Like most Westerners, before I went to Korea, I did not know an awful lot about the country. Geographically, I knew where Korea was located and for years had taken an interest in the North-South geopolitical divide. I was aware that KIA, Daewoo and Samsung were Korean corporations and had seen numerous documentaries on the massive scale of Korean shipbuilding on TV. Asia, however, was not a mystery to me, having worked a total of 10 years for Japanese companies; the first being Asahi Pentax back in the eighties and, more recently, a Tokyo-based localization corporation. Before accepting my current assignment, I spent hours on Google researching the Hermit Kingdom and attending online seminars to learn about the country. Nothing, however, could prepare me for the real thing!
I knew, after just a few minutes after landing at Incheon International Airport for my first visit in April 2014 that I was unmistakably in Korea. Koreans love their own brands. The Airport’s display monitors were either LG or Samsung. Images of the distinctive Republic of Korea flag were abundant. And outside the buses, cars and taxis were all Korean makes; KIA, Hyundai or SsangYong Motor Company. During the 60 minute drive to Suwon, where I was headed, I saw a sprinkling of affluent young Koreans living their lives to the max driving Oullim Spirra sports cars. Forget BMW’s, Fords and Hondas!
Here are ten quick facts to add some perspective:
Koreans, like the British, naturally smile a lot. Korean cities, similar to neighbouring Chinese and Japanese conurbations, are a sea of humanity that can be a bit overwhelming for a Westerner on their first visit. But very quickly, the natural friendliness of Koreans becomes evident: couples walk hand-in hand openly showing affection to each other; groups of girls with linked arms walk along together chatting and laughing; the streets and shops are brightly lit and inviting; and bars, restaurants and clubs are packed with revellers from about 8 p.m. every night to well into the early hours. I found most Koreans to be extremely courteous and polite amongst themselves and go out of their way to offer assistance to visitors.
Some aspects of Korea remind me of West Germany prior to reunification. Korea is a divided country, and military service on both sides of the DMZ is mandatory. Most South Koreans, however, push the unpredictability of the North to the back of their minds and enjoy life south of the 38th parallel.
So what is it like to work for a Korean company? Well, really good fun! Similar to Japanese corporations, there is a strict adherence to seniority and rank. Decision-making tends to be consensus, with the senior person present or indeed the company president having the final word. Koreans BURST with energy and ideas and proactively attack technological challenges and problems with an enthusiasm I have seldom previously seen. The ‘company’ holds a much higher importance to a Korean worker than her or his Western counterpart. Employees usually start at 8:30 a.m. and, with breaks, work until 5:30 pm. But instead of going home, they go out in groups of four or five to snatch a quick meal then GO BACK TO WORK until around 9 p.m. Meals in local restaurants are often subsidized by the company, as is further education providing it is beneficial to the worker’s productivity.
Korea is a modern, advanced and vibrant country with a thriving arts and music scene. It has a modern and efficient infrastructure, very high-tech R&D facilities and advanced manufacturing and technology. Koreans are creative, imaginative and seemingly fearless of failure. With their endless capacity to innovate, coupled with their enthusiasm and drive, I have the feeling that Korea is about to burst onto the world stage like Japan did at the end of the 70’s.
The company I work for is HansemEUG, one of Asia’s largest localization and manual development corporations. If you would like to know more about us or Asian localization please contact me any time. I am always happy to share my knowledge.