Monthly Archive: May 2010
The GyeongGi Province Experience: GAFIC, Hyeongok, Dongtan and the Smith Company Battle Site of July 5, 1950
A few weeks back, I visited General Secretary Yong-Moon Kim, who runs the GyeongGi Province Association of Foreign Invested Companies (GAFIC), to learn more about what the association does and I reported about it (as well as another related meeting a couple weeks later in Suweon) on a post to this weblog.
GAFIC is located in southern GyeongGi Province, officially in Pyeongtaek City, but actually about five miles west of the city within the Hyeongok Industrial Complex. It is dedicated to supporting the needs of foreign-invested companies in GyeongGi Province and I am a consulting committee member to the organization.
Hyeongok Industrial Complex
Hyeongok has sites reserved for foreign-invested companies and, according to materials published by GyeongGi Province, it focuses on companies manufacturing electronic parts, communications equipment non-metal mineral products and composite and chemical products. In the photo at right, the GAFIC office is at the "A" marker and the red line marks the outer border of the complex property. (Click here to see this map in Google Maps.)
Hyeongok is just one of many industrial areas in GyeongGi Province which have sites available to foreign-invested companies on preferential terms.(For more information, don't hesitate to contact me directly; as FDI advisor to the GyeongGi provincial government, I am available to assist non-Korean companies that need information about doing business in GyeongGi Province.)
Dongtan New City
As I left GAFIC, I followed the roads north north-east until I hit Route 1 near Dongtan. This is a brand new city going up just south of Suweon and the street layout below shows clearly the planning that went into its design. (Click here to see the map in Google maps.) I wrote a short post last year about Ansan, the city in GyeongGi Province where I live and which was one of the very first new planned cities in the Seoul area. Dongtan is being built on a similar concept.
Dongtan City is slated as a terminal point on the future GTX transportation system, which will make it possible to reach destinations across GyeongGi Province by high-speed underground rail within about 30 minutes' travel time from Dongtan. The above photo on the left was taken across Route 1 with Dongtan New City in the background. Note the construction underway in the foreground of the photo.
Smith Company Battle Site of July 5, 1950
Having connected up to Route 1 west of Dongtan, I headed south about a kilometer to reach the UN Forces Korean War First Engagement Memorial, just north of the city of Osan (and south of Dongtan), which marks the spot of Smith Company's defense on July 5, 1950 against the North Korean invasion of South Korea.
"What was about to unfold, as the Americans and the North Koreans rushed toward their initial meeting, was an American disaster of the first magnitude… On July 4, Smith took about 540 men, what was effectively an understrength batallion… a few miles north of Osan… They reached their positions about 3 A.M. on July 5." (p. 146)
"The tanks kept coming — followed by a long line of infantrymen and then an even more terrifying site, another twenty-five North Korean tanks… the lead of the enemy column, later estimated to be about six mile long… The Air Force didn't know where Task Force Smith was… (p. 147)
"…most of the battalion had been lost… It was a very bad beginning." (p. 148)
"July 1950 was one of the worst months in American military history…" (p. 150)
As I stood on the north edge of the memorial site, I looked out over the southern outskirts of Suweon and Dongtan New City; the photo at left shows my view. In addition to Halberman's book, I had brought with me The Darkest Summer by Bill Sloan and The Korean War by Max Hastings and I read the relevant passages from each. I imagined the line of North Korean tanks rumbling south over the plain in this photo, and I tried to reconcile that image with the urban construction that now reaches the edge of the memorial park. It was hard to imagine this having ever been the remote location which marked the very first clash of the Korean War between UN (mainly US) forces and the North Korean invading army.
As I was just finishing up my reading, two busloads of American GIs pulled into the parking lot on a guided tour. Until that time, I had been virtually alone. As the Americans poured out of the vehicles, I finished up the last page, jumped in my car and drove off, taking note that the Americans in the buses demonstrate how even sixty years on, the effects of the Korean War are still with us. (Not to mention the recent attack and sinking of a South Korean battleship by North Korea, which took place after my visit that day. Click here for a discussion on Korea Business Central about the incident.)
As I followed Route 1 and drove back across the terrain the North Korean tanks had traversed in 1950, I was brought back to the present by the traffic jams and modern development all around. I ended up getting confused by the directions on my GPS, and took the long way back home to Ansan, approximately a 45-50 minute drive from the Smith Company battle site.
Join me in person for the GyeongGi Province Experience and get a deeper understanding and appreciation of everything related to GyeongGi Province.
