I admit it took me a while to begin this post. In hindsight, I think it’s because Seoul confused and fascinated me. Close your eyes, and you can almost imagine Seoul to be Los Angeles transplanted right into the heart of South Korea, an intersection between the West and East, a budding economic power with cultural soft power that has spread across the world, and a city proud of its powerful identity after years of conquest from outside forces. As American influenced as the city may initially feel, keep your eyes closed and you can sense China there too. Perhaps this is because we met several Koreans fluent in Korean, Chinese and English, and perhaps it was because I could palpably feel the North and South split. Yet despite this, South Korea was also distinctly, proudly and beautifully Korean.
Korea wasn’t a completely easy place for us to visit (mostly because we stayed in a lightless basement apartment unit in plastic-surgery heavy Apugjeong), but it was certainly memorable, filled with laughter, and positively underrated. So after weeks of distilling my experience, here’s my Korea Tell All.
Economics and Korean Soft Power
South Korea’s economic growth has been described as a miracle. Immediately after the Korean War, South Korea’s per capita income on a basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) was one of the lowest in the world and rose from ~$100 in 1960 (the numbers recorded range from $79-$159) to $39,434 in 2017. Today, it’s the 11th largest economy in the world and a global technology powerhouse, dominated by family-run conglomerates (“Chaebol”) like Samsung, LG Group, Kia, Hyundai, Posco, etc that have often been generally credited for the rising success of Korea’s economy. Korea also gracefully transitioned around the Asian Financial Crisis from purely manufacturing and hardware into diversified software.
Scholars often discuss whether Korea’s hybrid central planning government (pre-1987) and market oriented strategy (post-1987) produced some secret growth sauce. Others argue that it was purely democracy, or purely central planning that spurred this. I’m, however, more interested in the soft-power which seems unique to Korea. Sure, Japan is a close contender. It does, after all, have Studio Ghibli and its 1990s anime, Pokemon, re-emerged recently with the help of smart phones and GCE into a nicotine-like addictive game that nearly took over my own wedding party. But Korea has BTS, the world’s largest boyband, EXO and Astro. No other Asian country ships pop stars, gaming culture, dramas and snail face masks to nearly every continent suffering from dry skin and a need to dance the way Korea does. It also seems that Japanese global soft power peaked in the 1990s and has been waiting for a come-back since the Asian Financial Crisis (Tokyo 2020 and the new investment in tourism, I’m rooting for you). Singapore and Hong Kong, on the other hand, have strong banking and in Singapore’s case, medical technology economies. But those industries aren’t seeping into your teenager’s iPhone and daily beauty habits anytime soon. Finally, China and the West seem to have a love-hate relationship that seems to change every few years, with Taiwan awkwardly tied up in the middle. Meanwhile, South Koreans and the West have been long allies, and South Korea has signed a 2015 free trade agreement (FTA) with China. So how did South Korea do it, and can they continue to dominate the culture scene?
During my month in Korea, I tried to dig deeper into the soft power. I visited Samsung’s demo exhibition (incredible, though unclear what’s actually possible in the near term roadmap), tried out PC gaming along with a few VR/AR cafes (PC cafes are cheap and interesting but rely on old games like Starcraft; AR/VR are expensive and super lame. I don’t predict it’ll stick unless the games get a lot better). I listened to BTS (I like them), put on face masks (so soothing), visited blockchain companies (so huge, so hyped), and chatted with new friends on what they thought about the Korean economy, entrepreneurship and their futures in Korea (a desk job is preferred but the hours are long, reminiscent of the Japanese salaryman). My conclusion?
Education. The Korean tech scene is here to stay with the strong emphasis on education and STEM. Korea has some of the top education programs in the world. South Korea is top 10 in the 2015 PISA scores for reading, mathematics and science . Compare this to the US which lags with unimpressive scores of 24, 39, and 24, respectively. While you can argue that test scores of 15-year-olds say little about creative thinking, STEM skills requires a solid understanding of the basics that are most easily reinforced at a young age.
