Monthly Archive: June 2010

A Few More Thoughts on Learning Korean (Part 5 of 5)

What Doesn’t Help as Much As I Wish It Would

Having a Korean Wife

Many Koreans who have been impressed with my Korean ability thought it only natural that I’d be improving my Korean thanks to Myunghee’s help. But frankly, I feel that the language learning benefits have been relatively limited since a) she knows how she has to talk to me for me to understand and b) she knows what I’m saying even when my Korean expressions would be nonsense to others. 

It means that we get into ruts that don’t stretch my abilities anymore. We also talk about subjects and in situations which aren’t similar to many that I find myself in on a daily basis with other Koreans. In fact, it’s amazing how I can feel fluent in Korean at home… and then like a complete beginner outside. 

Thus, for me, another key to learning Korean well has been to make sure I get myself into as many situations as possible where I’m forced to perform in Korean and to not rely on one “all-purpose solution” to reaching my Korean-language goals.

Working as a Translator

It’s been several years since I was an active translator, but from 2000-2006 or so, I was averaging about 15-25 hours per week of Korean>English translation, in addition to reviewing and working with the English>Korean translation jobs my teams in Korea were handling. I’m sure this helped my overall ability to penetrate difficult meanings in Korean documents, but I don’t think it did much for my Korean reading speed, and I suppose I promptly forgot nearly every word I ever looked up for a translation job since my goal in those projects was not to learn, but to finish.

6a011279704a5b28a40133ef5eff4c970b-800wi  Hanja Study

A little over 10 years ago, I took a correspondence course on Chinese characters (“Hanja” – See cover of Booklet #1 at right). It was enjoyable and I learned a lot… I also forgot most of the characters promptly thereafter, but I can still explain the concepts behind how they work. 

It’s a shame that the Chinese characters have largely disappeared from everyday usage in Korea today but it sure makes it easier for people like me to get through the newspaper without them. 

I definitely think it would be helpful to relearn them, but I also feel my efforts are better spent on just learning new words, rather than going back and memorizing Chinese characters. Koreans often express that without understanding the Chinese characters, I won’t be able to grasp the meanings of Korean words properly. But I didn’t have to learn Latin and Greek to do just fine with the English words derived from those languages, and I think the same is true with Chinese characters in Korean.

Final Thoughts

There are some people from English-speaking countries who have learned Korean very well. A surprisingly large number of these are former Mormon missionaries and I have great respect for many of their abilities in Korean. But not every former Mormon missionary becomes fluent; many struggle right to the end or get into the ruts mentioned above where their ability is excellent in certain situations but not adequate in others. 

There are a number of foreign Korean speakers who appear on TV and speak very well, especially when reciting lines for their parts in Korean TV shows. I often wonder if I could do that well if I were memorizing a script, or if they could hold their own in a real-life spontaneous discussion. 

Some people, though, come to Korea after reaching adulthood and learn remarkably good Korean (including the Mormons and TV personalities mentioned above). I think it’s safe to say that they do it by studying very hard and for a very long time.

I don’t regard my approach here as being unique or better than any other; it’s simply what fit my situation and my study style. In the end, there aren’t any short-cuts and learning the language is a matter of time and effort. It’s also subject to the laws of diminishing returns and I’m pretty confident now that even with continued effort, I’m getting pretty close to the limits of where I’ll ever be able to get my Korean ability.

I’m Studying Korean This Way Now (Part 4 of 5)

I Force Myself Into Korean-Language Situations

One of my primary goals in studying for a masters degree at Hanyang University in Ansan (see photo below of me in front of the Business Administration Building) is to improve my Korean. This purpose almost comes in at a higher priority than the actual information being taught in the classes or the degree I'm trying to get. It's been an excellent way to push myself out of my comfort zones, though my initial hope that two years of graduate school would put me over the top in terms of Korean fluency reminds me of my original unrealistic two-year horizon for learning Korean in the first place. And indeed, my progress since starting at Hanyang in early 2008 has only been incremental.

