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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Response to HS Yoon's Comments on the Sewol Tragedy in Today's "Last Three Weeks in Korea" Newsletter


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

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

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

Book Review: Dominion from Sea to Sea by Bruce Cumings

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

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

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

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

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

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

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Some Definitions

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

  • face - 체면 (chaemyeon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- 진희정, 박근혜 사타일, 154쫒

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korean Views on Japanese Society and Economy are Changing

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

Today, the tone is much different.

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Old and New Maps of the Ansan Area

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

Old Ansan

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

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

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

Old Ansan

For more about the modern development of Ansan.

A Recap of Mark Minton's Interview on Korea Business Central - "Helping the World Understand Modern Korea and Korea’s Place in Asia"

Author_book_mm Understanding Korea and Koreans from the wider geopolitical context yields important insights into the newly confident nation we find today. Anyone doing business in this dynamic economy can expect to increase their effectiveness by learning about recent Korean history and its position in the region.

Mark Minton boasts of a long history in E. Asia, as a US diplomat in Japan and Korea, and later in Mongolia as US Ambassador. In this discussion with KBC host Tom Tucker, Ambassador Minton shares deep insights about modern Korea and doing business there.

Click here to listen to the interview, download the .mp3, subscribe in iTunes, read the transcript and or discuss this interview and this topic with other members of Korea Business Central visit the English-language discussion link.

Click here for the full list of interviews in the 2011 Korea Business Interview Series, or here for the 2010 interviews.

I also tried something new this time, which was to prepare my own short video synopsis of the interview:


Main Points of the Interview

Topic #1 - Ambassador Mark Minton and The Korea Society, An Overview

  • In between stints in Asia, Ambassador Minton also spent long periods of his career in New York City, with the Foreign Service, as well as the US Mission to the United Nations, and now with the Korea Society. He notes that in the short period of time between his previous time in NYC and now, the profile of Korean culture films and arts has risen dramatically.
  • The Korea Society is the foremost and oldest non-profit private organization in the US dedicated to expanding understanding of Korea in the US and promoting exchange between the American and Korean people. It was established by General Van Fleet, who had been a US general in the Korean War. The Society has grown along with the increasing success of Korea.
  • Lately the Society has been active in promoting Korean film with the Museum of the Moving Image in New York though a large, annual film festival.

Topic #2 - The Korea-Japan Relationship

  • The relationship between Korea and Japan has been difficult, perhaps because the two countries are so close in proximity but have distinct cultures. This historical friction is dissipating quickly with the younger generations in each country extremely interested in each other. Tourism is rising fast.
  • The interests of the two countries, being successful economies and democracies, are converging in the modern era. The current administration of Korean President Lee Myung-bak has handled relations with Japan with a mature, sophisticated and sensitive approach.
  • The Japanese have looked at the Korean achievements of the last 25-30 years and truly respect it and have been impressed by it. 
  • Japan was the first East Asian country to successfully modernize and as Korea was a late-comer to this development, Korean President Park Chung-hee, explicitly folled Japanese models, though he used them with Korean characteristics. Today, Korea is increasingly innovating on its own.
  • It is clear that there's still a symbiotic relationship between Japan and Korea, but Koreans will expand even further to take on other partners, especially as Korea signs FTAs with more and more other countries and sells its products around the world.

Topic #3 - The Korea-Mongolia Relationship

  • Ambassador Minton served as US Ambassador to Mongolia from September 2006 until September 2009. 
  • Mongolia is the only true democracy in central Asia, making it politically and culturally unique in the region. It is located between China and Russia and so its foreign policy is to reach out to the broader world, economically, policically and diplomatically, so that it has options beyond just China and Russia.
  • Mongolians consider Koreans to be the closest people in the world to them. History shows there has been some migratory connection between Mongolia and Korea in the past, and the two countries share cultural characteristics, which makes Mongolians feel comfortable dealing with Koreans.
  • Going forward, we will be hearing more and more about Mongolia as world-class mineral assets in uranium, coal, copper, gold and others come online. Major mining companies are just now beginning to develop these assets, which are some of the largest undeveloped deposits in the world. It is expected that the Mongolian economy will start growing at around 10% per year over the next decade.
  • Korea is looking to Mongolia as a source of raw materials, but Korean construction companies are also well-placed to build the infrastructure that Mongolia is going to need for its new economy.
  • Mongolia may also become an attractive tourist destination for Koreans, as it's only two and a half hours by plane from Seoul. There is a lot of open space and beautiful scenery.
  • China is the 800-pound gorilla in the living room for Mongolia, which dictates that China will be the major customer for Mongolian resources. But Mongolia is also looking to develop other partnerships, and Korea has a major role to play in this.

Topic #4 - Significant Events in Modern Korean History

  • The Korea Society recently held a seminar to discuss the new book "The Park Chung Hee Era". President Park is the modern figure who transformed the Korean economy and created the foundation for what the Korean economy has become today.
  • There is a lot of debate even today about the extent to which the policies of the Park era may have retarded political developments of the country. 
  • Looking at the major events of modern Korean history, we can see that each led to the next. The Park Chung Hee coup d'etat of 1961 fired the trigger, but its success in raising the living standards of Koreans lead to protests for more freedoms with the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 and the June Democracy Movement of 1987, and ultimately to democracy.

Topic #5 - Korean Viewpoint on the Signing of FTAs

  • By signing FTAs with the US and with the EU, as well as other countries, Korea is looking to draw itself closer to these major Western economies, which will have all sorts of positive payoffs and benefits for the relationship as a whole, including as a counterweight to China as Korea's trade with China increases.
  • In addition, the US-Korea FTA is so complex and well-considered that it reaches into so many regulations, laws and practices, that when it is implemented, it will have an effect of enhancing the efficiency and transparency of the Korean domestic economy and the way it is managed, bringing Korean activities up to international norms.

Topic #6 - "The Hub of Korea"

  • Korea has considerable assets to become a hub. It is geographically positioned this way in northeast Asia and is complemented by the marvelous Incheon Airport, as well as Songdo city, which is an attempt to create virtually a complete new city oriented towards international commerce and business.
  • Korea also has a role to play as a hub in the politcal dimension, too. As host of the G20 meeting last year, as of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Summit next year, Korea is increasingly becoming a kind of honest broker in international politics, as well as diplomacy. This is reinforced by the symbolism of the re-election of Korean Ban Ki-moon as Secretary General of the United Nations.

Topic #7 - Wrap-Up

  • When we think of "Korea" these days, we inevitably think of something contemporary first. A good keyword to use to describe Korea would be "successful innovation", not only in economics, but also in political, cultural and international diplomacy, too.
  • Going forward, The Korea Society is looking to capitalize on "Hallyu", or the Korean Wave, which is beginning to take hold in the United States as well. There's a growing awareness of the world of arts and design in Korea, particularly Korean film and literature. 

A Recap of Peter Bartholomew's Interview on Korea Business Central - "Promoting the Value of High-Tech Shipbuilding and Traditional Architecture in Korea"

Author_book_pbThere are few people more qualified to discuss the Korean economic miracle than Peter Bartholomew. Having arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, he has remained in Korea almost continuously since 1968. Peter worked in a Korean company for almost a decade in the 1970s, and for the last 28 years, he has run IRC, Ltd. in Seoul, specializing in the shipbuilding and construction sectors.

In this interview, Peter shares deep insights about Korean business, including techniques for negotiating with Koreans, as well as about efforts to preserve traditional hanok homes, an area on which he is particularly passionate. He believes that a modern Korea should be compatible with maintaining the natural and historical assets of the past.

Click here to listen to the interview, download the .mp3, subscribe in iTunes, read the transcript and or discuss this interview and this topic with other members of Korea Business Central visit the English-language discussion link.

Click here for the full list of interviews in the 2011 Korea Business Interview Series, or here for the 2010 interviews.

Main Points of the Interview

Topic #1 - Personal Background in Korea

  • Peter arrived in Korea in January 1968 with the US Peace Corps and spent five years along the northeast coast of the country. He started working for a Korean company in 1972 and stayed there for eight years. In 1982, Peter founded IRC with some partners and is still operating the company today.
  • The biggest change in Korea over the last forty years is the economic development of the country. Even in the 1970s, there were virtually no paved roads in the countryside and even electricity wasn't widespread. Cars shared the road with oxcarts. There were no highways and very little manufacturing; it was primarily an agro/fisheries economy.
  • Koreans today can be described with words like persistence, hardworking, impatient, aggressive and hungry for knowledge. Friendships in Korea last a long-time.

Topic #2 - Shipbuilding in Korea

  • The three big shiyards in Korea are Hyundai (80-85 ships per year), Daewoo (40-50 ships per year) and Samsung (40-50 ships per year). 
  • STX's shipyard in Korea is small but they have built a new shipyard in Dalian, China. Hanjin's is the oldest Korean yard, located in downtown Busan, but they've also got a huge shipyard in Subic Bay, Philippines, too.
  • The Korean majors are notable for their diversification, having expanded into offshore oil and gas structures, as well as drilling ships.
  • Peter's role at IRC is to organize custom shipbuilding programs for vessels that have never been built before. He identifies the best Korean resources (not just shipyards, but also specialist services and products) and helps in negotiating the deals, having completed over 100 projects in the last thirty years. 
  • Koreans shipbuilders have a diversified spectrum of products, not just ordinary container ships and bulk carriers, but also sophisticated L&G carriers and others, such as the new types of structures for the offshore industry, as well as industrial structures build in modular form to be assembled on-site. This diversification gives Korean makers longer-term stability.
  • The core speciality in Korea is production engineering and productivity. This has been achieved by taking the industry to a new level of high tech, with exensive automation, excruciatingly sophisticated computerized control of production and scheduling. They are at least as good as the Japanese, but much better than the Europeans and Chinese in this regard.
  • The Chinese can be expected to take more and more of the low-cost/low-tech business from the Koreans, but the Koreans are moving up the value chain quickly.
  • The Koreans also benefit from a strategic mistake the Japanese made many years ago where they decided to emphasize pre-designed standardized ships. This limits the Japanese' ability to produce new designs.
  • It should be remembered that shipyards are really just huge, multi-disciplined industrial structure manufacturing facilities. Among those structures, some float and some don't. As the Koreans are strong in this aspect of finding new ways to excel, we can expect them to keep diversifying, including into the green energy industrial structures, such as large turbine windmills. The Koreans are also expanding overseas, as mentioned above, and STX even owns yards in Europe. 

Topic #3 - Korean Business in General

  • The Korean conglomerates ("chaebol") are moving from strength to strength and this success can be expected to continue. But what the Japanese have that the Koreans don't have is a strong small- to medium-sized company community. The Koreans are too dependent on the chaebol and this is a major weakness of the Korean economy.
  • Korean business is weak in services and in many aspects of management. There's high productivity on the shop floor, but low productivity in the office and in software.
  • When comparing Korea with Japan, it's also helpful to remember that Japan started industrializing nearly 100 years before Korea and so the Korean economy is like a cake that's grown too fast; it's all full of holes. Now Koreans are going back and filling those holes, one-by-one, but it takes time. 
  • Korean young people are going overseas to study in record numbers and they're bringing back new and innovative ideas. Once the generational shift kicks in and and the new generation moves into positions of power, the shift to a stronger small/medium-sized company sector, as well as better software and management capabilities, will take place.
  • Changes in Korea won't come from hiring in foreigners to positions of management authority but through an evolutionary, incremental process, developed within the crucible of Korea's own cultural persona and psychology.

