained that a lot of Chinese behavior should be interpreted in this context. Further, he asserted that what comes after North Korea goes under Chinese "protection" could lead to war as South Korea seeks to expel the Chinese.
Reunification Achieved… but of China, not Korea
Here's how China might take over North Korea:
As the North Korean economy crumbles and the government loses control, the North asks for help from "big brother" China, who comes in to restore order. If the Chinese just don't bother to leave after that, who's to tell them to get out? After all, the North Koreans can't run the country on their own and besides, they are really Chinese, descended from Goguryeo of old (but today called "Chosun"). With this outcome, China grabs a little more territory and the former North Korean leaders get to live out the rest of their days under Chinese protection without being held accountable for the atrocities they committed.
In some ways, this would bring the situation full circle… Throughout much of Korean history, Korea paid tribute to China. During the 20th century, the country went under Japanese domination. After 1945, North Korea passed into the Soviet sphere. So, if things turn out as described here, North Korea could find itself under Chinese control as a new "province of Chosun", nominally independent but in many ways like it had been in centuries past.
The Korean economy is improving thanks to the current Korean government's expansionary fiscal policy, which sets the administration up for good results in the June local elections.
The Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) will lead to increased economic activity in both the US and Korea.
The Obama administration is starting to say the right things about trade and passage of KORUS will ultimately depend on a big push by the White House.
In addition to being the largest bilateral free trade agreement negotiated by the US, KORUS is also important in terms of the template it offers for future free trade agreements.
It is unlikely that the US Congress will do anything on KORUS until after the US mid-term elections in November.
The main sticking points to passage of KORUS by the US Congress include trade terms for beef and automobiles. These will likely be dealt with through side agreements, rather than renegotiation of the main agreement text
Passage of KORUS is expected to benefit US automakers, citrus growers and various service industries, among others.
Topic #2 – Economic Engagement Between South and North Korea
North Korea is not taking up the Lee Myung-Bak government's "3,000 Proposal", which promises North Korea a per-capital income of $3,000/year within ten years if North Korea will denuclearize and improve its human rights record with South Korea. Therefore, economic engagement between North and South Korea has gone into reverse under the current administration.
The seminal case of sports diplomacy was "ping-pong diplomacy" which lead to China's opening to the United States in the 1970s.
Since then, Korea has been very successful in promoting diplomatic initiatives through sports, such as the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988, where Korea's efforts eventually led to the normalization of relations between the Soviet Union and South Korea in 1990.
Korean success in the recent Vancouver Winter Olympics positions Korea well to host a future Winter Olympics in Korea.
We hosted another installment of the Korea Business Interview Series at Korea Business Central a couple weeks ago. This time, our very own Tom Tucker discussed the North Korean economy with author and economist Marcus Noland.
Here's the link to the 29 minute podcast interview:
In addition, the discussion at Korea Business Central, along with the full transcript, can be found here:
Marcus' book can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.
The main points of the interview:
In response to economic collapse and state failure in the mid 1990s, the North Korean economy has moved from central planning to a very highly distorted market economy.
North Korea should be growing at a reasonable rate thanks to economic benefits from the surrounding countries. Its economic problems are self-imposed.
The state is currently trying to reinvigorate state institutions to regain control of market activities in the economy.
The government's recent currency reform was aimed to undercut the market by confiscating people's savings, which has destroyed the working capital of private entrepreneurs.
China functions as North Korea's ultimate guarantor both in economic and political respects but its efforts have not had a positive impact on North Korean behavior.
Unlike China and Vietnam under central planning, North Korea is an industrialized economy. Therefore, it is questionable whether the Chinese and Vietnamese models of economic reform would be effective in the North Korean context. Economic reform in North Korea could be more explosive politically than they were in China and Vietnam also. Thus, reform in North Korea is more difficult.
From a South Korean perspective, engagement with the North makes sense but the North Korean regime recognizes the threat they face from this and have been restrictive in what they allow South Korea to do.
It is unlikely that North Korea will have the same political regime in 10-20 years that it has now. But unification with the South is not a foregone conclusion as North Korea could still end up over the long term as a tributary state to China that remains independent from South Korea.
The solution to the North Korean nuclear issue will require convincing North Korea that they can achieve their goals without nuclear weapons. But it is almost impossible to envision a deal that is grand enough to convince the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event is being celebrated around the world as the symbolic beginning of the end of the Cold War. But to Koreans, the Cold War hasn't fully ended yet as the separation between the two Koreas at the DMZ (Korea's "Berlin Wall") is still (with notable exceptions!) as impenetrable as ever. Indeed, as noted in a previous post (Insight into How Little Anybody Really Knows about North Korea), the news that crosses the border from North to South is most notable for its absence.
Even in our neighborhood in Ansan, there are small reminders of wartime hostilities in the form of foxholes at Nojeok Hill. Here are two that I know of which are right beside well-travelled paths.
Long before Ansan was built as a new city (see previous post, The New City of Ansan), Nojeok Hill would have been near the sea. Today, of course, the shallow bay has been filled in for development and the ocean coastline is miles away.
I've often wondered when and why the foxholes were dug since they've been around as long as I've been climbing the hill here and never during that time have they served a purpose. It seems possible they originated during the Korean War itself but I'm not aware of any hostilities having taken place in this immediate area.