6a011279704a5b28a40133ef5efb6f970b-800wiStill, now that my Korean is at a level that I can go head-to-head with most Koreans in terms of their English ability, I generally do not associate anymore with Koreans who won't speak to me in Korean. 

It always weighs on my mind a bit, particularly at university when I know that my professors (and other students) who studied at universities in the US or elsewhere would like to speak (and are very capable of speaking) to me in English, but I've learned the following from long experience in Korea: 

"A relationship based on a mixture of English and Korean eventually gravitates to exclusive use of one language or the other and communicating at any time the idea that an English-based relationship is possible makes the task of getting back to Korean much more difficult." 

As a side note, this Korean-only approach can be an effective way to identify who one's true friends are too; as crude as it sounds to say it, I've experienced many cases where someone was extraordinarily friendly to me but bolted when they found out that I wasn't going to be of help to them in their English.

At any rate, I find it excruciatingly difficult at times to maintain this Korean-only approach, especially as it works against me quite often. For example, I figure that when communicating in Korean, I come across as less intelligent than I (like to think I) am. I frequently struggle to come up with the Korean words needed for a particular situation and that doesn't convey the best impression of my true knowledge or insights on the topic at hand.

In fact, this can be a double-whammy with Koreans who have practiced their English in an academic environment since their English teachers will have "talked down" to them to make communication easier. If someone learns English in this way without a realistic view of how they would perform in the real world, and then meets a foreigner who is struggling to speak in Korean, if the Korean doesn't realize the help they got in their English and/or make the effort to "talk down" to the foreigner in Korean, they may not give the foreigner due credit for his/her actual ability. I think this happens to me from time-to-time, too.

Still, by forcing myself to communicate in Korean, I feel it can only help my Korean skills in the long run.

Using Korean in Everyday Life

Outside of class, my Korean study focuses mainly on building fluency and vocabulary. I do this by concentrating explicitly on the four main aspects of language usage (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and by integrating these into my daily life.  In every case, I'm trying to carry out an actual life task or learn something I want to know anyway, at the same time that I do it in Korean. I think this is a key aspect of learning the language past the beginner stage, especially as I find it harder now to commit time to dedicated Korean-language study.


As mentioned above, I generally enforce a "Korean-only" policy with the Koreans I associate with. This can be a little extreme, but it's the way I do it.

There are also a million situations in life (calling the Internet service provider to figure out a connection issue, dealing with the office building manager, etc.) in which it is just easier to ask Myunghee to handle, but on my disciplined days, I handle those myself to stretch my skills in new situations.


Watching Korean TV is a great way to relax AND improve skills in the language. I also feel it helps me learn about Korean culture and history.


It took a long time and was a traumatic experience, but about a year ago, I finally cancelled my subscription to The Economist and I am now getting most of my news from the Korean Jungang Ilbo newspaper. This was one of the best decisions I made in terms of learning Korean and I carry the day's paper with me wherever I go since I love having a portable "package" of timely information available to read whenever I have a little free time.

I've also read the Korean translations of a couple English books I wanted to read anyway; it takes a lot longer this way, but I get the information I wanted to know, as well as the Korean practice, and both are important.

When I come across articles with a lot of difficult vocabulary, I'll often circle the ones I don't know, look up the meanings and write them on the paper and then cut the article out to carry around and study. I often don't follow through in learning these words after looking them up, but if I don't, I just end up wasting time looking the words up again later.

Reading is a chance to go deeper in understanding particular expressions, words and grammatical constructs than I can do when I'm listening to speech where just getting the main idea is often an accomplishment.


For me, writing is the very hardest Korean-language activity to integrate into my daily life. Studying at Hanyang University has been a great help for this as the frequent reports, presentations and tests force me to write. (Again, I enforce a Korean-only policy on my work at the university, even though the professors often remind me that submitting them in English is fine.) I also try to find opportunities to email. 