Topic #4 - Negotiating with Koreans

  • When negotiating with a top-end multinational Korean company, the people there will have broad, international exposure and experience so negotiations can take place on international terms and conditions.
  • Koreans are price buyers and so if you're trying to sell to Koreans, once the basic qualifications are set, the Koreans are really only interested in price.
  • Unsophisticated small/medium industry companies get upset when they see a Western contract. Contracts between Koreans are often shockingly short, naming what the product is, how much and that's it. It's a totally different concept toward documentation and legal contracting.
  • So what the foreigner has to do to achieve his ends is to do adequate advance research. What kind of entity is the Korean party which whom he's negotiating? What previous contracts or negotiations have been accomplished? Which are successful and why? The Western company should approach the negotiations based on this.
  • When dealing with a small/medium industry company, a full-blown 25-page contract is a non-starter. The contract must be boiled down to basic, fundamental, can't-live-without-it terms and conditions. Everything has to be done in Korean, with some kind of legal and language assistance along the way.
  • A good way to bring a drawn-out negotiation to a close is to offer to split the difference 50/50.
  • When negotiating, make sure to always ask yourself "Do they really undderstand the points I'm trying to get across?". Continuously summarize in simple form. List clear, short options. This is because there aren't just language problems, but also cultural psychology difference problems. 60-70% of the major contract disagreements are caused by a failure to understand at the beginning.

Topic #5 - Hanok and the Korean Land Development Model

  • Peter has lived in the same Korean traditional style house ("hanok") for the last 35 years. Recently, the city government tried to demolish it to make way for a new development but Peter and a group of neighbors joined forces to successfully block this in court.
  • Koreans don't put value on old buildings. In the US and Europe, we can find many old style homes that are more than 100 years old. But in Korea, after 20 years, a building doesn't have any value; only the land has value.
  • Even restoration projects often involve tearing down old and replacing with new construction, such as the current "rebuilding" of the traditional south gate to the city of Suwon.
  • The years of rampant development, destroying old neighborhoods and natural beauty, to build new cities and developments is finally coming to an end. Ultimately, the government must stop deciding and planning these things without consideration for the market and environment.

Topic #6 - Wrap-Up

  • The position of Korea between China and Japan is absolutely ideal for Western companies looking for a base in north-east Asia. IRC is actively seeking companies whose services and/or products would be valuable in Korea, in order to support them in this process.
  • The key factor of doing business successfuully in Korea and in Asia is to do your homework about the companies or government entities with whom you need to interface to achieve whatever business aims you have. Don't assume that business is done everywhere the same or that there's going to be a magic bullet.

A Recap of Dick Warmington's Exclusive Interview on Korea Business Central - "Uncovering Korean Potential at Chadwick School in Korea’s New City of Songdo"


When Korea Business Central asked Dick Warmington to do an interview for us, we just expected that he'd have great insights about Chadwick International School, Korean education and Songdo city. We didn't realize he'd also previously run the operations of Hewlett-Packard in Korea during the late 80s and early 90s, and then HP's entire Asia Pacific operations through the Asian IMF Crisis of the late 1990s. We also didn't realize that Chadwick School breaks the mold for international schools by mostly educating Koreans AND bringing a new, pioneering model to education in Korea. One also can't help but get a little more excited about Songdo after listening to Dick gush about its uniquenesses.

This interview is inspirational as well as enlightening... It covers lots of ground as Dick shares insight after insight about Korea, Korean education and Korean business.

Click here to listen to the interview, download the .mp3, subscribe in iTunes, read the transcript and or discuss this interview and this topic with other members of Korea Business Central visit the English-language discussion link.

Click here for the full list of interviews in the 2011 Korea Business Interview Series, or here for the 2010 interviews.

Main Points of the Interview

Topic #1 - Background to Joining Chadwick International in Songdo

  • Dick graduated from Chadwick School in Los Angeles fifty years ago, before going on to study at Stanford and Harvard. He joined Hewlett-Packard, spending 33 years with the company.
  • Under Dick's leadership, HP established a joint venture in Korea with Samsung Electronics. In 1997, HP bought out Samsung's share and now owns 100% of HP Korea. Later, Dick finished his career in Hong Kong as CEO of HP's Asia Pacific operations, guiding the company through the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
  • During retirement, Chadwick approached Dick to run their new branch school in Songdo, which he joined in early 2010. This was a perfect match for Dick thanks to his background in Korea and Asia, as well as a long-term interest in independent education, including the fact that his two children are Korean adoptees.

Topic #2 - Setting the School Up in Songdo

  • Songdo is a new, architected city, the center of which is being developed by Gale International, a private US-based corporation. It was started around 2000, very close to Incheon Airport. Songdo is also an economic free zone for drawing foreign direct investment into the area and an international school was a prerequisite for attracting international families.
  • Setting up a school in Korea requires close work and licensing from the Korea Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This process was more complicated than expected, meaning that the school opened about five months later than planned.
  • Chadwick International in Songdo currently offers grades K-7, with 280 students and 40 international educators. The official opening was September 10, 2010, and most students are ethnic Koreans. 
  • The Songdo school is a branch of the K-12 Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, California, which has enrollment of about 850 students and which has a 75-year history.
  • Support from the city of Incheon, which is the larger metrolitan area under which Songdo city is chartered, continued smoothly even when the mayor who had previously championed the city lost in the 2010 elections and was replaced by a new mayor from the opposition party.

Topic #3 - Education at Chadwick and Korea At Large

  • Koreans put a lot of emphasis on education and this comes from the Confucian background where education is fundamental to success. It is traditionally a rote-based system and objective testing is the means through which universities admit their students. 
  • Chadwick, on the other hand, focuses on teaching critical thinking and creative thought processes. The program is experiential-based and rather than lecturing; teachers are facilitators. There is a lot of group work. Chadwick is using the International Baccalaureate program structure to deliver the subjects, and technology is heavily incorporated into the learning, with every student from the first grade required to have and use a computer.
  • The school hopes to be an example in Korea of alternative ways of approaching education and a lot of effort goes into educating families on this progressive approach. The kids enjoy their education and it's sometimes hard to persuade Korean parents that this is a good thing and will lead to them to become lifelong learners.
  • Because English is not the first language of most students in the current Chadwick International student body, the school is having to put an extra effort into bringing up their English skills, and computers are an integral part of this process. Things are still a work-in-progess, though.
  • Within the traditional Korean school system, class sizes of 30-40 are about average and after-school learning in private "hagwons" is prevalent. This means kids often study all day and then all afternoon and into the evening in order to cram as much learning in as possible, stunting their social skills, creative skillsand critical thinking skills development. 
  • In fact, up to 25,000-30,000 Korean families have moved to other countries, such as Southeast Asia, the US, Canada, Australia and other places to give their children alternative learning environments.
  • Because of these realities in the Korean school system and the difficulties in changing them, the Korean government has been active in attracting international schools, such as Chadwick, into the local market.
  • Chadwick is engaged in sharing about its approaches within Korea, including ongoing communications with the Ministry of Education and the filming of documentaries about the education being delivered.

Topic #4 - About HP Korea and Korean Business

  • Setting up the HP subsidiary in Korea was a fascinating experience for Dick as HP was trying to introduce a Socratic Western business culture into a Confusion-based society. For example, in the Confucian structure mistakes are punished; in the HP approach, if you don't make mistakes, you're not doing your job. In a typical Korean company, decisions don't get made at low levels but in HP, employees get a lot of authority in their jobs.
  • Samsung was uncomfortable with the chaos in the HP Korea workplace, but HP was also their most profitable, fastest growing operation at the time and they learned a lot. HP started with 130 employees from Samsung Electronics when forming the company and when given the opportunity to return to Samsung after five years, not one person returned.
  • Success comes from getting agreement on objectives, but how those objectives are accomplished can vary. This lesson is serving Dick well in his current position at Chadwick, too.
  • In 1997, with the Asian Financial Crisis, HP top management saw the potential in the market and made the company's heaviest investments in Korea. HP bought a building, bought out the shares from Samsung and made other investments totally close to $300 million in 1997.

Topic #5 - Korean Challenges for the Future

  • Challenge #1 for Korea is the low birthrate of just 1.12 children per family. Overcoming the issue of a declining population will be difficult.
  • From a business perspective, another challenge is finding ways to support the growth of smaller companies. This is necessary for maintaining a good, healthy growth rate in the country.
  • And moving the education from traditional approaches to a more experiential-based method is a third major challenge for Korea going forward.

Topic #5 - Songdo City

  • The city is currently about one third built out and is still following its original architected plan drawn up in the early 2000s. Total area is about 1,500 acres, with 85,000 people expected to move in eventually. Avenues are wide; parking is underground. The city is built on filled-in wetlands. Buildings are modern; lots of glass. The city is built to environmentally-friendly standards, including areas like transportation, trash, sewage and materials used. Communication and transportation are integrated. POSCO Engineering & Construction's new headquarters, which is being built in Songdo, will be Korea's tallest building. The city is safe, people ride bikes and the air is clean. Getting to Seoul takes about 45 minutes. There is even a Jack Nicklaus golf course built here.

Topic #6 - Winding Up

  • The top goal for Chadwick over the next 5-10 years is to graduate the first class in 2015 with the same characterstics as the school's students graduating from Chadwick in Palos Verdes. The school is also striving to get parents to truly appreciate what their kids are getting at Chadwick.
  • To understand Songdo, visit Songdo. This "aerotropolis" will serve as an example to city developers in the future

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Korean New City Development Along the West Sea

We recently interviewed Dick Warmington on KoreaBusinessCentral.com. (Click here to listen and/or read the fascinating interview.) Dick is President of Chadwick International School in Songdo, Korea, which is a new city built entirely on reclaimed land in the West Sea south of Incheon. It's a dramatic testament to the Korean drive to develop new living spaces on a peninsula with very high population density.

One member of KBC took exception to the development in Songdo, pointing out that it has destroyed a lot of the natural ecosystem in the area. His criticisms also extended to Chadwick, and I wanted to answer his concerns, because there's no doubt that a lot of trade-offs are getting made in the process of the Korean economic miracle. (Click herehere and here for his comments.)

The following is my reply:

Vince - I'm surprised by your hostility toward Chadwick International (not Songdo International). There are international schools all over Korea and the world and have been for a long time, at costs roughly similar. Mainly the only thing Chadwick International is doing differently is to base their program in Songdo on the seventy-five years of history and expertise they've built back in California. Private schools like Chadwick are expensive everywhere.

I understand Chadwick jumped into Korea only after other educators had abandoned plans to run an international school in Songdo, leaving the city high and dry (I'm not 100% certain so others can confirm whether I'm right about this fact). What's notable is that Chadwick International has a higher proportion of Korean students than other international schools in Korea; this point is significant to me because it gives them more of a connection to Korean society at large than most of international schools, and a means to influence the education debate in Korea.

But even if you're not impressed by this, your position on Chadwick still seems hard to understand and so I sense it stems mainly from misgivings about Songdo itself. Further, I'd say that these misgivings are actually based on a fundamental rejection of the Korean property development model in general, not simply that too many rich people live there or that they could have razed neighborhoods in older areas of Incheon instead of building out into the West Sea.

The reason I say this is that Songdo is different only in degree and timeline, not in kind, from other development that Korea's been engaged in for at least thirty years. My town of Ansan is just down the road from Songdo and over 50% of it was built on reclaimed land from the West Sea. In fact, if you want to know how far the water line used to run in my neighborhood, read my post History of the Area Around Nojeok Hill to get the translation of the historical marker pictured above, and be sure to check out the map at the bottom of that post. Everything between the current waterline and the old waterline is reclaimed land!

Also, if you think beaches are being destroyed just for rich people, then hop in the car and drive a few minutes to Shihwa, which is halfway from Songdo to Ansan, This happens to be a working-class Songdo; dirty, small apartments, factories... and nearly 100% reclaimed land, just like Songdo.

As you know, Songdo's not the end of the line either. They're working on new city plans for Yongjongdo! Or should I say, half-next, since the airport's there already. (I visited Yongjongdo back in 1994 when you had to take a boat to get there and it was still relatively unspoilt.) 

So this is the runaway development you refer to. Fair enough; there is a certain irony in all the talk about being eco-friendly in Songdo and elsewhere when so much ecology was destroyed in the creation of these places (One of the mottos I've seen for Ansan lately is "Eco Ansan"....)

But if you take a step back and acknowledge that nice cities are being created where millions of people enjoy things like the 2011 Ansan International Street Arts Festival (Click here for photos of the event, all on reclaimed land!) or where we can relax with the beautiful parks and views (Click here for some recent views), then is it a bit easier to understand the trade-offs that Koreans have been making to develop the outer edges of the Seoul area, and to appreciate that it's not just a monster out of control? And if they're going to build a city like Songdo, don't they deserve some credit for giving it a low carbon footprint?