I love the way every official document in Korea about someone includes their birthdate. It tells you something about the culture and the importance Koreans place on age.
After a previous post, I was contacted by a Korean-American looking to invest in the US retail market. After getting permission from my US contact, I put the two parties in contact for further discussion. It turned out they are both interested in the same types of real estate, too.
[Photo of falling cherry blossoms at Nojeok Hill. (Taken April 24, 2010)]
On Sudder Street in Kolkata, India (see photo at right, which is not mine; click to see original page) in late 1989, I formed my most vivid memory of anti-Americanism. I was having breakfast at a small coffee shop frequented by foreign backpackers and the room was crowded so there were multiple strangers to a table. Somehow – and I don’t remember the details at all – I got into a political discussion with a guy from France. He was criticizing something about the US government and I took umbrage to it. I was naïve, sure – should have known better – but there was something about others attacking my country that really rubbed me the wrong way that day. Before I knew it, the entire coffee shop of mainly Europeans was in an uproar and I ended up leaving without finishing breakfast.
That was me, an American in India, getting upset with what others were saying about my country; imagine how the average American would feel if, say, a Brit came to the US, lived there for three decades, wrote a book explaining the American psyche to non-Americans and got himself a column in an American newspaper where he published patronizing and, at times, insulting analyses of US society?
I already shared my opinion about The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen back in January. (Click here for my book review…. Incidentally, Breen’s a Brit who’s lived in Korea for about 30 years, wrote a book and authors a column for a Korean paper.) In my article, I was pretty critical of Breen’s stereotypical expat-oriented approach to explaining Korea and Koreans.
But in fact, before reading the book, I’d never heard of Mr. Breen. This isn’t his fault though; it’s more indicative of my isolation from expat society in Korea since Breen’s the “real thing” when it comes to long-term expats in Korea.
My second experience with Mr. Breen was just a few weeks ago when I picked up a Korea Times newspaper looking for information about classified advertising. I realized then that he writes a column for the newspaper and the article I read there was about Korean-American Robert Park’s illegal entry to North Korea to protest against the regime. Breen challenged Koreans with this (paraphrased) question: “Why do Koreans care so much about Dokdo while North Korea is murdering millions of citizens and testing nuclear weapons? If the answer is that Koreans aren’t willing to stand up for important issues themselves, then they should at least be grateful to the foreigners that do it for them.”
OK, fine. It seemed a little edgy and moralizing, but the point was worth bringing up; and surely outsiders have a role to play in bringing fresh perspective into the understanding of Korea. But my respect for Breen’s commentary here is diluted by a lot of what he said in The Koreans. And as it turns out, the Robert Park article apparently was not Breen's worst.
Back in December, Breen published a piece in this same Korea Times column ridiculing corruption in Korea through a satirical spoof. In particular, he made fun of Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee. The column has long since been removed from the Korea Times site I’m sure, so I can’t provide a link to it now. But here’s a link to an article about Samsung’s reaction, which included a $1 million civil suit against Breen for libel. And just today, the LA Times reports that Samsung is dropping its civil suit, but that the criminal case is still pending. (Funny I didn’t read about any of this in the Jungang Ilbo…)
So this leads me to recount another experience from my teenage years. I remember once I was doing the typical adolescent thing with a friend, which was complaining about my parents. I don’t remember the details, but I’m sure I wasn’t being nice. I was having a great time until my friend started agreeing with me… and adding more criticisms of his own. Huh? Suddenly my perspective changed. I immediately circled the wagons and became my parents’ best defender.
OK, so there you have it. Koreans are adolescents that don’t like their family being criticized by others even though they feel the right to criticize themselves. And their leading companies run roughshod over free speech to protect their reputation. But is this true? Is it only Koreans who would appreciate a little sensitivity to criticism, especially when some of it is rubbish from foreigners living in their country? Besides, doesn’t the UK have libel laws? Granted, the bar for libel is surely set higher in the West, but so what? Did Breen come to Korea to bring the ROK “up” to the level of his own glorious home country? What’s “up” really mean?
In fact, I’m often surprised at the level of interest we non-Koreans have in the thought processes of the “natives”. It’s certainly true for me; I never gave a moment’s notice to what makes Americans tick while I was growing up, but the day I got off the plane in Korea as a 23-year old, I felt I had something to contribute to understanding the Korean psyche.
