Less Argumentative Korean – Ruminations from the Korea trip – Part I

Ruminations   After my Korea trip, an eye-opener of sorts,  the ‘Argumentative Indian’ in me has subsided and has given way to finding coherence in chaos. In this blog, I reflect on the trip and some of the key take aways.

So far I have visited Canada and Thailand – Canada for three years and Thailand for about 7 days. Canada is a large country and the influence of European and American cultures has ensured that the country possesses some diversity to speak of.  “Incredible India”, as we proud Indians refer to our beloved country, is inherently diverse. Korea is different in terms of diversity. There is a seamlessness that I experienced everywhere; In the train, in buses, in hotels and at cultural centres such as the Gyeongbokgung palace. Koreans like the ‘work on equality’ principle. They would like to have everybody together in a community rather than individually shine. Such group thinking has its obvious pros and cons.

As part of the immersion program, I had an opportunity to interview several high profile dignitaries. Many of the interviews reflected the reality of the less argumentative Korean.  The new generation of Koreans are slowly but surely changing this tradition. A snippet of the interviews conducted is here:

  • James Rooney’s perspectives on Korea

One of our first interactions in Korea was  with this gentleman called James Rooney, who has had an eventful career. – Born in Scotland, lived in Africa, England, Iran, has family in Ireland, America, Thailand, Australia and has travelled to 60 countries around the world. Bottom line, a truly global citizen! By the way, he is also the Vice Chairman at Seoul Financial Forum.

Doing business in Korea

One of the important takeaways from James Rooney’s presentation was doing business in Korea. His interpretation of the Korean flag and the extrapolation of the Korean flag to the Korean culture and their thinking was interesting. The Korean flag or Taegeukgi as Koreans call it has three parts – white background symbolizes cleanliness of the people, red and blue taegeuk in the center conveys many things – yin and yang, hot and cold, man and woman, heaven and earth.


But according to James for all practical purposes, the taegeuk represents the inclination of every Korean to be part of a group. If as an outsider, you are not in a group, it becomes difficult to connect with them. This interpretation has some implications for everyone planning to conduct business in Korea. Secondly, the blue part denotes a logical way of things and Koreans are logical and analytical. Whereas, the red part conveys that emotions matter to them as well. As an organization if you want to conduct business successfully in Korea, it is good to start on a positive note of logical analysis but if negotiations are taking a different turn devoid of analysis – understand the emotions and let them flow like a river. Emotions and rational thinking are the two characteristics of a less argumentative Korean.

South East Asia’s Korean ballerina, Japanese Samurai and Chinese Elephant

For an outsider, Korea and Japan may look a little similar and may even associated China closely with these countries. However, these three countries have very different dynamics, culture and geographies. Japan’s era as an economic superpower is in decline and can be referred to as the golden sunset. Korea on the other hand has behaved like China’s little sister and has been a welcome member of the Chinese extended family. Korea is in ascendancy and is reaching the top. It is the little ballerina – from James’s perspective rather than the well armed Japanese samurai which has managed to offend its neighbors more often than not. Korea can be very charming as we saw in the Olympics, and has the opportunity to ride the Chinese elephant. It has fewer natural resources other than the human talent and Korea can benefit to a great extent from China’s huge natural resources and China can benefit from Korea’s talented human resources who are already present in the advance and heavy industries of semiconductor, ship-building. Korea has the opportunity to successfully engage with China rather than confront or compete with China and act as a complementor to China.

Management of the Korean services sector

The Korean government like every other growing economy has managed to successfully ignore the services sector although it forms the largest component of its GDP – close to 58%. Part of the reason for this is that services sector is made of intangibles that we do not feel and see and is heterogeneous in nature. Many things that Korea has not yet done are in the services sector and a large space exists for entrepreneurs to innovate and provide services to its people. Some of the entrepreneurs have gone ahead and started providing some top-notch services. As mentioned by Rajesh Kannan, Head of Premium banking, Standard Chartered, service in Korea is a lot more practical and less of ceremonial. Coffee shops in Korea and Caffe bene which operates close to 800 coffee shops all over Seoul are a case in point. The service of angels – which is a service of chauffeurs driving you back if you are too drunk, is another example.

India has also been the vanguard of development of its services sector. Korea, China and Japan continue to serve the world with its products. Korea can take a leaf out of India’s books and learn to monetize its services in the product-service continuum.

Oppa Gangnam, oops Mumbai Style!

What can India learn from Korea?  This was the cardinal objective for sending a bunch of 74 would be leaders to Korea. Should the role of government, its model of economic and infrastructure development be looked into in greater detail? The question is – Is it even possible for a diverse country like India to learn from a homogeneous country like Korea especially when some of the Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh are larger than the whole of Korea. I believe co-operation and learning between two countries can take place effectively at a regional or local level than at the central level. Even if learning does take place at a central level, its implementation may be lacking. So, partnering with Korean manufacturing firms such as Doosan at a local level could be effective. Korea and India can even partner in projecting each other’s culture through movies. Korea has a rich drama culture, popular pop music and India’s movie industry has taken it places. Who knows – In future, we might feature a pop album named Oppa Mumbai Style!

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