Songdo's only 1/3 finished so they've still got a ways to go before it's done, but I've heard from Koreans who live there that it's a great place to live already. To be honest, I've visited a couple times and not been terribly impressed, but maybe that was because I was seeing it in its 20% completion state and because I barely got out of the car. I've also heard from non-Koreans who live there that it lacks "vitality", but to each his own. They probably wouldn't like my Ansan either.

I'll also also point out that these Korean new cities satisfy some mysterious Korean urge to try to build new utopias, but that's a whole different chapter of whatever book I ever decide to write.

Since I don't think Songdo itself is the problem, but that it's the whole Korean approach that's bothering you (and since I only have photos of Ansan, not Songdo), here are some links about the development of Ansan that you (and others) might find interesting, as well as a photo of the city from the top of our daily hiking course.


Click here to read the rest of the discussion, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

I Sometimes Wonder if "Face" in Asia is a Figment of People's Imagination

Everybody's heard that "saving face" is important in Asia. It turns out Koreans think the Japanese place particular importance on this. But on a recent discussion on Korea Business Central, a member familiar with Japan mentioned that Koreans take the concept of "saving face" to a whole new level, and later clarified that he thinks it's the same in both countries but that each culture manifests it differently. I, on the other hand, have some suspicions about the whole thing. The following is what I posted in response:

I harbor a suspicion that the supposedly unique Asian characteristic called "face" is a figment of people's imagination.

Perhaps some Westerner long ago traveled to the Orient and found it to be a mysterious place. One day, he learned that the Asians even have a word for one's sense of personal dignity ("chaemyun" in Korean) and observed that we don't have a word for it in the Western languages (well, we do, but it takes us several words to make the phrase.. it's called, "sense of personal dignity") and he and the Asians all got excited about this newly found trait that nobody'd noticed until then.

Before you knew it, the concept had taken on a life of its own and it was used to explain all kinds of odd behavior and it became generally accepted that Asians will do anything to "save face" and that this makes them special and hard to understand. I guess that means Westerners don't really give a damn if we're insulted, shamed or otherwise made to feel less than special.

I'm certainly open to other opinions (and very likely I'm wrong here), but I do suspect there's not much to the chaemyun myth at all.

Click here to read the rest of the KBC Relay Interview with Greg Sheen, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

Online Source of Photos of Old Ansan

44773I'm always amazed to think of the growth and changes in Ansan since I first arrived almost 17 years ago. But that pales in comparison with the transformation of what used to be a sleepy fishing village into a city of 350,000 people when I arrived in 1993 (Current population is about 750,000 now.)

Here are links to some before/after photos of Ansan on my Seongpo-Dong blog this year:

DSCN7200 Recently, I came upon another source of old photos, which is the website of the City of Ansan. The general photo section is here: https://photo.iansan.net/ but for photos of old Ansan, they can be seen in the following categories:

내고장 안산
안산의 옛모습
안산의 발전상

To see the photos in large size, you must be logged in (membership is free and easy, but basic Korean-language ability is necessary to get through the form) and be accessing through Internet Explorer (other browsers don't work.)



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.

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

6a011279704a5b28a40133ed890627970b  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

6a011279704a5b28a4013480bcc863970c-800wiAs 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

This is where I turn the article over to several relevant quotes from The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam.


"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)

6a011279704a5b28a40133ed899885970b-800wi  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.

6a011279704a5b28a40133ee257713970b-800wi  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.

Kolkata, The Koreans, Samsung, Michael Breen and the Rest of Us Expat Patronizers

From: https://pages.cthome.net/india2/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?

6a011279704a5b28a40120a831a08a970b-500wiI 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. 

So here's the best I can do: In the words of Rodney King, another deep thinker whose situation in 1992 eventually lead to rioting in Koreatown in LA, "Can't we all just get along?"

"New" is the "New Old" in Korea Today

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.

Makgeolli (막걸리)

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.)

5-9-2010 7-32-34 PM 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.

Samulnori (사물놀이)

P1010294 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?

Hanok (한옥)

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.)

Untitled 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.

Hanbok (한복)

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.)

5-9-2010 8-39-47 PMAs 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. 

Announcing the GyeongGi Province Experience!

To learn about GyeongGi Province, there are many great English-language resources on the web. 

A good place to start would be Wikipedia. Just going to Google and typing in "gyeonggi province" gets another long list of sites. Be sure to try alternate spellings too: kyunggi province, kyeonggi provincekyeongki province, kyonggi province, kyunggi-do, kyeonggi-do, kyungki-do, kyonggi-do. (Isn't it great that GyeongGi's got a pronunciation that's neither here nor there in English?) Finally, try variations on these search terms too: invest in gyeonggi, life in gyeonggi, gyeonggi companies, etc.

The government of GyeongGi has a great looking site. It also has another one about living in GyeongGi Province. Invest Korea offers its own page about investment opportunities in Gyeonggi Province

You might even try visiting Twitter for investment opportunities. I got something like 200 hits when I typed "Gyeonggi" into the search box at LinkedIn.com. (You'll need to be a LinkedIn member to use this. Signing-up is free and if you do, be sure to add me to your network.)

 No study would be complete with out a map of GyeongGi Province. And while you're there, check out the Photos, Videos, additional Wikipedia sites, Webcams, Google Buzz and Terrain (The Real Estate option seems a little dead though; don't waste your time.)

If you've still got questions about GyeongGi Province, you can email me and I'll likely know the answer or know someone who can get it for us (sometimes free; sometimes for a price... depends on the question, of course). Or want some printed materials about investing in GyeongGi Province? Again, email me. Care to discuss with others? Then post a discussion at Korea Business Central and I almost guarantee, if it includes a reference to Gyeonggi Province, someone will answer.

OK, so don't say you can't find out more than you want to know. But what fun is any of this? And how deep is your understanding if you're just reading words?

See, hear, feel, smell, taste and feel GyeongGi Province through the GyeongGi Province Experience! 

Keep your eyes on this page as the program takes shape in the weeks and months to come. 

Can't wait? Then, again... just email me and I'll be glad to fill you in.

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top - History of the Area Around Nojeok Hill

On the main intersection in Seongpo-Dong, across from Star Plaza and about a five minute walk from the base of Nojeok Hill is a historical marker:

4-24-2010 3-19-35 AM 

I've passed it many times but hadn't bothered to read what it said until recently. It's a fascinating story about the history of our neighborhood. Here are a couple photos of the marker, along with its translation:



Seong Meori [Meaning Castle Head

(Seongpo Landing, Seong-Doo [Also meaning Castle Head])

Situated between Tae Hill of Gojan-Dong and Dokju Valley of Seongpo-Dong, this village in Gunnae-Myeon, Ansan-Gu was called Seong-Got-Po-Chon-Ri in Choseon times and renamed Seongpo-Ri at the end of the Choseon period. Fishermen used the area as their forward landing point along the zone running about 300 meters to the southwest and 400 meters to the south of where Star Plaza is currently located. The feng shui (Korean: "poong su") of this spot saw it as the head of a castle, thus it was called Seong Meori (Meaning "Castle Head"] Landing. Later, a boat landing was set up in Sadong Gura after the Korean War. But this blocked the water and prevented boats from coming and going to Seong Meori so the fishermen left for places like Gura (Currently: Sa-Dong) and Baeot (Currently: Bono-Dong) to carry out their livelihoods. 

The Seong Meori area became more suitable for farming, and the farming village which sprung up was the home of the Lees of Yeoju, the Shins of Yeongweon and the Yeoms of Paju; it had 76 residences. After the old neighborhood system was abolished in 1976, the area was transformed into what it is today, starting with construction of Artist Apartments, and then [Housing Corporation] Apartment Complex #9 and [Housing Corporation] Complex #10. Right up until the neighbornood system abolition, every year around January 15 on the lunar calendar, a festival was held partway up the slope of Nojeok Hill to wish for the well-being of the village.

As mentioned above, this is Star Plaza:


Here's a map of the area. The red lines show the previous waterline around Seong Meori Landing:

4-26-2010 3-36-14 AM

My Associate Met Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Explained to Him Why Dokdo Belongs to Korea

I met Professor Hosaka Yuji at the inaugural meeting of the World FTA Forum, which is the association run by Chairman Chang-Woo Lee, my former boss from LG International Corp. At that meeting, we became associates by virtue of our joint membership on the World FTA Forum operating committee. (Professor Hosaka and Chairman Lee are 4th and 5th from left, respectively, in the photo below.)

IMG_2415 Professor Hosaka is originally from Japan and currently teaches Japanese studies at Sejong University in Seoul. But what's extra remarkable about him is that he is a naturalized Korean citizen!

His decision to change nationalities came about as he studied the history of Dokdo (called "Takeshima" in Japanese), which are a couple islands in the East Sea (sometimes called the "Sea of Japan") and which are the subject of a long dispute between Korea and Japan. (A few Koreans are even taking this dispute to the billboards and newspapers of the US.)

Both countries claim ownership, but Korea has managed to occupy the islands militarily and in the course of his studies on the subject, Professor Hosaka came to accept the Korean position. He is now Director of the Dokdo Research Institute and a leading Korean advocate for Korean sovereignty of the islands.

Last Thursday's edition of the Jungang Ilbo published an article by Professor Hosaka regarding his meeting with Prime Minister Hatoyama in 2006. It is a remarkable recount of the events and I have included the Korean article and its English translation below.


내가 만난 하토야마 총리

My Meeting with Prime Minister Hatoyama

4-18-2010 8-34-26 PM 나는 2006년 5월에 지인의 소개로 방한 중이던 하토야마 유키오 일본 민주당 간사장(당시)을 만났다. 독도에 대한 한국 측 논리를 일본어로 설명해 줄 사람을 찾았기 때문이다.

An acquaintance arranged for me to meet Yukio Hatoyoma when he visited Korea in May 2006. At the time, he was General Secretary of the Democratic Party of Japan and was looking for someone to explain to him in Japanese the logic of Korea's point of view regarding Dokdo.

당시의 민주당은 2005년 9월의 중의원 선거 참패로 국회의원 수가 격감한 상황이었다. 그러나 나는 일본 제1야당에도 한국 측 독도 인식을 전달하는 것이 큰 의미가 있다고 생각하고 요청에 응했다.

Having been crushed in the House of Representatives elections of September 2005, the Democratic Party of Japan had seen their numbers in the Diet fall sharply. But I agreed to the request because I saw it as a meaningful opportunity to share the perspective of Korea regarding Dokdo with the leading Japanese opposition party.

서울의 어느 호텔 음식점에서 만난 하토야마 간사장은 언론 매체를 통해서 본 것보다 훨씬 예리한 인상을 주는 인물이었다. 민주당 국회의원 2명과 비서실장, 그리고 나의 지인이 동석했다. 시간은 당초 30분을 예정했으나 그들은 내 설명을 1시간 반 정도 들었다. 그래도 시간이 충분치는 못했다. 그런데 내 설명을 듣고 나서 하토야마 간사장은 독도가 조선 땅임을 인정한 1877년의 ‘태정관 지령문’ 등을 가리키면서 역사적 사실로는 ‘일본 측 참패’, 즉 역사적으로는 독도는 한국 땅일 수 있다는 뉘앙스로 소감을 말했다. 그러나 샌프란시스코 조약에 의한 독도의 귀속 문제에 관해서는 독도를 ‘미국이 재검토하여 일본 것으로 결론을 냈을 것’이라고 강조했다. 당시는 2006년이었으므로 2008년 7월에 발견된 일본의 독도영유권을 부정하는 미 국무부 극비문서 등이 아직 알려지기 이전의 상황이었다.