I often wonder what kind of nonsense I'm putting on paper and so I get help from a business associate of mine, as well as Myunghee, from time-to-time, but I generally ask them to help me only to the point that a) my writing communicates what I'm trying to say and b) doesn't insult anyone or look really stupid. I don't ask for stylistic help since at this point, just being completely understood is hard enough.

The advantage in writing is that I have time to think through what I want to say and try to write at a higher level and with expressions and vocabulary that I wouldn't think or dare to use in spontaneous speaking. In fact, speaking is often about just surviving the exchange and this leads to "defensive" speaking approaches; by stretching my abilities while writing, I hope to develop new writing skills which I can transfer to speech later.

A Recap of Martin Roll’s Exclusive Interview on Korea Business Central

Mr_author_bookMartin Roll is a world-renowned thought-leader on value creation through brand equity, and the eighth interviewee in our Korea Business Interview Series hosted at

Martin Roll is Danish by origin, but currently based out of  Singapore. He spent most of his career in international advertising and media before setting up his own consultancy ten years ago. Martin consults in around 40 countries every year, specializing in helping clients produce better results through brands, not in terms of colors and logos, but in forming and shaping business strategies on the two platforms of branding and marketing. Martin's clients include some of the top 20 Korean corporations.

To listen to the interview, download the .mp3, subscribe on iTunes, read the transcript and/or discuss his interview and this topic with members of Korea Business Central, visit the following discussion link:

(The full list of interviews in the Korea Business Interview Series is help here:

Main Points of the Interview:

Topic #1 – About Asian & Korean Brands

  • Ten years ago, Asia boasted barely five or ten global brands. However, at that time, the top Korean brands had an appetite for going global.
  • The Asian brand leadership model, as outlined in Martin's book Asian Brand Strategy, is based on the following five principles.
  1. Asian boardrooms need to change their mindsets and practices so that branding is lead by the CEO and the boardroom.
  2. Asian consumer patterns are not all that homogeneous and it is necessary to look at Asia as a patchwork of different cultures.
  3. Asian consumers are becoming increasingly modern.
  4. Asian companies need to become trendsetters and not just copycats.
  5. Make sure everyone in the company is empowered around the brand.
  • The leading Korean companies all have Chief Marketing Officers now but only 2-3% of the Fortune 500 companies have one, which means marketing for most companies is still tactical, not strategic. 
  • Singapore Airlines is a leading Asian brand that has been true to their roots and origin by actually delivering the great service they promise. They spend 15-20 working days every year on training everyone within the company. They also invest a lot in new aircraft and technology so that they contribute as much as 20% to the national brand of Singapore.
  • Other notable Asian non-Korean brands include HSBC, Samsung, Toyota and ASA (including its two hotel chains Banyan Tree and Mandarin Oriental).
  • Samsung is the brand that brought Korea to the world. LG is now pursuing this same journey, but in a different way. Hyundai is the other top Korean corporation in terms of branding.
  • Amore Pacific is an interesting Korean brand that is now one of the fastest expanding cosmetics brands in China by representing ten different organically grown brands.
  • Korean brands are very good in innovating. Though they have not necessarily been first-movers, they have moved fast and are starting to gain confidence. Design is another area that Asian brands are starting to take notice of. 
  • Korean brands are a hit because Korea is so technology driven and Korean companies are innovative and spend a lot on R&D. They are quality focused, such that Korean brands are, in many ways, ahead of the rest of the Asia-Pacific region in this aspect.
  • It took Western brands 50-100 years to do what Asian brands have done in 10-20 years.
  • A strong brand has two components: 1) a strong functional offering and 2) the emotional aspects. Korean brands are stronger in the functional dimensions than they are in the emotional component. This journey of establishing emotional bonds with consumers can take 10-20 years to fully develop.
  • As global corporations begin to all sell at the same quality and price levels, branding becomes the only differentiating point available, which makes it more important than ever. People don't buy functional things but rather buy on the emotional aspects. Asian firms need to bring something to market that is different than others or they won't create a strong bond with their consumers.
  • Asian firms need to be more confident in their own cultures and realize that the global consumer has a huge appetite for Asia and for Asian heritage.
  • Asian brands need to follow three methodologies to move beyond local markets: 1) get the strategy right through an orchestrated effort led from the top, 2) make sure they have the time, resources and money budgeted and 3) get the entire corporate culture involved in the effort.
  • Korean firms tend to employ mostly Koreans. Even though a lot of very good Korean talent has lived overseas and come back to work in Korea, Korean companies still aren't achieving a global culture like you can find in Nike, L'Oreal and Procter and Gamble. To become a global company, Korean companies need to mirror the global consumer in their corporate makeup but Korean companies are behind the curve in this trend.
  • Success by foreign companies in the Korean market is incredibly difficult, in part because Korean brands are so strong locally. But the Korean market is attractive because of the buying power and consumer interest, which is also influenced by national pride. 
  • Foreign firms in Korea succeed by being satisfied to remain at number two or three in the market and by taking a long-term perspective. It's not necessary to localize as much in Korea as in other markets since the foreignness of the brand is often what brought the Western brand to Korea in the first place.
  • Foreign companies that have been successful in Korea include Nike, Coca-Cola and Proctor and Gamble. They aren't taking a leading market share, but they are doing well in terms of branding and financial return.

