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For all its proximity to Japan, Korea is joined to
mainland China and is not too far from Russia. The
Korean peninsula has been split in two since the bitterly
fought Korean War of 1950-3 and Seoul, the capital of
South Korea, is remarkably close to the border separating
the northern and southern halves. When the world talks
of Korea, for the most part it is referring to South
Korea although, should you decide to buy a fairly
inexpensive shirt bearing the tag "Made in Korea", the
likelihood is that the article was actually manufactured
in North Korea in a facility owned by a South Korean
benefiting from lower North Korean wage levels. Seoul,
then, is the major city and is home to considerable
amounts of heavy industry, but there are other sizeable
conurbations and industrial zones, especially on the
coast to the south of the country. What is truly
remarkable about the country is the manner in which,
within a comparatively short period, it has transformed
itself from a rural backwater to one of the world's
significant industrial and economic actors, and yet still
remains a land of rice paddies.
Understanding Korea and the Koreans
Before even dreaming of doing business with Korean
companies, it is obviously worth taking the trouble to
find out what makes Koreans operate in the ways they do.
Korea is a mountainous country and the seasons there are
quite similar to those in the UK - perhaps a little
hotter in Summer and a little colder in Winter. The
language, Hangul, is a phonetic alphabet which was
deliberately created - it did not just evolve, nor
migrate to Korea - in 1443. Because of the peninsula's
proximity to mainland China, Korea carries a venerable
sense of history. The population, at roughly 45 million,
is on a par with that of England, perhaps a little
smaller; and the bulk of that population is centred on
the capital. Moreover, the Korean people display a good
many characteristics that are typically Chinese in
origin. Several of those traits are also observable
amongst Japanese nationals, but they might not be so
familiar to Westerners.
- Koreans respect their elders.
ARM's Korean president is 50 years of
age and he has his mother living with
him. This is not because he is poor.
This is merely the way things are
done in Korea.
- Loyalty is particularly prized.
Should you befriend a Korean, the
chances are that the friendship will
be a long-lasting one.
- Great store is set by knowledge -
and this is something the outsider
ought never under-estimate. There is
a palpable hunger to learn about
- Koreans are impressively self-
controlled. They tend to be not too
exuberant, nor do they get too
excited; rather they are
characterised by restraint.
- There is a very strong work ethic,
and Koreans are very polite. But,
just as in Japan, the younger
generation in Korea is visibly
beginning to challenge the
assumptions of their elders.
As already mentioned, Seoul is not too distant from the
demilitarised zone separating the two Korean states. It
is important, however, to grasp the immense differences
in living standards that also mark the two countries.
Whilst South Korea enjoys a noticeably developed country
standard of living, North Korea remains at little above
starvation level. Despite such obvious inequality, most
Koreans still think of themselves as inhabiting a single
country. This is because the Korean War occurred within
the lifetime memories of many of those people still alive
today. Again, ARM's Korean president can serve as a
typical example. He still has family in North Korea whom
he cannot visit. Nevertheless, he strongly feels that
one day the whole family will be reunited. In fact, this
is a situation redolent of the divisions between East and
West Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Koreans are justifiably proud of their achievements. And
one of the country's most impressive accomplishments has
to be its educational system. Koreans are incredibly
well educated; and this is a population that, for the
most part, was composed of little more than peasant
farmers a generation and a half ago. The Korean people
deliver a tremendous quality of service. They are also
remarkably determined and not a little impatient -
something not to be underestimated - and are quite
aggressive in business terms. Koreans do work very hard
and they really do aspire to be first-in-class. They are
also very tactile people, so there is no need to be too
alarmed if the Korean national you have been doing
business with suddenly puts his arm around you. In
summation then, Korean culture is very much of a
fascinating blend of Chinese and Occidental models.