I met General Secretary Hatoyama at a hotel restaurant in Seoul and he came across to me as someone much shrewder than the impression I'd gotten from seeing him in the media. He attended along with two national assemblymen from the Democratic Party, along with his office manager. I was also joined by my acquaintance. We had initially scheduled to meet for just thirty minutes but the visitors listened to my explanation for about an hour and a half. Even so, there wasn’t enough time. But after listening to my explanation, General Secretary Hatoyama pointed to, among other things, the “Tae-Jeong-Gwan Directive” of 1877 which recognized Dokdo as being Chosun [Korean] land and the historical fact of this “Japanese catastrophe”; this was a nuanced way of saying that, historically, Dokdo might be Korean land. But regarding the issue of Dokdo's jurisdiction based on the Treaty of Peace with Japan, he emphasized that “the US re-considered the matter and would have come to the conclusion that [Dokdo] belongs to Japan.” As it was 2006, the top secret documents of the US Department of State that denied Japanese sovereignty over Dokdo and which were discovered in July 2008, had not yet come to light.

4-18-2010 8-45-01 PM 하토야마 간사장은 독도의 역사적 사실에 대해서는 어느 정도 인정했지만 샌프란시스코 조약을 둘러싼 국제법적 해석에 있어서 한국 측 논리(당시), 즉 독도를 한국 땅으로 인정한 1946년의 연합국 문서가 51년에 조인된 샌프란시스코 조약에도 반영됐다는 논리를 ‘한국 측 논리일 뿐’이라고 일축했다. 이에 덧붙여 ‘나는 일본인이니까 역시 다케시마(독도의 일본명)는 일본 것이라고 생각한다’고 민족주의적 감정을 드러냈다. 그 모습에 나는 실망감을 느꼈다. 현재도 그 상황 그대로라면 하토야마 총리의 생각은 독도는 ‘역사적으로 한국 것이었을 가능성은 있지만 결과적으로 샌프란시스코 조약상 일본 것이 됐고 자신은 일본인이므로 그것을 믿는다’는 것일 수 있다.

Prime Minister Hatoyama recognized the historical facts of Dokdo to a certain degree but, regarding it as just the Korean opinion, rejected the Korean logic of the time regarding the interpretation of international law surrounding the Treaty of Peace with Japan [signed between the US and Japan] – which is that the documented position of the Allied countries of 1946 which recognized Dokdo as Korean land would have been reflected in the Treaty of Peace with Japan, which was signed in 1951. In addition, he showed ethnocentric emotion by saying, “Since I am Japanese, I think that Takeshima (the Japanese name for Dokdo) belongs to Japan.” I felt disappointed by that expression. Even if our meeting took place now, Prime Minister Hatoyama might still think, “There is a possibility that Dokdo was Korean historically but as it ended up to be Japanese in the Treaty of Peace with Japan, this is what I believe because I am Japanese.”

그런데 그 후 새로운 자료가 발견됐고 한국 측 논리는 크게 발전됐다. 하토야마 총리가 현재의 샌프란시스코 조약에 관한 한국 측 해석을 들으면 개인적으로 생각을 좀 더 수정할 가능성이 있다고 본다. 그는 지난해 12월에는 고등학교 사회과 교재 해설서에서 ‘다케시마(독도)는 일본 땅’이라는 직접적 표현을 삭제하는 데 결정적 역할을 했다. 그러나 최근 기자들의 질문 공세에 밀려 독도에 대한 ‘일본 정부의 방침을 바꿀 생각이 전혀 없다’는 견해를 밝혔다. 그러나 그 자리에서도 그는 ‘독도는 일본 땅’이라는 표현만은 피했고, 외상도 “한국이 (독도를) 불법점거하고 있다는 표현은 쓰고 싶지 않다”고 말했다. 지지율이 계속 하락하고 있는 현 상황에서 7월의 참의원선거를 앞에 두고 민주당에 불리한 발언은 피해야 하는 입장에서 불가피한 선택이었을지 모르나 내 고교와 대학교선배이기도 한 그가 민족주의적 감정을 극복하고 아시아를 크게 품었으면 하는 마음이 간절하다.

But since then, new materials have been discovered and the Korean position has advanced greatly. If Prime Minister Hatoyama were to listen to the current Korean interpretation regarding the Treaty of Peace with Japan, I think he might revise his personal thoughts on it a bit more. Last December in a position paper regarding the social studies curriculum in Japanese high schools, he took a decisive role in having the direct expression deleted which said, “Takeshima (Dokdo) is Japanese land.” Recently, having been pressured under questioning by journalists, he expressed this position: “There is no consideration being made to change the Japanese government’s guidelines” regarding Dokdo. But even as he said that, he still avoided using the expression “Dokdo is Japanese land” and the foreign minister has also said, “[We] don’t want to use the expression that Korea is illegally occupying [Dokdo]”. Currently, as Prime Minister Hatoyama's support is continuing to fall and with the House of Councillors elections coming up in July, it may be an inevitable choice to avoid expressions which are disadvantageous to the Democratic Party of Japan. But he is also my senior alumni from both high school and university and I have a strong hope that he will overcome his ethnocentric bias and embrace the Asian perspective.

The New Chinese Province of Chosun

The Lost Tribe of China

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.

P1000863 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?

4-6-2010 12-05-48 AM The recent interview on Korea Business Central with Marcus Noland (author of Avoiding the Apocalypse and pictured at left) made me aware of yet another possibility (even likelihood, perhaps!?), which is that North Korea may not "collapse"; it might become a vassal state of China. 

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.

On the Death of a Fellow Student's Mother and Figuring Out How Much Condolence Money to Give Him

In Korea, the exchange of money takes place in situations Westerners often find strange (to say the least!) and this has been part of the culture for a very long time.

On the negative side, the little white envelopes with cash symbolize the graft in Korean government and business. In fact, a top story in the news these days is whether US$50,000 cash left on the table in an envelope for a cabinet member of the previous government was actually received by that cabinet member or whether someone else picked it up and it disappeared.

3-17-2010 9-44-17 PM But the exchange of money goes beyond such black-and-white corruption and it is to unfair to stereotype the process as bad without understanding the meaning behind it. In many cases, the exchange of money and gifts is simply a mechanism Koreans use to communicate to others about the value they place on their relationships.

Just yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with my wife which was helpful to me in further internalizing the factors involved. 

It all started with a text message I received to my phone from a fellow student in the graduate program at Hanyang Unversity telling me that another student's mother had died. The time and location for the funeral was mentioned too, though it's several hours' drive out of town and I'm not close enough to the student to really be obligated to show up. However, the next text message I got contained a bank account number for sending condolence money and that's what prompted the following conversation with my wife.

Me: The mother of a fellow student died and I need to send some condolence money. How much do you suggest? W100,000?

Myunghee: No, that's way too much. The standard amount is W30,000 these days; I mean, you don't know him that well.

Me: W30,000? How could I send so little? This student is someone I know relatively well; certainly better than the average. I've even driven him to the bus stop after class sometimes.

Myunghee: Fine, then give him W50,000. 

Extra commentary: W40,000 is a taboo number since "4" in Chinese characters sounds like the word for "death". Thus, no cash gift will ever have the number "4" in it. After W30,000 was determined to be too low, our next choice up was W50,000.

Me: What about W70,000?

Extra commentary: For some reason, W70,000 is next after W50,000. With W60,000, the recipient would think to himself, "Huh? Where did W60,000 come from? If not W50,000, then he should have done better than W60,000!". Giving W90,000 would get this reaction, "Gee, he should have just rounded up to W100,000... What's he saying with W90,000? How strange!". It's hard to explain, but even W80,000 seems a bit wrong to me, too. In my mind (and perhaps a Korean reader can comment further for me here), my choices were: W30,000, W50,000, W70,000 or W100,000.

Myunghee: W70,000? You'd be giving too much! If everyone else is giving W50,000, and you give W70,000, it'll look funny. The money is just a way of acknowledging his mother's passing (Korean word my wife used: "인사차").

Me: OK, fine. I'll wire him W50,000 tomorrow.

If this seems like a rather calculating way to come up with the amount, then that's because it is. My process with my wife was not different than the thought process every Korean goes through when deciding on these matters. 

Everything about the process is deliberate and communicates meaning. Understanding this meaning can be illuminating, both in personal relationships and in business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Book Review: Ethnic Nationalism in Korea, by Gi-Wook Shin

For some reason, I never really took much notice of the nationalism that pervades Korean society. I mean, Koreans are patriotic. But who isn't? Where I come from, the US (well, Texas, actually) is the center of the world, so why should I be surprised by Koreans who think their country is where everything important happens? Koreans fly their flag, sing the national anthem and talk about their long history. Back home, we do the flag and singing things (not me, but most everybody else), though the history's a bit shorter. The Korean sense of nation is just like everywhere, isn't it?

Apparently not. And apparently this sense of nationalism is still as strong as ever so I can't reconcile my ignorance of the obvious by just contrasting the "old Korea" with the "new Korea" and saying I missed out on the old version like I did recently in my review of The Koreans. As a result, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea was enlightening to me in many ways.

2-4-2010 5-08-43 PM First of all, the Korean version of nationalism is based on ethnicity. In other words, Koreans define the greater Korean nation in terms of a shared bloodline. In today's world, the fact that Koreans are of a single ethnicity is almost too obvious to need pointing out. But the basic premise of this book is that Korean nationalism that defines the nation based on this ethnicity is a product of factors in the modern era. Shin repeats often that the Korean ethnic nationalism of today was not a foregone conclusion but rather emerged out of the Korean experience. 

Korean ethnic nationalism started as one approach to dealing with encroaching Western influences at the turn of the 20th century. With Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, pan-Asianism gave way to ethnic nationalism as a means of resisting Japanese cultural domination. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the ethnic nationalistic approach competed against international socialism -- which divided society based on class, rather than ethnicity -- as well as agrarianism.

After the colonial period, Korean nationalism had to deal with a divided nation and Shin describes the dynamics of this in fascinating detail. Since 1945, no Korean government on either side of the ideological divide has questioned the ethnic nationalistic premise. Thus, in spite of the radically different economic systems in North and South Korea, the underlying social justifications are remarkably similar. As Shin explains (p. 24):

"...the kind of nationalism developed in the South was quite similar to what appeared in the North. Both sides recognized ethnic unity of the Korean nation, accepted the premise of the primacy of nation over other cleavages, and competed over the legitimacy of their own system as representing the whole nation. Nationalism became a key resource in the politics of postwar Korea, both North and South, despite contrasting political ideologies and incorporation into competing world systems (communist and capitalist)."

Today, South Korea, as a nation, is justifiably proud of its achievements and this sense of "one race-one-nation" is as strong as ever. The book cover incorporates a photo of one of the most memorable demonstrations of Korean national pride: mass gatherings during the 2002 World Cup in Korea. We were there too and for a fortnight, I was an "honorary" part of this unforgettable Korean experience:



The author appears to wish Koreans had a more nuanced view of the nation; that they didn't just assume history was what they think it is and that an ethnic approach to defining the nation is the only way. He does seem resigned to how things are though and acknowledges the constructive role nationalism has played and continues to play in Korean society. 

Shin writes as a scholar and the reader should not expect to finish quickly. There's even some statistical analysis of survey data and many references to literature by others in the field. I didn't get lost in the concepts but came pretty close a few times. This book isn't written for a newbie to the field and it assumes the reader has a background in cultural studies in general and in Korea specifically. 

For the reader willing to make the effort, this book is packed with new information and insights about Korea and Koreans. I thank my associate, D. Bannon, for kindly recommending this book for my winter reading this year.

Book Review: The Koreans by Michael Breen

I came to Korea too late. It's just that simple. I came as soon as I could, of course, which was straight after university graduation in the US, but I missed out on seeing the "old Korea". It was the Korea of anti-Americanism, the Korea of poverty, the Korea of militant student demonstrations and of government oppression. I missed all that.

41GDTA19NFL._SL160_ When I arrived in Korea on December 28, 1993, this was gone. Life in Korea has had it's challenges for me but through it all, I've been treated well at least as often as I would have back home, have never gotten into an argument about how evil my country is, witnessed true democracy from day one and don't know what a starving Korean would look like. As best I can reckon, I arrived in Korea right when the positive political, social and economic trends were coming together for the country.