Topic #2 – Branding the Boardroom

  • The company CEO's emphasis on branding is crucial to successful brand development. You can't build a brand from the bottom up, particularly in Asia. It is necessary to have a mindset that everything you do within the company is actually cascading around a common brand practice, and a common brand strategy.
  • Human resource practices in Asian firms are centered around the functional aspects, and not in really rallying people around the brand and what the company is all about.
  • A multi-talented boardroom that represents different cultures and different functions is important in order to make sure it represents the people who are going to move the brand forward in the global marketplace.
  • As China works to build its own brands, Korean companies need to work even harder over the next 5-15 years to get out into the global market as soon as possible.
  • Martin's response to Korean executives who ask if global consumers will really like what Korean companies are doing is, "Yes, they will. They love things that come from Korea because you have a fantastic offering; you have great quality, innovation and design. Push it out into the global market!"

Topic #3 – Branding Korea Inc.

  • One challenge for Korea in terms of branding the country is that there have been too many stakeholders involved in the effort. So Korean branding efforts are fragmented. Simple strategic systems need to be put in place from the center to bring things together.
  • Still, just 10-15 years back, Korea was relatively unknown; but as people come to find out about Korea, they are surprised and interested.
  • Key points of advice to Korea for promoting the Korean brand internationally: 1) Korea needs to set up a presidential task force lead by the president, 2) simplify the command structure for the national branding efforts, and 3) simplify and consolidate the message around three to five key messages and then focus on those for the next 5-10 years.
  • Martin recommends the following three attributes about Korea on which to build this strategy: 1) Business Korea, 2) Innovative Society, and 3) Tourism
  • In terms of tourism, the messages coming out of the various regions of Korea need to be orchestrated under the umbrella of Korea as a nation. 

This Is One of the Things I’m Talking About When I Refer to the Challenges of Speaking Korean in Korea with Koreans

The following is an extreme example; I don’t usually get corralled into conversations like this in Korea anymore, though, for obvious reasons, it used to happen a lot more often when I taught English.

Fortunately for me now, my ace-in-the-hole is that I can converse in Korean. Without that, this would have been an English discussion where I couldn’t have stopped the chat cold by insisting on Korean. 

Also, I would have had to come up with some nonsense excuse to turn down an invitation to dinner or out for drinks. Or, I could have been really brazen and said, “Sure, I’ll be glad to have dinner with you. My English tutoring rates are W40,000/hour so be sure to bring about W100,000 to cover dinner and conversation!”

As it is, I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t be hearing from this guy again and so I don’t have to spend extra brain capacity trying to weasel my way out of an unpleasant get-together.