Beauty Exports. More interestingly, though, the culture export is only just starting to heat up. I met dozens of impressive, entrepreneurial women who have traveled to Korea from other parts of the world – from Russia to Colombia – just to export Korean beauty products. In the past, Korea has made this ridiculously easy to do by offering visas to any foreigner that will teach English part to full time. As of 2018, you have to be a full-time English teacher in order to receive a working visa, but that’s still a pretty good deal if you want to travel to Korea to export its products to other countries.
Return of the Diaspora. The Korean diaspora is coming home. With this influx of highly educated and trained professionals, it means Korea is winning. Promising low tax rates (10%), work visas for Korea-born Americans, and easy-to-find jobs, Korea is putting in some strong incentives to bring Korean Americans back to the mother country. I met several people who returned to Korea after spending significant time in the US (or even those who grew up in the US), and their entrepreneurial spirit is adding to the Korean economy with fresh ideas from abroad (my favorite ex: a Korean adoptee who was raised by Mexican American parents in the US moved to Seoul to start a successful and delicious taco restaurant. Mexico and Korea are two countries on the top of my list for best marinated meats and spicy food, so this is like a marriage made in heaven.).
Megacorps. If megacorps like Samsung can continue to tap into both Asian and Western markets, it will be a formidable global player if the China-US trade war heats up and continues to pit US and Chinese companies to sell only to their own markets.
Innovation. Korean companies don’t seem to have the same process restraints as their Japanese neighbors, but I’m interested in investigating whether that means quality is sacrificed for hype and speed. You don’t have Japanese electronics being banned from airplanes because they accidentally explode.
Entering the Korean Market. While Seoul is churning out tech start-ups left and right, Western investors and companies should be aware that in order to fully tap into the Korean tech scene, you still need an insider (preferably someone fluent in Korean) even though it seems like half of Seoul can speak English.
Branding. As an investor, you need to understand the power of marketing and branding in Korea and perhaps keep an eye on technical diligence in the process. I have never been to a country outside the US where marketing and branding have so much clout. As an example, even individual baseball players for the Doosan (Seoul) team have their own theme songs, and it’s not unusual for every baseball fan to go to the games and buy a stack of merchandise. As another example, look at K-pop bands and how they generate their profits. The concept of “Merch” with a capital “M” is so powerful and strong that fans will go to all lengths to travel to stores for the perfect BTS jacket, notebook, poster or other gear.
Hype. Related to the marketing, hype is a big and powerful tool in Korea that they successfully export (pause, and think about that). The saying is that every Korean is socially three degrees related. So when one thing catches on – say blockchain or fried chicken or fancy drip coffee – then it spreads like wildfire throughout the country. Also, I would say the hype is quite irresistible as even going to a local shop feels like visiting a nightclub (seriously, my Company and I stood outside a Gucci store for like 15 minutes trying to figure out what the hell the queue and blasting music was for. We were hoping for food and disappointed it was designer bags.).
As an American, visiting Korea taught me a few lessons about adaptation, immigration and trade. It has only been a little over 50 years since the majority of South Korea was in abject poverty, and today, it’s the place you go if you want a botox injection for $10 and a new phone. The adaptation over a single generation to lean into a growing economy is incredible. I wanted to give every Korean in Seoul over the age of 70 a high-five and say, “You made it, you badass. How the hell did you do it?”
But after that, I want to figure out, “How can we learn from this in the US?” During the most recent decade, we have seen the ugly, roaring head of economic despair and inequality in America – the individuals whose narratives have been, “we are left behind,” or “we’re crippled by debt by the time we’re 20” – and I want to know, what policy, culture, or hybrid of both has made Korea so different?
Like its island neighbor, Japan, Korea has succeeded in exporting well while protecting its own businesses (I had to download Kakao and Naver in Korea since Google was so shoddy). At the same time, Korea has been clever in incentivizing skilled labor to add value to the country while pushing its own education system to continually produce some of the world’s top students. With our suffering public school funding and education lagging other developed countries, the US cannot afford to limit the immigration of highly skilled workers into the country. There are two choices: either invest/incentivize tremendously in US education, trade programs, entrepreneurship or work-training programs or open immigration to skilled workers while improving these programs gradually. The other options are grim. Specialized skills take years of hard work to develop. We’ve seen that an economy can tank in a single year.