I have non-Korean friends and associates who lived in Korea in the 1980s. Some of them were gone from or leaving Korea by the time I arrived. So we have very different views about the country; in many ways, irreconcilable. The fact that one country can have changed this much in such a short period of time is astounding and I think a lot of foreigners who first understood the old Korea are unable to make proper sense of or describe the Korea of today. Or perhaps they just had too much fun obsessing about the bad things they saw: typical "expatriate-itis"

Michael Breen got to Korea in 1982; he wrote this book in 1998 (and updated it in 2004). He should have written it ten years earlier because his descriptions of "old Korea" don't ring true to me when I look at Korea today. But more than that, the book's fatal flaw is not that Breen is still trying to describe the Korean of old, it's that he just hasn't looked hard enough to figure Korea out properly for any time.

Breen apparently never got very far out of the international community in Seoul. He let the views of other expatriates color his outlook on Korea too much. And perhaps it's his journalist background showing through, but this cliche-filled book of stereotypes is a bit too sensationalized. To get things off to an exciting start for his non-Korean readers, he begins by running Koreans down every way he can, presumably so he can pick them back up later in the book. (병주고 약주고...)

In the interest of "fair reporting" (I guess!), the author goes to some effort to mix his condescending views with a smattering of compliments. His basic message to Koreans is: "I don't care what everyone else is saying about Korea and Koreans, I still think you're pretty cool." This, in a nutshell is Breen's double-message throughout the book.

One of Breen's main themes is that Korea hasn't yet grown up; they went to hell and back during the first two-thirds of the 20th century and so they are still working through the after-effects of that. Well, yes, there's some undeniable truth in that, but does it warrant quotes like this? "...Koreans came out of a half-century of Japanese domination with such a profound sense of worthlessness that they seemed to have lost any notion of who they were or where they came from." (pp. 4-5) This is a strong statement that overlooks far too many nuances and counter-currents of thought to be useful in understanding Korea correctly.

In fact, the book is full of similar insights (i.e. "nonsense") which are clearly the product of Breen's discussions at dinner parties with ignorant expatriates. Here are some examples just from the preface and first chapter:

  • p.4 - "You need a high-level bullshit indicator to figure out what's going on."
  • p. 31 - "Koreans are more gregarious than we are. They're so into other people that they don't read books much and they tend to fall asleep when they're by themselves." (Huh?)
  • p. 35 - "Korean is not a good language to argue in because there are so many shades of meaning. It is so easy to be misunderstood. English is a language for clarity and logic."
  • p. 36 - "Korean men who are angry... bellow from the pit of their stomach... You can see why men rule in Korean society."

As I read this book, I found myself constantly writing question marks and asterisks in the margin because of all the dubious assertions. Are disputes in Korean society usually solved by force? Really? (p. 142) Are Koreans reluctant to work as hard as they used to? Is it because their companies give them cheap apartments to live in? (p. 63) Can "an astute observer... summarise the main features of a country's political culture after spending a little time on the roads"? (p. 189) Indeed!

Breen spent awhile in Korea and according to the book jacket, is still a frequent visitor (at least as recently as 2004). His wife is Korean. Apparently he did a lot of reporting about Korea for various international newspapers. Good for him. This book shows clearly that he did some time, met many Koreans and has opinions about Korea. A reader wishing to find out what the politically correct opinions of Korea are in the expatriate community could learn a thing or two through this book. 

But readers looking for a thoughtful understanding of Korea and Koreans reached through diligent research and contemplation will not find that this book breaks new ground. The subtitle of "The Koreans" is "Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies". Just the fact that Breen summarizes all Koreans into this "they" and "their" indicates the stereotypical way this book seeks to explain Korea and Koreans.

"Long Live Korea!" - The Legend of Hong Soo-hwan's Comeback Win

I discussed and translated an article from the Jungang Daily newspaper last week in this post of Nojeok Hill: My View from the Top. Here is the (almost) full Korean source followed by the translation. It was nice to work on a translation project where I was the client since it gave me the freedom to translate a little less literally than usual. 

Note that the following Korean text taken from the Jungang Daily website is not complete and I wasn't able to find my printed copy again. So the English translation does contain a paragraph or so of content not in the Korean here.

“대한국민 만세”… 홍수환의 4전5기 챔피언 신화

1977년 11월 27일 파나마에서 홍수환 선수가 신설 체급인 주니어 페더급 챔피언에 올랐다. 74년 남아프리카공화국에서 첫 번째 챔피언에 올랐을 때 “엄마 나 챔피언 먹었어”, 그리고 “그래 내 아들아, 대한국민 만세다”라는 대화로 새로운 유행을 창조했던 홍수환이 파나마에서 또 드라마를 만들어냈던 것이다. 2회에 네 차례나 다운됐던 홍수환은 3회가 시작되자마자 역전 KO승을 이끌어냈다.

한국 근현대사에서 수많은 스포츠 사건이 있었음에도 77년 홍수환의 승리가 머릿속에 뚜렷하게 각인돼 있는 이유는 무엇일까? 무엇보다도 ‘역전’이라는 단어가 우리에게 주는 매력 때문일 것이다. 20세기에 들어서자마자 나라를 잃었고, 식민지에서 해방되자마자 분단과 전쟁을 겪었던 우리 민족에게 ‘역전’보다도 더 뚜렷한 목표는 없었다. 1936년 손기정, 76년 양정모의 올림픽 금메달이 있었지만, 70년대 레슬링의 김일, 권투의 홍수환, 그리고 야구의 군산상고에 환호했던 것은 바로 역전의 드라마 때문이었다. 이들은 우리 민족뿐만 아니라 우리 스스로를 대신해 역전 드라마를 써 주었던 것이다. 홍수환의 드라마는 77년 수출 100억 달러, 1인당 국민소득 1000달러, 그리고 쌀 자급을 통한 쌀 막걸리의 재등장과 점철되었다.

또 다른 이유는 암울한 시대 상황 속에서 피어난 환희의 순간이었다는 점이다. 77년은 유신의 어두움이 사회를 짓누르고 있었던 시기였다. 75년 베트남 패망뿐만 아니라 74년의 오일쇼크에 따른 경제적 어려움으로 짙은 그림자가 드리워져 있었다. 홍수환의 승리 한 달여 전부터 본격화된 학생시위로 인해 긴급조치 9호 이후 처음으로 20여 일간의 휴교가 있었지만, 언제쯤 봄이 올 것인지 누구도 예측할 수 없었던 시대였다. 여기에 더하여 동년 11월 11일에 있었던 이리역 다이너마이트 폭발 사건은 사회를 더 음울하게 했다. 이러한 어둠 속에서 터진 홍수환의 승리는 잠시나마 전 국민의 마음을 환하게 해 주었다.

스포츠는 이렇게 사회적으로 다양한 효과를 만들어 내며, 특히 국가대항전을 통해 국민을 통합하는 수단으로 작동했다. 대부분의 독재자가 스포츠 육성을 강조했던 것도 모두 이 때문이었다. 여기에 더하여 스포츠는 갈수록 순수성과 다양성을 잃고 상업화되고 있으며, 이제는 잔인함까지 더해가고 있다. 비록 그것이 ‘국가’를 위해 이용됐다고 하더라도 ‘그때 지금’의 아름다운 스포츠 정신이 그리워진다.

"Long Live Korea!" - The Legend of Hong Soo-hwan's Comeback Win
In Panama on November 27, 1977, Hong Soo-hwan was crowned champion in the newly established junior featherweight division. When he first won a championship in 1974 in South Africa, Hong had called his mother to tell her about it and is reported to have said, "Mom, I beat the champion", to which his mother replied, "Yes, my son. Long live Korea!". In fact, this short conversion even entered the Korean vernacular of the time. Hong's fight in Panama also resulted in a well-known story. In the second round of that fight, he was knocked down four times but came out right at the beginning of the third round to win with a dramatic KO.
Even though many events have transpired throughout the modern history of Korean sports, Hong Soo-hwan's win in 1977 stands out as one of the most memorable. What could be the reason for that? More than anything, the answer to this question is found in the fact that we Koreans are drawn to the idea of a come-from-behind win. Having lost our country's independence to the Japanese at the very beginning of the 20th century, Korea then emerged from the Japanese colonial period only to be split in two and then suffer through the Korean War. During those long years, could we have wanted anything more ardently than a "come from behind win"?
Of course, athletes such as Sohn Gi-jeong and Yang Jeong-mo earned gold medals in the Olympics in 1936 and 1976, respectively. But it is the comeback wins in wrestling by Kim Il, in boxing by Hong Soo-hwan and in baseball by the Kunsan Commercial High School in the 1970s that Koreans remember with the most pride. These winners gave victories not just to the nation as a whole, but also to each of us individually. Hong Soo-hwan's win took place alongside the national achievements in 1977 of reaching $100 million in exports and per capita income of $1,000, and coincided with the re-emergence of "makkoli" made with natively grown rice.

Another reason Hong Hwan-soo's win stands out so clearly today is that it represented a happy moment in what was otherwise a very difficult time in the country. In 1977, the darkness of the Yushin Constitution was pressing down on society. Furthermore, not only had Korea been on the losing side in the Vietnam War but the oil shock of 1974 caused enduring economic shadows. As a result of the severe emergency measures taken by the government in response to the outbreak of student demonstrations about a month before, there was a 20-day suspension of university classes and no one at the time could predict when things would get better. In addition, the fresh memory of the Iri Station dynamite explosion incident that occurred on November 11 of the same year led to a generally gloomy feeling throughout Korean society. It was within this context that the victory of Hong Soo-hwan provided such an inspiration to the entire nation.

Sports generate various effects like this in society. In particular, they serve as a means of bringing a nation together through the shared experience of sporting events that take place at the national level. This is one reason most autocrats have pressed for the development of national sports programs. But in addition, the more sporting develops, the more the genuineness and variety are lost as commercialization creeps in. Here, we might even mention the cruelty that sports often involves. Thus, even if we say that such achievements are sought for the sake of the "country", we still miss the naive beauty of the sports of that bygone era.

Chang W. Kim's Presentation at TEDxSeoul Got Me Thinking

[LAST MINUTE NOTE: I wrote this article a couple days ago and scheduled to post it today. Just this morning, the Korean edition of the Jungang Daily (interestingly, this one doesn't seem to have been translated to the English edition) published an article that makes nearly the same point as I do below. Here is the link to the Korean article: 불법복제 미-일 2배, IT경쟁력 8단계 추락, 한국은 SW 후진국. I may expand on it later in a follow-up post.]

Two events in the past week have conspired to sharpen my perspective on an issue of Korean business that's been on my mind for awhile. It is the question of why Korea seems somewhat isolated from the mainstream of global online trends even though the country was first out of the block for high-speed and wireless Internet a decade ago and development of the Korean IT industry is a top national priority.

A recent article in the Jungang Ilbo (Nov. 14, 2009 - 세계적 온라인 서비스, 한국선 왜 고전하나) explains how US-based online services such as Second Life, MySpace, Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter are all finding their results in the Korean market disappointing. In my opinion, this is not because the Korean competition is superior. Also, the Korean media is all abuzz about the vast sums being invested by the government into the Korean IT industry. Here is one of many articles about this: 차-조선-건설-로봇에 IT를 입힌다.

Event #1: An Insight Worth Following Up On

Screenshot of The BrainTo bring my point into focus, I'd like to share about a conversation I had with a fellow graduate student at Hanyang University. He had seen me using a new software program  (The Brain - www.thebrain.com) on my computer and grasped immediately that the powerful linking features could be useful for organizing his thoughts and materials for a doctoral dissertation that he'll be starting on soon. I had given him the link a week before and he came to class this week to tell me that he'd played around with it and really liked the program... But one thing bothered him... The trial period only lasts for 30 days and he wanted to know if he really had to actually purchase the software after that. "Well, sure, of course", was my reply... 

After class he came up to me and explained that my reply got him to thinking about a curious difference between Korean and American perspectives. Whereas I only thought it natural to pay for a program I find valuable, he was at first unable to understand how a program couldn't be free. It wasn't that he was trying to be sneaky; it just didn't occur to him that paying was part of the deal.

This thinking comes from an environment where all the major software programs (and music and movies, too) circulate online in ways that the licensing can be circumvented. Sure, we have that in the US, but it's not the mainstream anymore like it is in Korea (and much of the world). 

I should point out that my associate is a Korean professional, about my age, and my equal or superior in many ways. I was impressed with his desire to confront this difference honestly and respect him for doing so.