The mindset described here follows people from English-speaking countries around as we live and work in Korea. I understand the reason for it but it also serves as a perfect excuse for foreigners in Korea to not have time to study Korean and miss opportunities to speak it. I think it also leads to a lot of shallow relationships, which likely contributes to the disillusionment many foreigners end up experiencing in Korea, as well as misunderstandings some Koreans have about foreigners.

Those of us who have learned Korean to any degree and formed real relationships have often done so by sticking to our guns in day-to-day life.

The Conversation

So I’m heading home from work yesterday and as I’m waiting on the ground floor for the elevator in our apartment building at the spot in the photo here, a guy walks up to me and says, “Hello”. Those were the only words of English spoken (thanks to my stubborness); the rest was in Korean and here’s a paraphrased translation of what we said.

Me: Hi.

Him: You live here, right?

Me: Yes.

Him: Have you lived here long?

Me: About four years.

Him: Oh! I live right here on the first floor, in that apartment over there.

Me: It’s very nice to meet you.

Him: Yes. I’ve seen you walking by many times but I didn’t have the chance to greet you. Where are you from?

Me: The US.

Him: Where do you work?

Me: Over at Dongseo Core in Jungang-Dong.

Him: Are you an English teacher or something?

Me: No, I have my own business.

Him: Doing?

Me: Translation.

Him: Oh, OK. Here’s my business card.

Me: Thanks. Here’s mine. Oh! I see you’re a professor at Hanyang University. Did you know that I’m also a masters student over there.

Him: I’d really to learn English from you. 

[Note that he didn’t give a hoot about my connection to his university. In fact, in the actual conversation, I think I remember trying to mention my Hanyang University connection again since I thought he must not have heard me the first time. Turns out he wasn’t listening the second time either.]

Me: Oh, really. I don’t teach English.

Him: Really? Why not?

Me: Well, I have my own business doing other things.

Him: Well, couldn’t you help me learn English?

Me: I have a rule that I don’t speak English to Koreans anymore.

Him: What?! Why?

Me: I’ve worked hard to learn Korean and I live in Korea. So I am very stubborn about only speaking Korean with Koreans in Korea.

Him: But couldn’t you speak English with me? I really need to learn. It would be just as if we’re friends. Besides, we live in the same building together.

Me: Yes, thank you. But no, I wouldn’t be willing to do that.

Him: Hmm…. You really wouldn’t? We’d be just life friends.

Me: Yeah, Koreans approach me for this kind of thing quite often; you’re not the first, believe me! But as I’ve thought about it, when people just want to be my friend so they can speak English with me, I feel used. I realize they aren’t real friends. That’s why I have this rule that I follow about not speaking English.

Him: How old are you?

Me: 40

Him: Oh. Do you like to drink?

Me: Yeah, somewhat.

Him: So, we could get together and just be drinking buddies.

Me: Sure, but I’m not going to speak English with you.

Him: You can’t speak English just to me? I need to improve my English before I go overseas for travel.

Me: Well, there are lots of English professors over at Hanyang University. You could learn from one of them.

Him: No, that won’t work. If someone at my level is seen to be studying English, it would really reflect badly on me.

Me: OK, then how about going to an English institute?

Him: Nope. Word would get around.

Me: Fine, then you could go study at an English institute in another city in the area.

Him: [laughs] You really won’t help me with my English?

Me: No, I’m sorry. That’s my rule. If I don’t stick with it, bad things happen. 

Him: [Facial expression of trying to think of something to say to extend the conversation]

Me: It’s been nice to meet you. I need to get going; my son’s waiting for me at home.

Him: Bye

Me: Bye.

I Started Learning Korean This Way (Part 3 of 5)

I Got a Tutor

I think one of the cardinal rules of studying Korean has to be this: “Reject all invitations to trade English study for Korean study.” The first reason is that if you trade one hour of English for one hour of Korean, you’ll spend one hour talking in English about English and then another hour talking in English about Korean. How useful is that? 

