Korea in the news: Time, Life, and Wall Street Journal have their say

So there’s been several stories in high-profile Western publications – the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Life – in the lead-up to the G20 summit. While Dae Han Min Guk is proud of positive coverage it (probably) didn’t have to buy, the writers bring up good points that remind the world to approach Korea with caution – even in 2010.

From a Wall Street Journal article entitled “So Fast, So Dynamic—Yet Still Hierarchical” by Mike Weisbart:

I often say there are two kinds of people who come to live and work in South Korea: those who stay for a long time and those who leave quickly.

Too simple, I know. But there is truth to it. Some people find Korea to be a difficult place and, for any number of reasons, they either can’t adapt or can’t figure the people out. They typically leave frustrated after just a year or two. For the other group, Korea has an intangible allure that keeps them coming back for more.

Agree – and most people seem to figure out which camp they’re in by the six-month mark. One anecdotal point: a co-worker recently stated if they didn’t leave Korea now (when their contract ended), they might never leave. Give Korea credit for continually evolving and being fascinating to watch.

As a longtime foreign resident, the trend I’ve enjoyed watching the most over the past decade is the demise of the “development first” attitude. Koreans are still charging hard, still obsessed with their position relative to other countries, but they are finally starting to enjoy their affluence by building themselves a better quality of life. Road traffic is no longer more important than pedestrians, the arts have flourished, and design is now a central tenet in urban planning. People take longer vacations and travel the world.

Some, perhaps – the rest are still working on Saturday or selling vegetables on the street on Sunday.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: At the end of the day foreigners here will always be foreigners.

Koreans are poor at cultural integration, particularly when it comes to incorporating Westerners in their corporate hierarchies, where younger workers are expected to follow their older colleagues. My experience is that foreigners don’t fit well in that hierarchy, especially if they are white. Too often, older team members don’t know how to relate to foreigners. They may lack the linguistic skills, or simply feel that a foreigner can’t be ordered around like they do their younger colleagues.

In such an environment, a foreigner will tend to be marginalized, or perhaps relegated to talking to a junior person on the team who happens to have lived in the U.S. but in truth isn’t privy to strategy or creative discussions. As a result, even foreigners who speak Korean well can feel underutilized, their skills unappreciated.

This won’t sound surprising to anyone already in Korea or working with people in Korea.

It’s much more a matter of expediency than anything illicit. The local client simply doesn’t want to stop and educate their European or American boss, who may not see why Korea has to be an exception to corporate brand-management principles.

Koreans still believe their market to be unique, a place that doesn’t need to follow the rules, and expats who come here ought to get used to that.

That attitude is moving forward in some areas, but moving backward in others – it seems no coincidence that politics and law continue to favor the locals at most every opportunity.

The moral here seems clear enough: adjust your square peg to fit the round hole – things won’t happen the other way around.

Another article, from Time’s Michael Schuman, entitled “Asia’s Latest Miracle“:

When I relocated from New York City to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, in 1996, I found the city vibrant and fascinating, but also surprisingly provincial. Koreans preferred their fermented kimchi over any other food, and though I grew to enjoy the spicy staple, a longing for familiarity and the feebleness of my digestive system occasionally demanded a respite from the chili-laden cabbage. That proved challenging. Aside from some fast-food joints and wallet-straining restaurants at five-star hotels, foreign cuisine was hard to come by.

14 years in Korea seems like several decades worth of growth for other countries. Even in the 2 1/2+ years I’ve called Korea home, it’s been amazing to see how many more choices Korea has created for itself.

Over the past decade, however, Korea has reinvented itself — it’s an Asian miracle again. Korea has become an innovator, an economy that doesn’t just make stuff, but designs and develops products, infuses them with the latest technology, and then brands and markets them worldwide, with style and smarts. Samsung and LG, not the Japanese electronics giants, are dominating the hot new LCD-TV business. In 4G phone technology, Samsung is poised to become a leading force, while Hyundai Motor, an industry joke a decade ago, is a top-five automaker, its rising market share fueled by quality cars and nifty marketing.

OK, I can’t argue with that. Korea’s technology is a huge asset to the country. At the same time, I can’t help but ask, ‘how much of it is original?’ The last six months alone has seen one of Korea’s biggest musicians admitting to singing plagiarized songs; less than 18 months ago, that ‘nifty marketing’ was essentially copying the style of a foreign advertisement to promote a local, unrelated product. There are plenty of other plagiarism issues that the Joongang Daily covered when the Lee Hyo-ri scandal first broke.

Beginning in the 1960s, a destitute Korea capitalized on its cheap labor to competitively export toys, shoes and other low-tech goods to consumers in the West. That jump-started income growth; as costs rose, Korea shifted into ships, microchips and other advanced products. Yet to Koreans, globalization was a one-way street. They were happy to sell things to the world, but wanted no more than the profits in return. Koreans didn’t care much for foreign cars, foreign investment — or foreigners… Koreans came to believe their system was special, even superior. But dangerous problems were festering. Companies were shielded from competition and heavily supported by tight links to the government and banks, allowing them to borrow and invest willy-nilly while building up frightening debt burdens. When I would mention these flaws to businessmen or officials, I got brushed off. The normal rules of economics didn’t apply to Korea.

There’s that thought again – that ‘normal rules’ somehow didn’t apply to Korea. And why not, praytell?

That self-delusion evaporated during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. As Korea’s most prominent companies collapsed into bankruptcy and the government endured a humiliating $58 billion International Monetary Fund bailout, Koreans had to rethink the ways they did business, managed their careers — even their entire economic system. The crisis “was the catalyst” for change, says financier Tom Kang. “The old ways didn’t work.”

To be completely fair, I’m no economic expert, nor am I convinced any country is doing thing completely correct.

Storefronts in Seoul now boast more foreign names than I thought possible in the 1990s, from H&M to Kate Spade to Zara. After Apple’s sudden success in a Korean economy where foreign handsetmakers had almost no presence — its iPhones claimed more than a quarter of the local smart-phone market in the first half of 2010, according to research firm IDC — Samsung was pressed to accelerate its own product development.

The article continues, generally positive about the country and those first-movers that fought the entrenched systems and won. There seems an evolving dichotomy here – those willing to buck the system and hope that history proves them right, or staying within the system and playing by the rules. I’m glad both options are available, but how many Korean parents genuinely want their kids to become the next Tiger JK / Drunker Tiger? The moral: Korea has made remarkable progress, and will continue its growth in the foreseeable future.

The next major story got a recent bump – a Life photo gallery showing Korea’s ‘Fighting!’ politicians. Since the pictures speak for themselves, I’ll let you check one out here, and the rest on your own:

The moral here: Koreans in the powerful circles of government haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

The final story is a ‘By the Numbers’ report, courtesy of Wall Street Journal. Since the graphic is rather large, I’ll summarize some of the details:

  • China, the U.S., and Japan make up 40% of Korea’s exports – there’s definitely a lot more countries receiving Korean-made products than the average person might realize.
  • At 4+ million people, Daecheon Beach is home of the famous Boryeong Mud Festival – and the most popular tourist destination for the first half of 2010. Everland comes in a close 2nd, the Bomun Resort in Gyeongju in 3rd, Haeundae Beach in Busan comes in 4th, while Gatbawi comes in 5th. For all the tourism Seoul is trying to bring in, not one place ranks in the top 5. The closest to Seoul – Everland in Yongin – is a substantial ride away from the capital city.

Thoughts? Comments?