Event #2: Wondering About the Problems

TEDxSeoul_logo[1][1][1]Chang W. Kim is an evangelist of web trends in Asia through his blog Web 2.0 Asia. As a full-time job, he works at Google's Seoul office, helping Korea's advanced blogging service technologies and features find worldwide users through Google's global reach. Previously he worked with Samsung's mobile division and TNC, a blogging service startup that he headed jointly, and which was purchased by Google.

Changwon_kimChang shared on Saturday at TEDxSeoul about how the "golden age" for online services in Korea was 1997-2001 and about how innovative services were often introduced and gained a following in Korea long before they reached the US market. For example, Dialpad.com was a forerunner of Skype and Koreans were putting up personal pages on Cyworld while Facebook and MySpace were still in the concept stage. But each of these Korean services failed to grow successfully in the global market.

(As an additional note here, Yeonho Oh, the founder of OhMyNews.com which brought personal news publishing to the masses in Korea back in 2000 long before blogging took off, was another speaker at TEDxSeoul. His presentation reflected on the lack of sustainable development achieved for the site after its initial explosion onto the scene.)

My Two-Cents

Chang W. Kim gave a number of reasons why the Korean online service environment has lost its excitement and several suggestions for improvement and reasons for hope. For example, he pointed out that government regulations require a ridiculous degree of security for online transactions. I can personally vouch for this fact, as we have often given up purchasing something online when we couldn't figure out how to get through the security steps. This has prevented us from making online purchasing a way of life here in Korea like we do with Amazon back in the US. 

Kim also pointed to a number of young entrepreneurs who are pioneering new online concepts. And the Korean government is never far behind in trying to promote good ideas (or to get in the way). 

But I think he may have left out one important point... In a market where intellectual property in software is not respected within the mainstream, new ideas (though they may get off the ground thanks to Korean creativity and hard work) often get snuffed out early because the path to market is too long and the ultimate payoff uncertain. In other words, if the consumer market is used to getting stuff (really good stuff, sometimes!) for free, why would they start paying early on for a new service that is still rough around the edges? And without that early revenue stream, how can new services invest and develop?

I might point out that this applies not just to Korea. But as President Lee Myeong-bak explained so well in his two-hour TV discussion last Friday evening, even though Korea has become an advanced country in many areas, there are still other ways in which Korea needs to improve (Don't we all!?). He didn't mention this area specifically (his comments came in the context of Korean foreign aid) but the point remains valid for online businesses, too.

Sure, the US market is bigger and that makes for an easier playing field for start-ups in the US, but the Korean market shouldn't be small, and it got a big head start thanks to the spread of high-speed Internet long before other countries. Korean innovations would surely get a boost from a populace ready to pay for good ideas at an easily stage.

Interestingly, Korean gaming companies, such as NCsoft are world beaters. This surely has a lot to do with the fact that they found a way to protect their intellectual property and monetize traffic early. 

The next stage of Korean online development, in my view, will require changes in this area if Korea is become an online leader again.

What a Come-from-Behind Win Means to Koreans

I came across a remarkable piece in the Jungang Daily newspaper yesterday. I say it's remarkable because within just a small print space, the article provides a unique glimpse into the Korean mindset of today and illustrates factors from the past that have contributed to this outlook. 

Though the main news stories in the leading Korean media are translated over to their English editions, many gems are left out and remain inaccessible to non-Korean speakers. This is unfortunate, because a deeper understanding of Korea today cannot be achieved without grasping the nuances in tidbits like this.

The article was written by Park Tae-gyoon, Professor of Modern Korean History at the International Graduate School of Seoul National University and the original Korean version can be found at https://article.joins.com/article/article.asp?total_id=3895261. Here is my translation of it.


"Long Live Korea!" - The Legend of Hong Soo-hwan's Comeback Win

Htm_2009112703080910001010-001 In Panama on November 27, 1977, Hong Soo-hwan was crowned champion in the newly established junior featherweight division. When he first won a championship in 1974 in South Africa, Hong had called his mother to tell her about it and is reported to have said, "Mom, I beat the champion", to which his mother replied, "Yes, my son. Long live Korea!". In fact, this short conversion even entered the Korean vernacular of the time. Hong's fight in Panama also resulted in a well-known story. In the second round of that fight, he was knocked down four times but came out right at the beginning of the third round to win with a dramatic KO.

Even though many events have transpired throughout the modern history of Korean sports, Hong Soo-hwan's win in 1977 stands out as one of the most memorable. What could be the reason for that? More than anything, the answer to this question is found in the fact that we Koreans are drawn to the idea of a come-from-behind win. Having lost our country's independence to the Japanese at the very beginning of the 20th century, Korea then emerged from the Japanese colonial period only to be split in two and then suffer through the Korean War. During those long years, could we have wanted anything more ardently than a "come from behind win"?

Of course, athletes such as Sohn Gi-jeong and Yang Jeong-mo earned gold medals in the Olympics in 1936 and 1976, respectively. But it is the comeback wins in wrestling by Kim Il, in boxing by Hong Soo-hwan and in baseball by the Kunsan Commercial High School in the 1970s that Koreans remember with the most pride. These winners gave victories not just to the nation as a whole, but also to each of us individually. Hong Soo-hwan's win took place alongside the national achievements in 1977 of reaching $100 million in exports and per capita income of $1,000, and coincided with the re-emergence of "makkoli" made with natively grown rice.

Another reason Hong Hwan-soo's win stands out so clearly today is that it represented a happy moment in what was otherwise a very difficult time in the country. In 1977, the darkness of the Yushin Constitution was pressing down on society. Furthermore, not only had Korea been on the losing side in the Vietnam War but the oil shock of 1974 caused enduring economic shadows. As a result of the severe emergency measures taken by the government in response to the outbreak of student demonstrations about a month before, there was a 20-day suspension of university classes and no one at the time could predict when things would get better. In addition, the fresh memory of the Iri Station dynamite explosion incident that occurred on November 11 of the same year led to a generally gloomy feeling throughout Korean society. It was within this context that the victory of Hong Soo-hwan provided such an inspiration to the entire nation.

Sports generate various effects like this in society. In particular, they serve as a means of bringing a nation together through the shared experience of sporting events that take place at the national level. This is one reason most autocrats have pressed for the development of national sports programs. But in addition, the more sporting develops, the more the genuineness and variety are lost as commercialization creeps in. Here, we might even mention the cruelty that sports often involves. Thus, even if we say that such achievements are sought for the sake of the "country", we still miss the naive beauty of the sports of that bygone era.

Nojeok Hill: My View from the Top - McDonald's 20-Minute Home Delivery Service

There are just two McDonald's outlets in Ansan and one is right at the foot of Nojeok Hill. It is located in the food court at Homeplus, which is the very successful Korean discount chain run by Tesco of the UK. We eat at Mickey D's occasionally, but not particularly often, mainly because there are way too many excellent Korean food options available.

11-14-2009 1-26-25 AMWhile McDonald's does a decent business in Korea, the stores near us are seldom packed. Getting to the restaurants can be a hassle too, especially if finding a parking place is hard and/or costs money.

Neither of the two McDonald's stores offers a drive-though, either. Indeed, it's only at Lotteria, a rapidly growing Korean competitor of McDonald's, where I can order, receive and eat my food in the car. And the Lotteria menu is remarkably creative; for example, I enjoyed a Shrimp/Avocado Burger there last week!

But McDonald's is experimenting with new ideas, too. They've started offering coffee and an Egg McMuffin for breakfast; something Koreans aren't used to. We've been a couple times in the morning and I think we were the only people in the store both times, so it's hard to say this has been a raging success.


And some time back, McDonald's introduced a home delivery service through a national toll-free number (its 1600-5252, in case you're interested). When placing the first order, you give the operator your address, but after that, the system automatically links the address to the phone number and placing an order is as simple as dialing in and saying what you want. Takes all of 30 seconds... and within about 20 minutes, the food is brought by motorcycle delivery: cold food in one insulated pack and hot food in another. 

I was home alone today and rather than make lunch myself, I ordered by phone and this friendly chap brought it over. Since delivery is free (home food deliveries are ALWAYS free in Korea, it seems), it cost me W5,500 (about US$5)... pretty competitive, I'd say, but still, I don't know if many Koreans are ordering hamburgers from home.


In the news this week, I read that McDonald's is planning to open 1,000 new stores next year, including many in Asia. I wonder how many will be in Korea, though. (In fact, one McDonald's store in Ansan closed a few years ago.) With the competitive Korean market, I wouldn't be surprised if they are planning to take their investment dollars to more promising Asian countries.

My $5 McDonald's lunch today was delivered in 20 minutes for free!

Indeed, Korea has been a tough market for many American corporations. Wal-Mart left in 2002 after suffering huge losses. In today's Jungang Daily (세계적 온라인 서비스, 한국선 왜 고전하나), there is a story about how Second Life and MySpace have given up in Korea, most Koreans don't seem to have heard of Facebook, and Google captures less than 10% of the search market. It's all the more difficult to understand when I look at the apparently weak Korean competition these online companies face. 

On the other hand, you can barely find a seat at a Starbucks in Korea in spite of the fact that Starbucks coffee prices here are reported to be the highest in the world and General Motors (of all companies!) is a big player in automobiles since their acquisition of Daewoo Motors over ten years ago.

I'm still working through the reasons why some foreign brands succeed, while others fail so miserably here. It's hard to make sense of sometimes. Meanwhile, I keep hoping that McDonald's will break a profit on this home delivery service so I can continue to enjoy it.

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top - The Berlin Wall, the Korean War, Foxholes and Korean Unification

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.

DSCN8642Even 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. 

P1001738Instead, 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.

11-8-2009 8-56-57 PM

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top - On the Campaign Trail

Myunghee and I arrived at Nojeok Hill around 6am this morning and started our walk along the perimeter trail in the dark. About a hundred yards down, we came across Candidate #7, Kim Seok-Gyoon, handing out campaign cards under a park lamp. As luck would have it, I had brought my camera and asked Candidate Kim's assistant to snap the memory.

10-27-2009 1-33-35 AM 

Tomorrow is special-election day in our district, Sangrok-Gu, to fill the position held by someone else until he was impeached for corruption. Every candidate gets a number, with the lowest numbers going to candidates from the largest parties. So that means my pal, Candidate #7, is hardly the leading contender for the position. 

Candidate #7_Page_1Sure enough, his campaign card shows him as "unaffiliated", though it is clear he is aligned with a dissenting faction of the Grand National Party (GNP), which is the party of President Lee Myung-bak and which currently holds power in the Korean National Assembly. Candidate #7's faction is that of Park Geun-Hee, who is the daughter of former President Park Jung-Hee (see yesterday's post) and who was beaten by President Lee to lead the GNP in the presidential primaries a couple years ago. The bad feelings from that political battle still dog the government party.

Candidate #7_Page_2 From the back of the card, we can see the issues that are important in our area. First of course, is the question of who will best protect the disadvantaged in the current economic recession. But second is the decision of where the new Ansan subway line will be built. Candidate Kim assures us that as assemblyman, he will make sure the new line goes through our neighborhood and not the area a few miles to the west. The final decision is set for December, so there's a lot of lobbying going on. The residents of whichever neighborhood the subway line goes through can look forward to a big property value boost.

Korean elections in the city are notable by how easy it is to meet and greet the candidates. Because of the close proximity within which everyone lives, just a casual stroll through the neighborhood can generally produce a candidate's campaign truck roaming around with speakers blaring (see video below) or an actual candidate (as evidenced by our meeting in the dark this morning). And when campaign workers line up on street corners and bow to the passing cars, they make no distinction between voting Korean and non-voting foreigner. I always get a kick out of being bowed to as I drive around during election season.




Finally, just as I was finishing up this post, I received the following text message on my phone. It says: "October 28 (Wednesday) is election day for the national assembly member representing Sangrok-Gu. Voting is your right. Sangrok-Gu Election Committee". I would have expected it to also mention something about not accepting money from politicians in exchange for a vote but perhaps the days of that kind of blatant corruption have passed.