Secondly, if you go out and teach English for money, you can charge about 3-5 times what you would have to pay a Korean to teach you Korean. To alleviate this imbalance, I remember trying to trade two hours of Korean for one hour of English but that left me feeling pretty guilty at my chutzpah for such an “uneven” trade. 

So at first I paid cash to Korean teachers at my ESL institute for lessons and this was helpful for getting English-language explanations of grammar and vocabulary (especially at the beginning), but I wasn’t forced to think in Korean AND, as English teachers, their time was worth more than I was willing to pay. So relatively soon into my Korean-study program, I moved to four-hours per week of one-on-one Korean lessons with a college student at W10,000/hour (later W15,000/hour).

I would study on my own during the week and prepare questions and practice exercises for my weekend tutoring. When my Korean teacher showed up, I did not expect her to come with a lesson plan; I would simply go through my notes asking questions and asking her to do the practice problems with me. It was intense, hard work, but about a year and a half of this was enough to get through a lot of material.

Organized Korean Classes Weren’t for Me

There are a number of universities in Korea offering good Korean language programs; but being out in Ansan and working an ever-changing schedule at my foreign-language institute, it was not an option for me to travel into Seoul to attend Korean classes.

Later, when I worked at LG International in Yoido, I did take a one-semester evening class in 1997 at Ehwa Woman’s University. But by the time I got home after 11pm each night, it was just too exhausting and so I didn’t continue there either.

My Early Study Materials


I picked up the Korean-language textbooks published by Yonsei University and worked through those in order to learn grammar. I also grabbed a few other grammar books with English explanations. I would go through these with a fine-toothed comb during the week and then with my tutor, we would do the exercises over and over in our weekly class. (After all, four hours of one-on-one study each week is a LONG time… sometimes, the classes felt like they’d never end. I’m sure my teacher felt the same way.)

Printed Materials

In addition to the textbook vocabulary, I would find printed materials with information that looked interesting and read it. On the way through, I’d circle words I didn’t know and then look them up. After that, I’d transfer them to vocabulary cards/pages and carry those cards/pages around with me to review whenever the opportunity arose, such as walking to classes, waiting for a bus, etc. The graphic at right shows what I did to a page of the LG International Corp. company newsletter back in 1996; I still have hundreds of pages of notes like this which I created over the years.


I am not a great small talker and much less so when weighed down by the burden of trying to put together meaningful sentences in a language that makes little sense. So I missed many opportunities in the early days to use my Korean outside of the tutoring sessions.

Furthermore, trying to understand the TV, radio and church sermons was generally an exercise in futility, though I certainly gave it my best shot when I could. Reading the newspaper was almost as hard since, with so many unknown words, the reading was very slow indeed! 

I did get one big language study break/opportunity early on, which is that I landed a job at LG International Corp., where I worked for almost five years. During working hours, I wasn’t all that busy, and though I was prohibited from speaking Korean in the office, my boss didn’t mind if I studied Korean at my desk when there wasn’t other work to do. I put this opportunity to good use.

** Click here to visit a page on Korea Business Central with links to Korean-language learning resources.

Notable Challenges of Learning Korean (Part 2 of 5)


The Language is All Backwards

I'm told that Korean is one of the hardest languages in the world for English-speakers to learn. When I was first studying the language, I didn't really sense this though. Spanish had seemed pretty hard to me too and improving my Korean appeared to be just a matter of memorizing words and grammatical structures, and then practicing to assemble them together into sentences. 

But having advanced beyond the beginner stages, I relate a little more with the assessment of how hard Korean is for English-speakers; this is reinforced by comments from Japanese saying how easy Korean is for them (and how difficult English is!) because the underlying grammars of Japanese and Korean are so similar.

6a011279704a5b28a40134828e1441970c-800wi The radically different grammatical structures and phrasing concepts between English and Korean make it much harder to get used to the Korean ways of saying things. 

It is also much more difficult to intuitively guess new ways of putting words together; if I haven't studied a specific usage before, it's pretty risky to suppose it will work in Korean just because that's the way we say it in English.