Here’s an example of the nonsense that went through my head:
- Question: Why do Koreans share so freely with me in their English free-talking classes?
- Answer: They are glad to have momentarily escaped from oppressive Korean culture which makes them hide their true feelings. Finally, talking with me, a Westerner who doesn’t expect them to perform according to the burdensome social rules, they can relax.
Um, OK. As I see it now, the very premise of the question is flawed. But this is the expat experience and I don’t know that we ever get through it completely. I still try to figure out Koreans and there’s a category on my blog entitled “Understanding Koreans”. How far do we take it though? I was talking with someone recently who said that she thinks Koreans need foreigners to explain their psyche to them since they don’t properly understand themselves. I mentioned this to another expat later… and he agreed with HER! It’s a good thing we Westerners have such clear thinking about ourselves. After all, Socrates said, “Know thyself” but no Eastern philosopher’s ever said anything that profound, right?
I might also point out one more relevant item here. Samsung wasn’t bashful in going after Breen, but there’s a Korean who’s pretty much saying the same thing (actually far worse, and not with satire either). Former legal counsel to Samsung, Kim Yong-Chul, has published a tell-all book entitled Thinking Samsung and the story is described in this New York Times article. Samsung isn’t saying a word about this book officially; no lawsuit… Even the mainstream media in Korea isn’t touching it (though it is for sale here.) I find it interesting that Breen’s case, while not being trumpeted, hasn't been buried in Korea like the Kim Yong-Chul book story.
Anyway, as I reach the end of this post, I find it very hard to write the conclusion. Any admonition to Mr. Breen to avoid moralizing and patronizing prognostication about Korea reminds that such an exhortation would be tinged with hypocrisy.
Someone in my network emailed to ask if I could refer him to any Korean-speaking customer service reps in the Philippines. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good network there, but we do have members at KoreaBusinessCentral.com who are Filipino and so I suggested he post a question to the discussion board there.
[Photo at duck restaurant at Mulwangri Lake near Ansan. (Taken April 24, 2010)]
We were contacted recently by a US company whose supply of products from Korea was abruptly discontinued. They had invested a lot of money in the business (tens of thousands of dollars) but were left without even a proper explanation of what had happened. My team did some preliminary research which yielded fruitful results immediately. We would have been able to get complete answers within days.
Unfortunately, the US company, unfamiliar with business in Korea, was not prepared to find out not only the history and current situation, but also proposals by the Korean side for resolution.
[Photo at the Ansan Tulip Festival. (Taken April 24, 2010)]
I was contacted by a US currency investment firm looking for partners in Korea. One member of my network was of particular interest and I gladly forwarded this introduction on. In the meantime, I also suggested that my contact join Korea Business Central (KoreaBusinessCentral.com), which he did. He was then able to get a great deal more information from the membership in the discussion forum. (Click here to view the discussion.)
[Photo at the Seongpo Elementary Field Day. (Taken May 1, 2010)]
A US company getting ready for a show in Seoul needing creative design, translation and printing of brochures, posters and a banner on very short notice. We were able to bring it all together in-time and the client even sent us the following thank-you note just days ago:
We received the banner and posters and they look fantastic! Thank you for your patience with us, your flexibility, and the quality of work you provided for us. You, Dennis, and Catalin truly went beyond the call of duty in getting this done in such a professional and timely manner.
We look forward to working with you again in the near future.
<Client’s name redacted>
[Photo at traditional tea shop in Insadong as I waited to leave for my next appointment. (Taken April 30, 2010)]
Koreans are reclaiming their history in a big way. When I first arrived in the mid-90s, I remember thinking that if Korea could put together a public relations machine like Japan's, they would really raise their profile in the world. As Koreans have a lot to be proud of, it's gratifying to watch this process underway now.
A recent McKinsey report (Available for download at this Korea Business Central discussion: https://www.koreabusinesscentral.com/forum/topics/mckinsey-quarterly-reportsouth) explains that the Korean "national brand" still needs work but I am sure that over the next decade or so, the country will make great strides in promoting itself to the world.
Even so, it is important to remember that promoting one's history isn't always the same as remembering and recreating it exactly like it was. The following are four examples of the "New Old" in Korea today.
The Korean traditional liquor makgeolli has been making a comeback in Korea. This cloudy drink, an unrefined rice wine, was traditionally enjoyed by Korean commoners but lately, it's become very popular in respectable society too and the supermarkets are brimming with it. (Click here for an article about it on Wikipedia. See photo below for the choices at Star Mart here in our neighborhood in Ansan.)