National election day in Korea is always a public holiday; unfortunately, because these special elections are being held in just certain areas, we don't get that benefit tomorrow. If we did, I could miss my Strategic Economics class at university...

Korean President Park Jung-Hee: Thirty Years Later

Park Jung-Hee had been in power in Korea a little over two years at the time of JFK's assassination in 1963. Sixteen years later on this day, October 26, 1979, Park was also shot dead while still president. Today, not unlike the way Americans remember Kennedy, many Koreans look back on the rule of Park with nostalgia and virtually everyone regards his rule and death as pivotal events in the modern history of the nation. At his funeral, hundreds of thousands of Koreans lined the streets of Seoul to mourn.


But Park was no respecter of human rights in the tradition of Kennedy and he didn't reach office through the ballot box. Instead, he was a military man who took power through a coup e'tat, ousting the elected president Syngman Rhee, with whose chaotic rule many had become tired. This event ushered in eighteen years of right-wing dictatorship -- and closer ties with the United Stated. In these and many other ways, Park's rule was nothing like that of Kennedy's term of office; it was most similar to that of 20th century autocrat, Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

But today, if you ask the average Korean who Park Jung-Hee represents to them, many, if not most, will say he is the father of the modern Korean nation, that he carried Korea through a necessary phase of economic development and that he paved the way to the advanced society Korea is today. At the same time, Park's rule was harsh and few in Korea would welcome back anything like it again. Opinions about his death at the hand of the director of the Korea CIA (some Americans would see another possible parallel with Kennedy here!) tend toward a belief that his rule was destined from the beginning to end in tragedy. 

Today's articles in the Korean newspapers looking back on his life and death reflect this dual memory Koreans carry with them of President Park Jung-Hee: sincere appreciation for what he did for the country, but a refusal to say much good about him without following up by reminding the reader of the excesses of his rule. It's almost as if his achievements need an apology; that he was the exception to some rule that says success can't come from doing things the wrong way.

I often wonder why later Korean presidents have suffered so much in the opinion polls after they take office. It happens every time. Perhaps it's due to the memories Koreans have of Park as someone who ruled with an iron fist for nearly two decades without any apparent personal financial corruption and who got things done and moved the country forward relentlessly. It may be a different world now, but Koreans long for another leader who delivers everything they remember about President Park -- but who does it nicely.

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top - Is Ansan an International City?


This is Hasan, a friend of ours from Bangladesh who is living in Korea. We took this photo in our neighborhood near the foot of Nojeok Hill. Myunghee met his sister in Texas while studying English together several years ago but the sister's US visa ran out and she returned to her home country in 1995. In 1996, Myunghee visited the family in Bangladesh for almost a week. While she was there, Hassan was her "tour guide", showing her around the area where they live, but communication was difficult because his English-ability is limited.

Unbeknown to us, shortly after Myunghee's trip, Hasan applied to work in Korea as a foreign laborer. It involved a bribe to a Korean bureaucrat or official fee (we're not sure which) in the amount of about $5,000 (a huge amount of money there) to earn the privilege of coming to Korea to work. He also studied Korean for a year in order to increase his chances of being selected for the Korean work visa. It seems that there are far more applicants for these work positions than there are positions.

He called one day about a year ago to notify us he had arrived; we'd heard through his sister that he might be coming, but we didn't know when he was going to show up. His year of Korean study had paid off as communications with him are much easier now that we can all speak Korean together.

There are tens of thousands of foreign workers in Korea from various countries. And it turns out that Ansan is the city in Korea with the highest number. According to an article in the Jungang Ilbo last week, approximately 35,000 foreigners are living legally in Ansan and another 35,000 or so illegally. Of these, by far the most are Chinese, followed by Indonesians and Vietnamese. Most come to live in the area around Ansan Station, which is far from our neighborhood. And most of these foreign residents are providing labor for the factories that sprawl through the the Banweol and Shihwa Industrial Areas, south-west of Ansan and south of Shihwa City.


Photo taken from Nojeok Hill

At current exchange rates, foreign workers coming to Korea can expect to earn the equivalent of about $800-$1,400/month for 40-60 hours/week of work, as well as living accomodations, which are often very basic. And most foreign workers send between 60-80% of their earnings back to their home country.

It was only 20-30 years or so ago that Koreans were going overseas (mostly to the Middle East) to labor on construction projects. The fact that Korea is now hosting hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to fill the need for unskilled labor, even during the current economic difficulties, is testimony to the prosperity that Korea enjoys today.

See the map below for orientation to the Ansan area:

10-15-2009 11-33-30 PM

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top - The New City of Ansan

My Korean hometown started life as one of the first "new cities" in Korea, master-planned by the government and built to alleviate congestion in the Seoul area caused by millions of people moving from the countryside into the capital region during the course of Korea's rapid modern development. 

Construction on Ansan began in the early 1980s in this area which previously existed as little more than a small fishing village called Banweol. When I arrived in late 1993, the city was about half-finished. The area north of the metro line was mostly complete and the area south of it still mainly undeveloped. 

Today, Ansan is a city of a million residents adjacent to the giant Banweol Industrial Complex, an area of factories producing all manner of goods for the Korean industrial economy.

The following photos which I've taken from the top of Nojeok Hill show the dramatic changes in a large swath of the city that I've personally witnessed during my time here.







It is these beautiful views of the city, for which a 360-degree panorama is available from the top, that make Nojeok Hill such a nice place to get away for a hike several times a week.

Today, there are many other new cities, mostly but not all, in the Seoul area. Other early new cities where construction began in the early 1990s include Shihwa, which is adjacent to Ansan; Ilsan, north of the Han River to the west of Seoul; and Bundang, south of Seoul. Another more recent new city under construction and of particular interest to me is Songdo, which can be seen in the distance from the top of Nojeok Hill. 

Even today, as Korea moves from "emerging market" to "advanced country", similar construction is still underway in countless places, most a bit further from Seoul thanks to faster transportation links, and all still being referred to as "new cities".

But no matter how gleaming the new apartments are everywhere else and how much they resemble my neighborhood, I always remember that this "new city" wave of the future in Korea started, in large part, here in Ansan some thirty years ago.

Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top - Introduction

Several times a week, I climb Nojeok Hill near our apartment here in Ansan. It's just a 10-12 minute climb but I get pretty winded on the way up. By the time I've gone to the top and down twice, and gotten back home, the round trip takes a little over an hour. 


9-24-2009 6-51-37 AM

I've been climbing this hill since I first arrived in Korea over 15 years ago. A lot has changed for me in that time... and for my town of Ansan. Indeed, this hill has seen a lot of Korean history, and in the last 25 years, it has been at the center of incredible economic development.


9-24-2009 6-33-12 AM

Today I start a series entitled, "Nojeok Hill, My View from the Top". The first few posts won't have much to say about business, as the Korean economic miracle only started less than 50 years ago. But from this vantage point, we'll get some remarkable glimpses of how Korea became the economic player it is today, as well as some insights into where the country is headed.

Korea: A Catalyst for Change, Part 3

Back in the early 1990s when IBM was reinventing itself, Korean semiconductor companies were key players in stimulating a new IP strategy for IBM. As explained in the book Open Business Models:

"A second area of initiative within IBM to generate funds has proved to be even more innovative. IBM's need to generate profits in its semiconductor business caused it to rethink its whole approach to managing its IP, especially its patents and technology. According to Jerry Rosenthal, IBM's vice president of intellectual property in the 1990s:

"Prior to Gerstner, we only licensed our patents. An impetus for us to broaden that policy came from watching the amazing pace at which Korean firms caught up in semiconductors. They didn't just want our patents, they wanted our technology--our know-how, our trade secrets--to tell them how to use our patented technologies. And while we wouldn't give this to them, many Japanese companies would and did. As a result, Lou Gerstner agreed to open up our licensing to include licensing our technology as well as our patents after seeing this."

Today, IBM is a leader in open business models and Korean firms are leaders in the semiconductor industry. One wonders if IBM would have developed its model without the Koreans, or whether the Koreans would be such world-beaters today without IBM.

Examples like those described in this series support the view that Korea punches above its weight in terms of global business innovation impact.

Korea: A Catalyst for Change, Part 2

(contined from previous post) 

...it wasn't until 1991 that Qualcomm secured its first customer, Korean Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute! And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is a great example showing that Korea has been an early adopter of technology for a long time; just recently an article in Barrons declared that Korean Internet access is 15 years ahead of the US. Koreans are always looking for what's new and better and over the last couple decades, many non-Korean wireless IT companies have used Korea as a testbed for new technologies and standards. 

This past week, Korean President Myung-Bak Lee announced $151 billion of government investment over three years into the IT sector, believing that this area represents the basis for Korean economic strength for the future. (Click here for an article about it in the English online version of the Joongang Daily.)

Looking back over the last 20 years of Korean economic history, it's no surprise that way back in 1991, Korea would have been the first customer for Qualcomm and the catalyst of this global technological change, or that today, Korea would be a leader in the IT sector, having been willing to look for the next big thing and to take risks and find opportunities in areas that are overlooked.

But this wasn't the only example in Open Business Models of how Korea has promoted global business change...

Korea: A Catalyst for Change, Part 1

One of my professors at Hanyang University here in Korea is an expert on innovation and the means through which innovation can be fostered within companies and countries. He advocates an "open innovation" approach where intellectual property is more widely available and accessed, and as part of my studies with him, he recommended a couple books by Henry Chesbrough, a professor at the University of California at Berkely who was named a "Top 50 Innovator" by Scientific American.

9-3-2009 4-02-13 AM

I just finished Chesbrough's latest book, Open Business Models, which maps out the ways companies can succeed in the new innovation landscape. And I was struck by two, very interesting examples, where Korea and Korean companies have been catalysts for the business development of US companies. Today's post will start with the first example.

Qualcomm, of southern California, is a leading US IT company which operates under a highly profitable business model based on maximizing the value of its intellectual property. But few people realize the extent to which its rise followed from a lot of risk, luck and hard work. 

The company struggled for over six years to get its CDMA technology into the market. As this method of transmitting wireless signals was unproven, few were willing to take a risk on it when other technologies commanded the market. Finally in 1989 and 1990, Qualcomm demonstrated its technology by setting up actual networks in Los Angeles and New York City... And then...

(to be continued)

The Geography of Thought (Continued)

This book was a struggle for me, partly because I had so much trouble determining what it was that I was reacting to in Nisbett's arguments. A summary follows of the book's position from page 100:

"To the Asian, the world is a complex place, composed of continuous substances, understandable in terms of the whole rather than in terms of the parts, and subject more to collective than to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place, composed of discrete objects that can be understood without undue attention to context, and highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed."

His fundamental position that Asians and Westerners think differently is surely not controversial, but, in my opinion, he takes things way too far. What Westerner would really say that the world isn't complex? Or that we don't need to understand the whole? Even if we allow for being categorical like this, I really wonder if the basic reasons listed by Nisbitt are valid. For example,  he says that the differences go back directly to the founding of the respective civilizations in Greece and China and explains how each civilization represented the above stereotypes down through the ages. But is this true? Or did he just pick examples that proved his points? 

7-30-2009 1-46-42 PM Indeed, in some cases, his examples prove his points. For example, at one point he says that Anglo-American scholars don't tend to create broad-ranging theories, whereas those from German and Russia do. But this is silly in the extreme. Has he never heard of John Locke, Adam Smith or Charles Darwin?

I'm inclined to regard many of the social phenomena which he discusses as being due primarily to more recent events. As an example, Nisbett supposes that a historic lack of debate in Korean society is what led to making the discussion of N. Korea illegal in S. Korea until recently since S. Koreans, based on their lack of experience debating, don't believe correct ideas will necessarily win out in the marketplace of ideas. But isn't it simpler to just blame this policy on the self-serving orders of the S. Korean dictators of the 60's, 70's and 80's, rather than on some fundamental character trait of Koreans? The Koreans I know are quite good at arguing and we see it also in the mass social demonstrations against the government throughout the 20th century and even into recent years.

I found it a little too convenient that the author portrays differences in thought processes as being polar opposites, as if these matters always exist on a linear continuum. And some of the author's comments about how language influences thought didn't always square with Korean grammar as I know it, which made me wonder if he was occasionally misinformed on the facts. It's not that he didn't have plenty of input from Asian colleagues, but perhaps they were also too eager to jump on the bandwagon of describing the thought processes of a bipolar world. 