It's Downright Impossible Sometimes to Speak Korean with Koreans Who Want to Speak English

Another obstacle for many of us in learning Korean is the fact that we first came to Korea as English teachers. Becoming an English teacher in Korea can be a deal with the devil: easy short-term access to a job in exchange for permanently handicapping oneself in the learning of Korean. Once we reach Korea, start teaching English and establish friendships with Koreans wanting to learn English, it takes a tremendous amount of initiative to break out of that and find a Korean-speaking social group. 

In fact, even those not coming to Korea to teach English still find that those in their circle either a) already speak excellent English and don't want to chat in baby Korean with a foreigner or b) don't speak excellent English and want to practice English. 

This is not a small issue; it is one I still struggle with even after all these years. But I should point out that in many cases, I choose the easy way of seeking out an English-speaking option (sometimes by default; sometimes deliberately) and then feeling victimized for not getting to improve my Korean. In these cases, I have nobody to blame but myself.


Analysis of the Cheonan Incident and the Political Fallout, As Well as Predictions for Its Outcome

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.

P1010121My associate, Don Southerton, has already prepared an overview of the events and some expected outcomes here. It's been all over the news (at least in Korea and internationally; it seems it's not quite on the front page back home in the US). Here's some interesting analysis in The Economist, my favorite news source. 

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

A Recap of Steve McKinney’s Exclusive Interview on Korea Business Central

Author_sm Steve McKinney is president of McKinney Consulting, a leading executive search firm in Seoul, and the seventh interviewee in our Korea Business Interview Series hosted at

To listen to the interview or download the .mp3, read the transcript and discuss his interview with members of Korea Business Central, visit the following discussion link:

(The full list of interviews in the Korea Business Interview Series is kept here:

Main points of the Interview:

Topic #1 – Overview of the Executive Recruiting Environment


  • The international population in Seoul has increased by about 18% over the past five years but foreigners still make up only about 2.4% of the total population. 69% of that increase is made up of migrant workers and spouses. Only about 4% of the total international population is made up of business professionals.
  • The number of foreigners executives in Korea is relatively small due, in part, to the trend toward localization within multinationals, where the number of Korean staff is maximized while minimizing the number of foreign executives.
  • Hiring of foreign staff in the financial and technology sectors is growing strongly in Korea. Other prominent areas include life sciences, healthcare and consumer goods.
  • Senior-level executive positions that executive search firms are active in filling include country managers, as well as financial and marketing roles.
  • Korean talent is gradually finding positions in international positions, especially in the financial, business services, management consulting and automotive sectors. Top destinations include Singapore and China.

Topic #2 – Myths and Realities of Working in Korea

  • Most C-level positions are filled by the respective MNC's home office.
  • Very few who start in Korea by filling English-level/editing positions end up moving beyond that into other professional positions in the Korean business world.
  • Non-Koreans don't get great jobs just because they are foreigners. Koreans are also very well-educated and companies hiring foreigners have to prove to the Korean government why a particular position can be best filled by a non-Korean.
  • It can be very risky to come to Korea to teach English hoping to return to one's original career track once established in Korea. Future prospective employers may not understand how the English position fits into an overall career strategy.
  • It is not impossible to break out of the English profession and into a business position; some achieve it.