Vanity is Not One of the Seven Deadly Sins
In October, I found the global capital of Vanity. It’s located somewhere between Apugjeong and Sinsa-dong in Gangnam, lined with tall buildings filled with plastic surgery clinics offering solutions to things I never even knew was a problem and next to roaring night clubs that reject you if you’re (1) too old (2) too ugly (3) overweight (4) the wrong type of foreigner or worst of all (5) any combination of those. Don’t like your face shape? Get it shaved! Need a new chin? Okay, come in on Saturday. What about skin whitening, eye-lids, lips, breast enhancements, noses? There’s a solution to them all, but you may not look unique. Ironically, the common preferences for plastic surgery looks has garnered a name for itself, “the Gangnam look,” which aims to idealize Asian beauty standards – light skin, big eyes, pointed chin, and smooth cheeks. Now don’t get me wrong. I am a full supporter of plastic surgery in most cases, since adults should have the freedom and autonomy to look however they please. No one had a choice over how they were born. But just remember, if you go too far with the plastic surgery, you’ll just look like the other 1/3 to 1/2 women in Seoul who opt to go in and get the perfect face.
So with full disclosure, like any large city, Seoul can be confusing because it’s both terrific and difficult at the same time. On a smoggy day (half the week was at AQI ~150) when traffic is blaring, and you nearly get hit by the 10th massive Land Rover in a street it doesn’t fit in, or you walk by the 30th plastic surgery clinic or advertisement trying to sell you a new face, Seoul reminded me of the worst parts of LA (minus dirty streets and crime; the city is extremely clean and safe). But then when you go out to see your new friends for some Korean BBQ, after your favorite coffee shop offers you a bag of their best roast on the house just for being a regular, and you laugh over stories and beer as the Han river flows in the shadows of the mountains on a clear, cold night, Seoul reminds me of the best part of LA. It’s undeniably fun, the people are incredible, and you just have to find your crew.
My Love of Korean Expressions and Friendships
So now that I’ve spilled my critical observations, what about my favorite parts of South Korea’s capital? There are three things that have made Seoul especially memorable: the retirees, the fun culture, and the friends we made whose faces lit up with a level of animation and expression that had me laughing until tears spilled from my eyes and my ribs hurt.
Retirees. Korea must be a good place to get old because the older the person, the more active! Seriously, when we were trudging back to our Airbnb late at night, we saw grandpas and grandmas working out on the exercise machines across the parks. Every park has these exercise machines, which seem to attract the attention of anyone over the age of 65. Also, I really didn’t see as many young folks exercising compared to older ones. Several times, I literally passed young cyclists on $10,000 bikes while running on the bike path along the Han River (and it had nothing to do with my running speed). But on a sunny weekend, take a hilly hike and you’ll see a dozen octogenarians climbing on top of a huge boulder like mountain goats to get a shot of the view of the mountains.
Every day is a dance party. They say that when North and South Korea get into tiffs, the South Korean army blasts Kpop over the DMZ to North Korea as a cruel and unusual way of rubbing it in that the South is having a way better time. Somehow of all the possible deterrents or signals of military might, this action feels weirdly powerful and spirit-crushing. Just walking the streets, store fronts play so much hip hop it’s confusing whether you’re standing in front of a night club or shop. Even on a cold weeknight, the neighborhoods of Seoul are popping with young people, staying out and eating street food like every night is Friday. It’s impossible to not let the optimism and fun wash over you as you stuff yourself with delicious BBQ and beer while listening to – yes, of course – Kpop.
Friendships. I recommend that every single person has a Korean friend. They’re the best listeners. Our Korean friends’ faces light up with such animated expressions, gasps of surprise and happiness, and frowns of disapproval that you feel like you’re the best storyteller in the world even if it’s something mundane like, “I went to the store, and then I found five dollars on the ground”. Even a month later as I write this, I miss our friends in Seoul so much that a small wave of sadness passes when I think about them. Then of course I laugh when I remember some of our conversations, all of our faces lighting up with happiness and excitement.
So, visit Korea. It’s underrated, and if you’re lucky, you’ll make some wonderful friends and maybe learn a thing or two about resilience.