That said, I did end up the book with a grudging respect for Nisbett's identification of different thought processes of Asians and Westerners and, as long the reader takes some of the more profound insights with a grain of salt, there is a lot to learn about how people in the two cultures tend to think.

The Geography of Thought

I month or so ago I attended a meeting of AMCHAM (the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea) in Seoul where they were having a panel discussion about how advertising works in Korea, having brought in three Koreans and one American working at advertising agencies in Seoul. Since one of my main areas of interest is the issue of how non-Korean firms can succeed at entering the Korean market, I went to learn some insights into the types of approaches foreign companies would need to take when advertising to Koreans.

It was an interesting discussion and I stood up to ask why the following seemed to be so characteristic of advertisements in Korea:

  1. The extreme use of celebrities to endorse products, many of them far outside any area in which they could claim expertise, and how a certain few celebrities seem to take a disproportionate share of the limelight at any given time.
  2. The repeated themes of nationalism (which I wish I had phrased as "patriotism"), such as when the recent economic hard times hit, many chaebol hit the airwaves with feel-good messages about how far Korea had come in such a short time and how they would overcome the current challenges too.
  3. The apparent unspoken rule against negative advertising of any type.

The panelists didn't dispute my observations and commented that these characteristics typify advertising in Japan and China, too. It was noted that the nationalistic themes are less pronounced now than they used to be. And the usual group-think explanation was also mentioned.

And one panelist recommended I read the book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why by Richard Nisbitt, asserting that it has profound insights into the differences between cultures which can explain many differences, too.

7-22-2009 3-46-36 PM

I purchased the book and just started reading it this week, and I'm finding myself with strong opinions already about some of his observations. Look for my further ideas in an upcoming post.

Obama Talks about Korea

It has been striking how often President Obama has mentioned the acheivements of Korea in his public speeches recently. 

First there was his comment in April about how US kids need to study as many hours as Koreans in order to increase their test scors. Then last month, he explained that the example of Korea and Japan provides that it is possible to preserve one's culture and achieve fast economic growth at the same time.

And just this week, while at the G8 Summit in Italy, President Obama referred once again to the achievements of Korea in comparison with Africa, saying that 50 years ago, Korea was poorer than Kenya but that today, Korea is a rich country while Kenya is still poor. He explained that African nations should learn from the Korean example.

Comments like this make Koreans very proud, and rightly so. Understanding what Korea has achieved economically in the past half-century is a good starting point for appreciating the potential of business in Korea and with Koreans. Bringing up subjects like this in conversion with Korean can generate a lot of goodwill, too.

Korea, Our Country (우리나라)

In my masters degree studies at Hanyang University, I have recently selected my "guide professor" (or 지도교수), who will be my mentor in completing my thesis. Professor Seo studied for his doctorate in France, specializing in the area of corporate innovation. It's really quite an interesting subject and his class last year was one of the best I've had at Hanyang University. His focused teaching method, obvious concern for his students and interesting area of speciality were all key reasons I chose to study under him.

As part of my preparation for learning about his expertise, I asked him to point me toward some of the papers he has written for various academic journals and when I went to his office, he handed over about ten for me to review during my summer vacation. It's going to be interesting to understand his perspective about corporate innovation and how it applies to the Korean business scene.

But as I began reading, the first thing that struck me from was not the innovation-related content of the papers, but the repeated references to "our country" (Korean: 우리나라) when referring to Korea. I've seen this many times before in Korean writing, so I don't mean to say Professor Seo's style is different than the norm, but that's my point. When Koreans speak and write about Korea amongst themselves, regardless of whether in common speech, in business or in high-level academics, they ordinarily refer to Korea as "our country". 

This tells me two things. First, Koreans writing in Korean don't expect non-Koreans to be an audience for what they write. Second, Koreans have quite a strong sense of belonging to "their country". 

It's never bothered me that I'm not able to identify with the Korean psyche in that way, but it does make it impossible for me to write in a fully Korean way, since even if I write in Korean, I can't use the phrase "our country". 

Perhaps, if we assume few people will read my Korean writing outside of Korea, I should use the phrase "your country" (Korean: 여러분들의 나라) instead? I think that would sound very strange. Probably I just have to say "Korea", but it is another good example of how Korean society is never fully penetrable by non-Koreans, and something that foreign businesspeople must keep in mind.

President Roh's Funeral Is Over - An Email Exchange



Here’s what I watched for about three hours today: https://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090529/ap_on_re_as/as_skorea_roh_funeral. What was most remarkable was that they made room for five religious ceremonies (two Buddhist sects, Protestant, Catholic – during the funeral; and after that, a 30 minute Korean Shamanistic “performance”)! 


Hey, that's the kind of stuff I like to watch. Wow, that was really interesting. I also listened to one of the videos. I've forgotten exactly what I read; I read it a few hours ago; but: That many religious ceremonies--are they including everyone or do they think all religions are the same? I'm impressed how feisty Koreans are. Is that crazy for them to blame the current president?


I should have given you a link for watching it on the Internet, I guess. It seems that’s what a lot of people did here who weren’t in front of their TVs. I guess they just didn’t want any religion to feel left out; not sure why they went to such effort like that except to avoid charges of religious favoritism. Seems to me that it would have made sense to just have the dead person’s religion represented. Not everyone blames the current president, just the people who think the current ruling party was unjustly persecuting Roh and drove him to suicide. 


Concerning the people who blame the current president, if the former president was innocent, why commit suicide??? Even though I can sympathize, I'd be happy at many politicians (liars and tyrants) funerals.


There always seems to be more than one way to look at everything. Yes, the former president was at least partly guilty, but his supporters point out that the scale of his sins was far less than that of many others but that the current government was persecuting him excessively. Others point out that President Roh’s administration was known to be pretty incompetent all around and until lately, the only success they could claim was to have been clean. Now that he and others were found to be a little dirty, his government lost all credibility. So the insults and counterattacks go on and on…. You might think politicians in the US are at each other’s throats but it seems to be less than most places in the world…


I read that he (President Roh) didn't die till at the hospital. What was his condition after the leap?


It could be that his life functions stopped at the hospital; I think he lost consciousness long before reaching there though. Apparently there is a 30-minute gap in the timeline though, meaning that his bodyguard didn’t see him jump and it took him 30 minutes to find him… 


What's the "Korea Discount"?

According to an article in the Korean edition of the Jungang Ilbo today, a recent survey of national brands put the value of Korea's "brand" at 33rd, coming in behind India, China and 30 other countries. The Korean government believes this translates into a 30% discount on Korean products sold overseas, meaning that Korean companies selling the same items can only command 70% of the price that products sold by companies of "non-discounted" countries earn.

According to President Lee Myeong-bak, even as Korea becomes richer and achieves its goals of per-capital GDP of $30K and $40, the country must find ways to become more respected, too, and that this is more than just promoting Korean foods, styles and martial arts overseas. In fact, the viewpoint meshes closely with the government's efforts to develop Korea as a major player in the Asian business scene, which, as a precondition, requires that more foreigners want to live and work in Korea.

The government has set a goal of achieving a "brand value" for Korea at the ranking of 15, moving up 18 places, within five years through a number of formal initiatives, including the following:

  1. Sharing the lessons of Korea's economic development with other developing countries
  2. Expanding the exchange of foreign students
  3. Building a stronger network among ethnic Koreans living overseas
  4. Developing a stronger global awareness among citizens
  5. Promoting the Korean "brand" internationally

The government's slogan for this is "Gyeom-Dda-Mah-Dah", each syllable of which is the first syllable in the key words of a Korean phrase ("겸손하고 따뜻한 마음으로 다가가기") that translate to "Getting Closer with a Modest and Warm Heart". (It sounds better in Korean.)

Wishing Koreans a Happy New Year

The first thing you need to be aware of is that there are two New Year's Days in Korea - one for the solar calendar and one for the lunar calendar. New Year's Day according to the lunar calendar in Korea is the same as in China but it is better to refer to it as "seol-nahl", Korean New Year or Lunar New Year rather than Chinese New Year. You can and should wish Koreans a Happy New Year for both New Years.

Wish Koreans a Happy New Year on or within a few days of New Year's Day. Do it once only the first time you see or speak to someone after New Year's Day but do it for both the solar and lunar New Years. For significant Korean individuals with similar or greater seniority than you, you should definitely make an effort to meet or telephone them to wish them a Happy New Year. Doing it on New Year's Day will make a better impression than doing it after New Year's Day but as with most things, it is better late than never. A face-to-face meeting or telephone call is much better than sending a card. With Koreans who are less senior than you or not particularly significant, you don't need to make a special effort to contact them - just wish them a Happy New Year if you happen to see or call them on or soon after New Year. Naturally, you should return the greeting to any person who gives you a New Year's greeting.

Each year, the Korean (Chinese) New Year falls in either late January or early February. In 2008, it will fall on February 7. The date it falls on in a particular year can easily be found by searching the Internet using the phrase "Chinese New Year" followed by the year in question.

The Lunar New Year is a three-day public holiday in Korea and is a time for families to gather and eat a meal together. For this reason, expect traffic chaos on major roads and difficulty obtaining tickets to travel in Korea over this period. Nowadays, international flights into and out of Korea are also heavily booked out over the LunarNew Year holiday break because many Koreans use the break to take a quick overseas trip. Try to avoid it but if you know you will need to travel over the Lunar New Year break then book months in advance.

Most shops and businesses are closed over the Lunar New Year holiday and ATMs often run out of cash and are not replenished until after the holiday so make sure you do your shopping in advance and have sufficient cash to tide you over.

The Lunar New Year is a time of gift giving in Korea. Adults give envelopes containing cash to children with the amount being determined by the age of the child and the closeness of the relationship. Companies might give gifts to employees or major clients. If you are invited to a family gathering, prepare some envelopes with cash for the children plus some empty spare envelopes just in case. You should prepare a gift, such as a commercially produced gift set or gift basket for the person who invited you as well as for that person's parents. Remember that the parents of the person who invited you are the most senior so they should get the most expensive gift. In addition, take lots of small denomination notes to participate in a variety of traditional Korean gambling games that are played at such gatherings.

The Korean expression for Happy New Year is "seh heh bok mah-nee bahd-oo-say-yoh". It literally means "Receive lots of New Year's good fortune". There is no need to distinguish between the solar and lunar New Years when wishing people a happy New Year. Use the same expression for both.

Related greetings are to wish people a good New Year's holiday break the last time you see them before they head off for the break and to ask whether they had a good New Year's holiday break when you see them again afterwards. The expressions for these respectively are "Seol-nahl-eul chal boh-neh-say-yoh" (flat intonation) and "Seol-nahl chal boh-neh-shoss-o-yoh?" (rising intonation).

Click here to hear pronunciations of the phrases described above:

If you are not confident about giving New Year's greetings in Korean, then just do them in English. The fact that you make the effort to contact people and wish them a happy New Year will create a great impression with your Korean associates. If the language barrier means that you are unable to communicate directly with a person that you want to give greetings to then you could ask an English-speaking subordinate of that person to pass on your New Year's greetings. This will create the same good impression.


What's MT in Korea?

"MT", which stands for membership training, is a modern phenomenon in Korea. It is basically a retreat where a group of people from an organization go away together for a day or more and carry out a variety of group-bonding activities and training activities.

It is a rite of passage for university students who might go on several MT retreats for the various clubs and associations they have joined and is a good way for the younger students and older students to bond with each other and establish and strengthen the all-important "senior-junior" relationship. (See the feature article in the previous edition of the eZine for an explanation of the senior-junior relationship.) Drinking alcohol together is considered by Koreans to be one of the best ways to bond with others, so naturally there is lots of drinking when people go on MT.

MT is not done just by university students. Companies, religious organizations and others also go on MT. The ratio of training to fun activities will depend on the organization, but in the case of university clubs, very little training is accomplished.

A Korean associate's MT experiences are a great topic for light conversation. Undoubtedly, they have many humorous anecdotes to share.