Topic #3 – Personal Branding and Getting a Job in Korea

  • Networking is a key part of getting a mid-level non-C level position in Korea.
  • Working on one's resume and making sure one presents oneself attractively to a prospective employer is a key success factor. A surprising number of applicants don't bother with this.
  • A positive outlook to finding a good job is a very important first step in branding oneself.
  • An effective professional brand involves coming up with five to ten of the most important accomplishments in one's life, creating a three-sentence narrative about each and then identifying one's success patterns. These are described in a report by Steve on his website. Click here to view.
  • Promoting oneself requires one to have a "60-second commercial" about oneself that includes facts and figures. For example, "I helped increase sales by 20% in my company" can be greatly improved by rewriting as "I was able to increase sales by 20% in the company by adding three more clients and expanding the business that I had with five others. The results were that we had an increase of $1 million in profit." It's not bragging; it's stating facts.
  • It's not just candidates that are in a pressure position. Employers also need the hiring process to work well. Sometimes the same person doing the same job in a particular industry could be an absolute success and a superstar in one company and a total failure in the other. Candidates must convince the employer that they will deliver results.
  • The most common mistakes job candidates make on their resumes include making typographical errors, making them too long, not putting enough numbers, not describing enough of one's success factors and achievements, leaving too many things up for guessing or leaving gaps in employment history.
  • It's best to apply for a job using the title that one is interviewing for and not choose something that sounds better to the candidate.
  • Taking too much information to an interview can be risky, also. Just showing up at an interview with one's resume is best, unless asked in advance to bring a presentation.
  • The object of a resume should be to give a true picture, not to overstate or understate. Koreans tend to understate; Westerners often overstate.
  • Psychometric tests can be helpful in determining what one would be good for. Also, talking with a professional in the field is a suitable way to assess oneself.
  • Recommended books: What Color is Your Parachute, Hire With Your Head and Deciding Who Leads.

A Realistic Answer to “How Did You Get So Fluent in Korean?” (Part 1 of 5)

I'm Not Fluent!

The only proper first answer to this question is, "I'm not fluent." Fluency implies a level of comfort in the language that I don't ever expect to achieve. The word I've used for at least the last ten years or so is "proficient" and even that is a pretty generous assessment of my ability, particularly when I'm trying to put together a complex thought.

But this is a question I get a lot from non-Koreans who are frustrated with their progress in learning the language (as well as Koreans that just want to compliment me… such kind folks, really). In fact, I was contacted just a couple weeks ago by the CEO of a US company in Korea who is trying to improve his Korean skills and wanted some pointers. I've put together a few posts here to reflect on my thinking and experience, hoping it can be helpful to others.

I should point out that much/most of what I'll share is not unique to learning Korean; it is equally applicable to learning any language… I am constantly amazed at the level of fluency reached by a few people, particularly in English, and especially those from Europe. I have no idea how they do it. Thus, these articles will likely be more relevant for the "rest of us" who lack those superhuman language-learning skills.

Evolving Thinking

When I first arrived in Korea in late 1993, I planned to learn Korean (completely, no less) in about two years. Then I wanted to go to Japan and learn Japanese… and finally head to China to learn Chinese. I figured I'd be a pretty smart guy after all that. As ridiculous as it seems when written down like this, I don't think my expectations were unusual as I get the feeling this is the kind of unrealistic goal many people have when they come to Korea and start learning Korean.

6a011279704a5b28a40134828ca4e9970c  And the delusions don't end once the first lessons are over. I had a friend from Bangladesh tell me that after a year of studying Korean back home before arriving in Korea, he felt he'd reached a 50% level on the language. I was contacted a few months ago by someone who had apparently done most of his Korean-language study outside Korea and told me he'd gotten to 70% proficiency; he wanted to know how he could knock out the last 30%. 

If I were to put a number on how much of the Korean language I know, I'd estimate it at around 15%. Fortunately, a lot of communication can take place within this small range, but to think I'll ever get past 20% is unrealistic.

My experience with learning Korean has often reminded me of some wise words first shared with me by my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Kastrop: "I finished college knowing less than when I started." As I study Korean, I realize just how much more there is to learn and how little of that I know… and can even hope to learn. 

It's Harder Than I Ever Expected

Kids are a different story, of course, but anyone coming to Korea for the first time after finishing university back home (I was 23 when I got to Korea) should have a realistic view of how much work it's going to take to learn Korean and how far they will ever get. In fact, it often seems that every expat in Korea and his brother is studying the language at various levels but those who reach proficiency are a very small number. 

I've also rarely, if ever, met a non-Korean who spent a year or two in Korea before getting serious about language study and then buckled down to make huge improvements. Everybody I know who got good in Korean hit the ground running right from the beginning.