There are makgeolli-related events going on throughout Korea and recently I even got an email from AMCHAM Korea promoting a Makgeolli Experience Tour for foreigners in Korea sponsored by the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency. Koreans are all about letting the world know how healthy and tasty Korean food is, and I'm a big supporter of this.
I personally love makgeolli, both for its taste and its low price. Nothing's better than a couple glasses in the evening while watching the latest Korean TV "historical" drama.
But there's just one little problem…. Aspartame is listed in the ingredients of every major brand. I don't want to jump into the controversy here about whether aspartame is a deadly toxin or not, but I think it's safe to say that promoting aspartame-sweetened makgeolli as a healthy, traditional drink is a bit of misnomer. I guess the stuff the Korean peasants drank in the past really wasn't as tasty as the new stuff.
Visitors to Korea are often treated to a musical (and sometimes, dance) performance called samulnori, where musicians dressed in Korean traditional garb sit on the ground with four different kinds of percussion instruments and bang out hypnotic rhythms. It's amazing the coordination that these drummers achieve and this distinct musical form is getting a great reception from audiences from around the world.
Koreans seems to realize the potential for national branding here and children are learning it in school too. Just last week, at field day at my kids' school, one of the classes performed a form of samulnori. (See photo at right for the field day event. To learn more about samulnori on Wikipedia, click here.)
But how old is samulnori? Undoubtedly, it derives from older musical forms, but as we know it today, it is… exactly 32 years old, thanks to Kim Duk Soo's creation of it in 1978. I'm not saying it's not a great product, but to call it "old" without recognizing the "new" elements would be a mistake. Before 1978, the samulnori of today did not exist.
For an extra special treat, click here to check out this Nanta video. It mixes elements of samulnori with food… and showmanship… and comedy… It's definitely worth watching, but is this "traditional" Korea?
As Koreans gain renewed pride in their heritage, it is natural they would want to revive traditional Korean architectural styles. A great way to spend a weekend is to visit one of the many Hanok Villages across the country and stay for a night or two in a traditional hanok house. Bucheon, a neighborhood in Seoul, has been designated a neighborhood for hanok construction and the government is providing (very!) generous subsidies to get homeowners in the area to remodel in the hanok style. (Click here for information on Wikipedia about hanok.)
I was very interested last year to see an article in the Jungang Daily newspaper describing the concept one builder has for a high-rise hanok apartment complex. Imagine, living on the 20th floor of a building and feeling like you're in Korea of yester-year.. I even cut out the article and though I can't find a link to the original article now, I've included a scan of the article on the right.
In today's atmosphere where "hanok-ization" is becoming a new wave in Korean construction, it's easy to wonder how much of the "traditional" aspects are really being retained. For example, the Korean traditional "hot stone" concept of actually putting heated stones under the floor (thus "ondolbang" which means "hot stone room") was long ago replaced in modern homes by pipes sending hot water through the floor.
Many other changes are afoot, too. Just this week, I came across an article from the Jungang Ilbo with a title translated to English as "Government Policy and Standards Support is Needed in Order to Commercialize and Modernize Hanok".
Again, I'm not saying this is bad, but don't expect the resulting hanok styles to be "true to the original" either.
Korean family traditions are a mixture of the old and the new. Marriages are probably most representative of this, with at least 50% of the imagery having been copied from Western practice. But some aspects retain a Korean flavor, such as the requirement that female family members at the wedding wear the Korean traditional outfit called hanbok. (Click here for a Wikipedia article.)
As it turns out, my niece is getting married this Sunday and my wife needs something to wear. Seeing as how hanbok has been around since time immemorial, you would think the hanbok outfit my wife bought about fifteen years ago would still be wearable. But no! It turns out that the styles for this clothing are changing almost as rapidly as for blue jeans and tennis shoes and we're going to have to rent an outfit for her since I'd hate for Myunghee to look out of style wearing this "traditional" Korean dress. (The photo at left was taken almost 10 years ago on my son's first birthday… I guess we'd be embarrassed to wear these old clothes around now.)
My point in this article is not to criticize the Korean efforts to modernize traditional goods (though I wish they wouldn't put aspartame in the makgeolli!), but simply to point out how the word "traditional" is a fluid term in Korea.
Of course, it's not just Korea; every culture finds it necessary to update as they go along since actually going back in time and really doing things the way they used to be done is something very few of us seem interested in anymore.