Instead, I suppose they were installed at some point later as a defense against a sea invasion by the North. Since the city of Ansan was developed from the beginning of the '80s, it seems safe to assume the latest this area could have served as a military line of defense would have been the 1960s and 1970s.
Though obsolete today, these neglected foxholes are a reminder of long conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Getting back to the connection with the Berlin Wall, today is the Korean newspapers' annual opportunity to discuss the parallels between the unification of East and West Germany and the as-yet unrealized unification of North and South Korea.
The lead editorial in today's Jungang Ilbo (Korean article: 베를린 장벽 붕괴 20주년의 교훈) covers the same information that I've ready many times about the possibility of future unification between North and South Korea. Here are the main points of the editorial, which reflect pretty much the standard position of the political class in Korea:
The fall of the North Korean regime could come suddenly and at any time. South Korea must study carefully the process of unification in Germany in order to be prepared.
E. German per-capita income in 1989 was 43% of that in the West but in spite of astronomical sums spent by the West, incomes in the East are still just 71%. Considering that North Korean per-capital income is barely 6% of that in the South, Korean unification cannot follow the same path taken by Germany; it would likely be most similar to the China/Hong Kong approach.
But when the opportunity comes, the South must pursue unification resolutely with vision. According to a Goldman Sachs report, a unified Korea governed under sound policies could reach a per-capita GDP level equivalent to France, Germany and Japan. There is nothing Koreans want more than to be able to boast of this achievement.
Other countries in the region may oppose the strength of a united Korea and the government must take advance steps to overcome these objections.
Even now, one of the main lessons to learn from the experience in Germany is that South Koreans need to provide humanitarian support and work to improve human rights in the North.
Take a close look at the following photo of Kim Jong-Il embracing the Chinese premier in Pyeongyang this week.
Considering that the border with North Korea is just a short drive from Seoul (indeed, I used to have a view of the mountains of North Korea from my desk while working at LG International Corp.), it's often hard to help people understand the extent of the world's ignorance about the communist country. Here's an excellent opportunity to explain.
It is assumed that Kim Jong-Il had a stroke last year but the only way anybody knows this is from indirect evidence, such as photos and video released by the North Korean government. Usually, these are undated and occasionally fabricated. (The most absurd recent example I can think of is where North Korea published a photo that a South Korean guy had put up of himself on his website but which the North Koreans insisted was a recent photo of Kim Jong-Il's son… It turns out the latest genuine photo available of the son is several years old and was determined to be him only after he returned from studying in disguise in Europe.)
Anyway, apparently what's interesting about the above photo to those who study North Korea is that is shows one finger of Kim Jong-Il's that won't extend, indicating a physical issue that has not healed from his stroke last year.
If matters this trivial and based on such small details are the focus of this kind of attention in South Korea (indeed, the photo was printed above the fold on the front page of the Jungang Ilbo newspaper this week), consider what this says about how much is really known about North Korea and the "Dear Leader".
After sending yesterday's post to my friend Dan, he replied, "As I suspected – It's quite a different story than the fear-mongering in the news [here in the US]". And that got me to thinking… Interpreting the situation in the North is just not so easy and I was worried that it could create the wrong impression. Thus, I replied again as follows today:
Yes, the media doesn’t catch the nuances. But it’s not hard to take a completely different perspective and still be right.
After all, the North Koreans did start a war 50 years ago that killed millions of people. And many pundits believe the US and N. Korea came perilously close to war in 1994. In the last couple months, North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb, shot off both long- and short-range rockets, kidnapped, tried and sentenced American journalists, gratuitously provoked conflict by sending ships into S. Korean waters, shut down a factory complex run by the South and a major source of foreign currency earnings, declared that they no longer recognize the armistice from the end of the Korean War and that they regard recent actions by the South as declarations of war…
Even if the North doesn’t start a war, if they get away with holding a nuclear bomb for long, the Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese will all go nuclear quickly and a new regional arms race will ensue… (which is why it is thought China won’t let the North have a bomb)…
It would be a brave mainstream journalist in the US to overlook all this and say that that North’s nonsense is just a charade.
A friend emailed me today asking for my opinion on the "real" climate in the South Korean community regarding North Korea. I had a little more to say than I expected when I first started replying. Here's what I wrote:
Nice to hear from you.
Koreans are so jaded by the antics from the North that not much goes beyond being a topic of conversion, and nothing the North does affects daily life at all… One leading line of thought says that that Kim Jong-Il is giving his military something to get excited about so that they will support his plans to hand power over to his third son at some point in the future. Also, they say the North had been really excited about Obama taking over and giving them some recognition and that they were insulted (even hurt) when he ignored them even while offering to talk to the Cubans, Iranians and others… By making such a racket, they hope to get back into discussions with the US and the recognition they crave. There seem to be strong indications that even if the US can’t keep Korea from rolling out the bomb, China is determined to keep it from happening. So since North Korea knows they can’t have the bomb, they are getting ready to deal…
So little is known about the North that it’s hard to know if the above conjecture is really right. There doesn’t seem to even be a photograph of Kim Jong-Il’s third son available which was taken within the last 15 years… Just this week the North released a photo they said was a recent photo of the third son… but amazingly, it turns out to be a photo that a South Korean guy had posted on his website last summer. It’s hard to comprehend how or why a regime like the North would do something so apparently asinine.
So, that’s my version of the story from the front line. J
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